Rethink 794, an advocacy group asking Milwaukee leadership to tear down nearly a mile of freeway on the city’s lakefront, on Monday held a panel discussion with developers, business owners and real estate specialists at Marquette University. If plans from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) are approved to tear down the freeway, it would be the first time the city has done so since the Park East Freeway removal 20 years ago.
WisDOT released plans to improve the Interstate 794 between the Milwaukee River and the city’s lakefront with options ranging from leaving the freeway as-is with improvements or removing the mile-long spur entirely and replacing it with at-grade boulevards. According to Rethink 794 officials, converting the highway into boulevards could generate $30 million in property tax revenue for the city and open new construction land worth up to $1.5 billion.
Removing a highway in Milwaukee isn’t a new idea, Lafayette Crump, commissioner of city development, said at the meeting. The Park East Freeway removal started in 2002 and was eventually replaced by housing and businesses, including the Fiserv Forum, Crump added. In addition, Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson and the Department of City Development (DCD) have shared goals for multimodal transport across the city, he added.
Connecting MKE, the city’s comprehensive plan released in April, calls for similar plans to scale the freeway spur down to boulevards between the Milwaukee River and Hoan Bridge, Crump said, noting the city believed some unintended consequences would have a “positive” effect on local business.
“The city doesn’t want this to end up harming private sector investments all around the corridor. In fact, we think it could have the opposite effect. We often talk of unintended consequences. Unintended consequences aren’t always negative. Sometimes, they’re positive. So, we all have to keep an open mind,” Crump said, adding the State of Wisconsin will ultimately decide the freeway’s fate after hosting information sessions with stakeholders.
WisDOT’s $300 million proposal to redevelop the freeway was a “chance to think in a new way,” said Taylor Korslin, an advocate at Rethink 794. “This is a great time to have this conversation again,” he added.
The proposal received support from Mayor Cavalier Johnson, who announced plans to grow Milwaukee’s population up to 1 million. In previous interviews, both Johnson and city officials said part of the plans to grow the city included infrastructure changes such as walkable neighborhoods and raised bicycle lanes for connectivity.
“This is the most valuable land in the state of Wisconsin by far. It’s between downtown and the Third Ward and acts as a barrier now, but there’s so much potential,” Korslin said, noting potential for office and residential buildings in place of the freeway. Around one-third of trips through I-794 pass downtown while the rest of drivers use the highway to arrive downtown, he added.
Milwaukee has one of the lowest vacancy rates, or the percentage of unoccupied rental units, in the U.S. (3.8%) compared to larger cities such as Chicago (5.3%), said Gard Pecor, a senior market analyst for the CoStar Group. While citing data, Pecor pointed out cities with low vacancy rates were bullish with development, but Milwaukee currently wasn’t. Some cities with higher vacancy rates were building more aggressively, he added.
“Basically, we have extremely low vacancies compared to our peers and have plenty of room to build more housing, especially downtown,” Pecor said.
Data of construction starts over the past 15 years showed there were more large developments taking a long time to deliver, Pecor added. Developers focused on building large buildings with luxury properties after both construction and material pricing hiked and financing costs increased during the pandemic, he noted.
However, Milwaukee’s downtown bucked the wider trend of American downtowns slowly emptying out business post-pandemic: Milwaukee Tool, Northwestern Mutual, Rite Hite, Fiserv, Komatsu, GRAEF and HNTB have announced new homes, began the early phases of development or finished construction projects inside the city in recent years, Pecor noted.
The Park East Freeway was a “shining example” of development after freeway removal, Korslin said. Peter Park was Milwaukee’s planning director in the late 1990s and catalyzed the removal in the early 2000s. He said a mix of aging infrastructure, people returning to the city and the advent of federal funding put the city in a unique position.
Having the freeway removed and turned into boulevards wasn’t a technical question but a political question, Park added. Every time a freeway cuts through a neighborhood, “it hasn’t gotten better,” he noted.
During the panel discussion, representatives for downtown business groups expressed concern for workers who drove in from Milwaukee’s western and southern suburbs, and noted they had other interests in the city that might conflict with tearing down of I-794.
Monday’s panelists were Beth Weirick of Milwaukee Downtown BID #21; Jim Plaisted of the Historic Third Ward Association; Bill Bonifas of CBRE; Bob Monnat of The Mandel Group; Chris Socha of The Kubala Washatko Architects; Peter Park; Tanya Fonseca of Milwaukee DCD; and Tim Gokhman of New Land Enterprises.
Weirick said her organization hasn’t taken a stance yet, but added she wanted to know more about moving office workers in from nearby suburbs and what it means for moving goods and services.
The Third Ward has seen 5.4 million visitors over the last 12 months, Plaisted said during the panel. Around 52% of those visitors come from at least 10 miles away. Traffic counts throughout the Third Ward were a “glaring concern” for the business group, Plaisted noted.
WisDOT will host two public involvement meetings for its I-794 Lake Interchange Study, and officials added the meetings are the first of several opportunities for the public to engage with state staff and learn about the study.
The first meeting will be on Aug. 1 from 4-7 p.m. at Milwaukee Marriott Downtown. The second meeting will be on Aug. 2 from 4-7 p.m. at St. Thomas More High School.