This morning, I attended an event at Marquette University about I-794 and the future of Downtown Milwaukee.
If you read our award-winning 2021 series “Expanding the Divide,” you know we’re very interested in the concept of removing freeways in cities. You may recall the column, “Tear Down the Stadium Freeway in Milwaukee.”
While the Stadium Freeway discussion is advancing on the west side of town, the discussion around removing I-794 in Downtown Milwaukee is starting to heat up further east. The good folks at 1000 Friends of Wisconsin advanced this discussion last year with an effort called “Rethink 794,” complete with some very intriguing renderings, and since, this conversation has been kind of a big deal around Milwaukee.
In recent months, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) released designs of some potential options for its future, reimagining 794 was a top item in the city’s new downtown plan, and WisDOT will be holding public involvement meetings on the topic on Aug. 1 and 2. Time to get involved, folks.
Today’s discussion both considered those futures and reflected on the past, and Milwaukee’s not-too-distant history of tearing down another freeway — the Park East. Peter Park, the former Milwaukee City Planning Director who helped lead the effort to remove the freeway, was the event’s keynote speaker, and he also was interviewed by Mark Kass, editor of the Milwaukee Business Journal.
“Milwaukee is at the forefront of replacing freeways,” Park said, later adding that removing a freeway is not a “technical question” but a “political question.” And in his experience, that freeway removal was a success.
“Did things get worse getting to Downtown Milwaukee with the Park East freeway getting torn down? It’s not theoretical in this city,” Park said of freeway removal.
The event also featured a panel discussion with many big stakeholders, including Beth Weirick (Milwaukee Downtown BID #21), Bob Monnat (Mandel Group), Chris Socha (The Kubala Washatko Architects - TKWA), Jim Plaisted (Historic Third Ward Association), Peter Park (former head planner for the City of Milwaukee), Tanya Fonseca (City of Milwaukee - DCD), and Tim Gokhman (New Land Enterprises).
You can see my thoughts and coverage of the event from my live-tweet over at the bird website here. And be sure to check out some of the initial coverage from the Business Journal here.
But what I want to know now is, what do you think? What should be done regarding I-794 and its future downtown? What’s missing in this conversation? What should Downtown Milwaukee’s future look like?
I thought we’d try out this DISCUSSION THREAD here that’s a thing now at Substack to see.
So, let us know!
Yes. I agree that MKE should be for Milwaukeans. Look up when you are downtown/third ward, the freeways are obscene. And since I live in the Third Ward, taking down 794 will add a few minutes to my commute- I’m OK with that!
Definitely think 794 should come down but...at least one of Rethink 794's renderings contains a somewhat comical error. It shows a winding pedestrian bridge over the Milwaukee River—which forgets that the river is and remains a waterway that needs to be navigable by taller craft. This is, of course, why we have all those opening bridges. Such a winding bridge would be rather a challenge to make operable in that way, I'd imagine...although I am not an engineer.
I suspect it's just illustrative poetic license.
Yes, the freeway should be removed. Some people will have longer commutes; but, that’s fine. This land is likely the most valuable in the state and it should have land use that reflects that. Having more office and residential units would be a much better use. The additional property tax revenue to the city, county, and state would also be quite large. Further, the addition of more people in the downtown and Third Ward would support both local businesses and transit, especially considering the long lasting effects of the pandemic and WFH on commuting patterns. Overall, the benefits outweigh the cons.
It should definitely come down. The development that has taken place on the site of the former park east expressway is a helpful reminder of what is possible!
Tear this scar on our city down already.
Take it down. Never should have been built in the first place. Downtown Milwaukee will benefit as will the entire region.
I think it should be torn down to help create an area that is mixed-use zoned that prioritizes the citizen over the automobile. Additionally, a large urban green space that showcases MKE to the world would be cool! I can't make it to the meetings today or tomorrow, but I hope it goes well!
Absolutely yes. I use it to commute to work, but my commute would be a couple of minutes longer without it, if that. I used the Park East to commute to work as well, and my commute barely changed after it came down. There's not a lot more traffic on 794 than there was on Park East. It's a grossly unproductive use of valuable land, and it will not be missed, even by those who use it.
I think about the future all the time. Phoenix is enduring its 19th straight day with temperatures over 100. When my wife called her cousin in Chandler last Saturday, her cousin told her the temperature was 117. It was 102 in Vacaville, California when I called our son Sunday. Sanbao, a remote town in western China, recorded a high of 126 degrees Fahrenheit a day or two ago. The average age of the cars on our roads is 12.5 years. While new car sales are up this year, the supply of compact, mid-size, and crossover vehicles is still tight, according to a Jalopnik article published yesterday. The reason for that, the article said, is because many people cannot afford the new EVs. Yet the automakers keep expanding their EV and hybrid lines, and it's not because they want to be good stewards of the environment. We need to stop pretending everything is okay when we all know everything is not okay. For those relatively few people who use 794 for their daily commute, what is that commute going to look like in five years? What is it going to look like in 10 years? How about 20 years? In 2019 my wife and I took the train to California, and one day we had lunch in the dining car with a really nice Swiss couple. The husband was an electrician, they lived in an apartment, and they did not own a car. I think Europe and Asia's present is our future, just as it used to be our past. More and more people, I think, will start relying on mass transit for their commutes, and only the more affluent will use cars on a regular basis. That's why automakers are increasingly focusing their lines on the more affluent. The western U.S. used to be called "The Great American Desert," and it's reverting back to that. All those people out there will get tired of all the heat and come here. Why would we waste money on a relatively lightly traveled segment of expressway when we could use that money improving our regional rail? We're going to need it and probably sooner than anyone thinks. We're in challenging times. Let's meet those challenges instead of trying to pretend everything is okay when we all know everything is not okay.
My office is in the Third Ward. I foresee profound traffic difficulties if 794 is removed. Simply having the Lakefront exit closed this past weekend brought traffic to a standstill for a few miles.
I also find it rather myopic to ignore the needs of thousands of citizens from south of downtown who use 794 daily to get downtown or to and from the suburbs.
Finally, I am curious as to the plans to replace the parking that will be lost if 794 is removed. Lack of parking will result in fewer people coming to the Third Ward - to shop, eat, and explore.
I simply cannot support a plan that seems like it will 1) create a traffic nightmare; and 2) keep people who don’t live downtown or in the Third Ward from easily accessing the Third Ward. This plan seems not only poorly thought out, but extremely elitist.
Heck no. 794 was built long before the Third ward arts and condo developments. Ppl living in that area should have factored in the big chunk of concrete aka 794 when purchasing a condo in the area or attending a performance there. There can still be ways to make the area more attractive w/o tearing down the freeway.
If they decide to build an overland route, they will need to factor in rush hour traffic. That would be a tremendous step backwards bc it would be stop and go traffic until drivers get out of the downtown area. Talk about a traffic snarl!
No, tearing down 794 is a terrible idea. Come up w something else!
What's missing in the conversation is that whether you want it to be or not, unlike the Park East that went nowhere, 794 is the route to other places and those places would maybe not like to become even more of a declining backwater than they already are. And no one has any business telling people they're not going to be inconvenienced just from looking at it on Google Maps, because your mapping software is not giving you accurate information for a situation that doesn't exist, especially when you do your figuring in the middle of a weekday. You don't put up with other people telling you it's okay to be inconvenienced, no one else is going to tolerate that either.
794 is bad for the neighborhood and is a terribly designed road in desperate need of a total rethink but that doesn't mean it doesn't matter. I don't know. Maybe make a 4-lane road 50 feet higher in the air so it stops looming over the neighborhood and build human scale buildings under it if you want. Get rid of the east side exits. If you want to be convincing to someone other than other urbanists, come up with an idea besides tear it down and replace it with a street that has to gridlock the area while it lets rush hour traffic go home or raises up to let a boat pass underneath or stops to let the Hop go by while you guys hang out in the little playground you're trying to build for yourselves.