Lose a road, gain a neighborhood
Few cities are willing to stop a capital project in mid-stride, tear down what has been completed and start over with an entirely different focus on land use. But later this year, Milwaukee will do just that when it begins demolishing the Park East Freeway and replacing it with a surface street system. The project will uncover approximately 11 blocks of downtown land and pave the way for residential and commercial construction.
The demolition is part of a 20-year master plan to revitalize downtown Milwaukee. Adopted in 1999, the plan consists of 13 citywide projects that include street improvements, creation of a public market, construction of transit connections, expansion of the city’s RiverWalk, enhancement of pedestrian pathways along Lake Michigan’s shoreline and redevelopment/reuse of existing buildings.
The Park East Freeway is not a freeway at all. It is a mile-long spur between Fourth and Jefferson streets — a remnant of a 1960s plan to circle Milwaukee with a series of elevated roadways. The ring road was never completed; public opposition prevented construction of the lakefront portion of the project, and it eventually prompted the city to halt construction of Park East Freeway as well. (Primarily, the public objected to degradation of the lakefront and the creation of physical and visual barriers between downtown and Lake Michigan.)
Only half of the Park East Freeway was completed, and the resulting spur was used for limited downtown access from Interstate 43. The land surrounding the freeway was in Limbo: The city had cleared a two-mile, block-wide swath in preparation for the freeway, and — despite its location on the Milwaukee River — the site had given way to under-used surface parking lots. “The parking lots weren’t there because of a great demand for parking; they were there because nothing else wanted to be next to this elevated freeway,” says Peter Park, planning director for Milwaukee’s Department of City Development.
The outlook began to change in 1991, when Milwaukee-based Mandel Group developed East Pointe Commons, a neighborhood of luxury apartments and condominiums, on part of the land that had been cleared for the freeway. The project was wildly successful, with homes selling for $500,000 and a supermarket that garnered the highest sales of any supermarket in the city.
“The East Pointe development showed us a couple of things,” Park says. “It showed that there was a strong housing market downtown and that it was possible to repair the scars that were created by the demolitions. It gave people a better sense of what was possible — that this wasteland created by a freeway plan could be repaired.”
Encouraged by East Pointe’s success and the popularity of Milwaukee’s RiverWalk (situated to the west of Park East Freeway), city officials believed there was potential for significant residential and destination development. Only the freeway stood in their path.
Scheduled for completion in 2003, the Park East Freeway demolition will recover more than 20 acres of downtown land. In addition to calling for installation of a surface street grid, the city plan earmarks the area for mixed-use development, including riverfront housing as well as a park, offices, retail shops and entertainment venues. Park estimates that the $25 million deconstruction (funded with local, state and federal money) will attract at least $300 million in new investment.
It is a concept that intrigues other cities, according to Park. “We’ve had a lot of interest from cities asking how we’re doing this,” he says. “Most places are building more freeways, but this project recognizes that freeways don’t always create solutions.
“For downtown to be successful, it has to be where people live,” Park notes. “Our downtown has had a 25 percent increase in population over the last five years. The Milwaukee River and RiverWalk have attracted people who want to live and work downtown. [The Park East project] gives us just more land to promote that.”