THERE'S A GOLDMINE BELOW I-794'S DECAYING FASCADE
The land beneath I-794 is some of the most valuable in Wisconsin. Based on the assessed value of nearby new construction, the 32.5 acres of land between 6th and Chicago Street is worth over a billion dollars. Boulevard conversion could generate $30 million in annual property tax revenue for the City of Milwaukee and deliver much needed new housing in a high demand area. The Third Ward has seen its population soar from just 36 in 1985 to nearly 25,000 today, this reflects high demand for multi-family housing (City of Milwaukee Staff 2006, 17; Point2 Staff n.d.). Milwaukee has faced a declining population for much of the last half century, this makes prioritizing an underutilized highway over new housing in a high-demand area especially foolish (Thomas 2021).
There has never been a freeway to boulevard conversion project in Milwaukee that did not enhance business activity and quality of life. The Park East Freeway yielded over a billion dollars in private investment in development projects, with the potential for an additional investment of $250 million on the few remaining undeveloped parcels (DCD Staff n.d.). I-794 would open new space for development and raise the quality of life in the surrounding area. Given the financial challenges facing the City of Milwaukee, a declining population, and demand for multi-family housing in the areas adjacent to I-794, what benefit does reconstructing this infrastructure as it is offer?
At the time it was built, I-794 sought to make it easier for suburban commuters to access jobs downtown, catalyzing new development (Snyder 2016, 31). Instead, it created a confusing web of freeway ramps and surface parking lots that depressed the area. From 1970 to 1985, the Third Ward’s population decreased from 156 to 36 people (City of Milwaukee Staff 2006, 17). Officials quickly realized that 794 was diminishing “value and vibrancy” of Milwaukee’s core (“1999 Downtown Plan” 1999, 127). The Third Ward’s 1999 Neighborhood Comprehensive Plan for the Third Ward stated,
1999 THIRD WARD COMPREHENSIVE PLAN
“[Elevated highways] present significant psychological barriers to pedestrian travel: they loom over the street blocking the sun and are, altogether, out of scale for pedestrians. … Few pedestrians intentionally walk through these areas. This pedestrian “disconnection” diminishes the value and vibrancy of the severed neighborhoods.”
Today, the Third Ward’s population has exploded to almost 25,000. Between 2000 and 2010, the Census tract that encompasses the Third Ward grew by 70%, making it the fastest growing Census tract in Milwaukee and the sixth fastest in Wisconsin (Thomas 2021). Walking around the area, it is easy to understand why. The Third Ward is one of the best examples of a walkable, mixed-use neighborhood in Wisconsin. It is these residents, not commuters, who have been essential to the area’s staggering comeback. While I-794 and the space under it has sat underutilized since its completion, human-scale projects like the RiverWalk, Deer District, and Lakefront Gateway have generated renewed interest in downtown and the Third Ward.
Make our streets safer
RETHINKING I-794 IS LITERALLY A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH
Pedestrian safety has reached a breaking point in Milwaukee. Freeways like I-794 and extra-wide boulevards that do little to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists have made walking and biking around our city unsafe. Milwaukee’s wide, straight streets encourage reckless driving and make too many of our city’s residential streets unsafe for children, pedestrians, and cyclists. In the first half of 2021, pedestrian deaths jumped 85% in Wisconsin (Duran 2022). This was highlighted when Sherika Lester, a mother of six, was tragically killed in a hit-and-run in February (Lumpkin 2022). So long as state and local policymakers build infrastructure that’s hostile to pedestrians, preventable deaths will continue to occur.
While one might expect downtown and the Third Ward to be the best places in the city to bike, in fact the opposite is true. These two neighborhoods are some of the most dangerous in the city. Walking down Clybourn Street, it is easy to understand why. Walking on roads in I-794's shadow means contending with drivers traveling upwards of 50 miles an hour to and from an expansive network of elevated expressway. A surface-level boulevard would calm traffic to a level appropriate for a densely populated area with high pedestrian traffic. A 2008 study from a consulting firm hired by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation concluded that 794 is “oversized for its current and projected traffic” and stated that creating “a roadway that meets appropriate capacity” could free up land for other uses (Snyder 2016, 58). A study of three highway removal projects, including the Park East Freeway, found no evidence that the projects increased traffic. Instead, traffic is redistributed onto the street grid below (Snyder 2016, 4). I-794 is a glorified freeway spur primarily used to access I-94. Rethinking I-794 as a surface-level boulevard and reconnecting the grid will reduce congestion and make driving downtown less stressful by giving drivers more ways to access points to I-94.
Reconnect Milwaukee and Lake Michigan
Driving on I-794, you would never know that the area below lies at the intersection of many of Milwaukee’s most famous greenspace and bike paths. Lakeshore State Park, the Oak Leaf trail, Hank Aaron State Park, and Milwaukee’s Riverwalk all lie within a short distance of the I-794 corridor. Today, these assets are disconnected. The Third Ward in particular remains cut off from the lakeshore, a tragedy given their proximity to each other. Rethinking I-794 as a boulevard creates a rare opportunity to upgrade bike and pedestrian facilities along Clybourn Street without the need to sacrifice travel lanes for drivers. This can fill a missing link between bike trails that extend across Milwaukee County. It is difficult to overstate the new commuting patterns and recreational opportunities this creates for Milwaukeeans.
“1999 Downtown Plan.” 1999. City of Milwaukee Department of City Development. Milwaukee. https://city.milwaukee.gov/ImageLibrary/Groups/cityDCD/planning/plans/downtown1/1999-Downtown-Plan/DPPart5Streets.pdf.
City of Milwaukee Staff. 2006. “Third Ward Neighborhood Comprehensive Plan.” City of Milwaukee. July 2006. https://city.milwaukee.gov/ImageLibrary/Groups/cityDCD/planning/plans/ThirdWard/plan/TWPlan.pdf.
DCD Staff. n.d. “Park East Freeway - History and Removal.” City of Milwaukee Department of City Development. Accessed April 20, 2022. https://city.milwaukee.gov/DCD/Projects/ParkEastredevelopment/Park-East-History.
Duran, Ethan. 2022. “Wisconsin Pedestrian Deaths Jumped 85% in 1st Half Of 2021: Report | Milwaukee, WI Patch.” Patch. April 7, 2022. https://patch.com/wisconsin/milwaukee/wisconsin-pedestrian-deaths-jumped-85-1st-half-2021-report.
Lumpkin, Taylor. 2022. “Mother of 6 Killed in Hit and Run near 11th and Atkinson.” WTMJ-TV Milwaukee. February 13, 2022. https://www.tmj4.com/news/local-news/woman-hit-killed-by-a-vehicle-on-w-atkinson.
Point2 Staff. n.d. “Historic Third Ward Demographics.” Point2. Accessed May 3, 2022. https://www.point2homes.com/US/Neighborhood/WI/Milwaukee/Historic-Third-Ward-Demographics.html.
Snyder, Alex. 2016. “Freeway Removal in Milwaukee: Three Case Studies.” Theses and Dissertations. May 1, 2016. https://dc.uwm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2254&context=etd.
Thomas, Arthur. 2021. “Public Record: Where Is Milwaukee County Growing?” BizTimes. September 26, 2021. https://biztimes.com/public-record-where-is-milwaukee-county-growing/.