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11 Urbanism Must-Haves for Milwaukee’s Next Mayor
What are some of the projects an “urbanist mayor” could take on? Guest article by Jeremy Fojut, Michael Bradley and Montavius Jones of Urban Spaceship.
The Recombobulation Area is a six-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written, edited and published by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
The mayoral primary winner, Cavalier Johnson, is running a campaign to be an “urbanist mayor.” So, what are some urbanist projects he could take on if elected to serve out this term? We asked the folks at Urban Spaceship for a list of projects and policies the next mayor of Milwaukee could address in the years to come.
Guest article by Jeremy Fojut, Michael Bradley and Montavius Jones of Urban Spaceship.
1. Safe Streets: No one will choose to live in or stay in their neighborhood if crossing the street is not safe. Streets that are safe for all users – walkers, bikers, wheelchair users and drivers – are the foundation of a quality urban environment, and unfortunately, Milwaukee’s street safety has declined. In 2020, the County set a record for traffic fatalities with more than 100 deaths.
These are primarily preventable tragedies. While we’re backsliding, there’s a growing number of cities achieving Vision Zero: no traffic deaths or serious injuries. In recent years. Oslo, Norway, has reduced its annual traffic deaths from 40 down to zero. Hoboken, New Jersey, has gone four straight years with no traffic deaths. But achieving these results requires taking a different and more deliberate approach to street safety than Milwaukee is used to – more extensive sidewalks, higher-quality bike infrastructure, more public plazas, and much slower streets.
Must-have: Adopt and commit to a Vision Zero framework
2. Growth: In the 2020 decennial census, while Chicago (1.9%), Madison (15.7%), Grand Rapids (5.8%), Minneapolis (12.4%) and Saint Paul (9.3%) all grew, Milwaukee lost 3% of its population. The city of Milwaukee has lost population every decade since 1960.
Losing population leads to closing schools, pension problems, declining service quality, stagnated neighborhood commercial districts, and even large pockets of housing abandonment. So, we need to take a hard look at 1) How do we bulwark neighborhoods from further decline? 2) What barriers to growth exist in high-amenity neighborhoods and how do we eliminate them?
Must-have: Create and implement a Citywide Growth Plan
3. Leveraging Main Streets: Milwaukee has miles of main street commercial districts. If you believe Walk Score, Milwaukee is the 15th most walkable large city in the United States. The League of American Cyclists benchmarking study examined the 50 largest U.S. cities, and Milwaukee has the fourth most complete sidewalk network. These are huge assets. How do we level up?
Grand Rapids may be a model. After its population declined 4.9% in the 2000s, the city adopted a Vital Streets program, adding real dollars and tracking metrics focused on rejuvenating main streets and building safe, healthy places. Not just a couple streets per decade like we do Milwaukee, but citywide and at scale with tangible metrics to track progress.
Must-have: Create metrics to elevate our neighborhood's main streets city-wide
4. Kinnickinnic River Project: The Kinnickinnic River Flood Management Project can be one of the most transformational projects in the city this decade. The deteriorated concrete culvert is being removed and returned to a more natural condition. Bridges over the river are being replaced while parks along it will be revamped. An off-street multi-use path will also be added, stretching from the Harbor District to Jackson Park. This could be Milwaukee's most consequential new multi-use path in the last 30 years.
Must-have: The city needs to be locked-in and engaged in making sure this massive enhancement in safety, flood control, and recreational opportunities gets fully leveraged. This is going to be bigger than Three Bridges or Hart Park.
5. Smaller, more fine-grain urbanism is good. Even downtown: West of the Milwaukee River downtown is full of monolithic single-use buildings. The convention center takes up four city blocks, and the UWM Panther Arena and Miller High Life Theatre are not currently every-night event spaces. When there’s a large convention or event, there can be some foot traffic, but when there’s not, it’s an eerily dead zone in the heart of the city.
The answer is Fine Grain urbanism. Smaller, tighter-packed buildings. And for better or worse, there’s actually a fair amount of publicly-owned sites downtown. Rather than holding out for decades for another mega-project (ahem, giant 4th and Wisconsin parking lot), we have got to be willing to split these lots into more manageable bites that our local economy takes on bit by bit.
Must-have: Be willing to split lots and embrace fine-grain urbanism
6. Don’t screw up the BRT: The East-West BRT project could be a game-changer. Ideally, it provides fast, frequent, and comfortable trips between downtown Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center, the two largest job ecosystems in the state of Wisconsin.
It will be passing through several higher-density Milwaukee neighborhoods, some of which have obvious and significant growth opportunities. Based on the project’s feasibility study, we are expecting 10 minute headways most of the day, to see reduced end-to-end travel times from from 51 to 35 minutes, and 14,350 daily riders. To put that in perspective, 14,350 daily riders is more than 2-times the expected daily ridership of the recently completed Gold Line BRT in the Twin Cities and roughly the same ridership per mile as the Orange Line in Los Angeles, one of the nation's busiest BRT routes. Simply put, this could be one of the most used and most impactful BRT lines in the country.
Understanding that, it was disappointing to see that we are prioritizing a very small number of parking meter spots in downtown over a dedicated lane throughout the route. Hopefully, we see much improved collaboration between the city and county on transit design under the new administration.
It has also been disappointing that the city has not implemented a transit-oriented development plan ahead of the project completion. It should be easier to build dense housing with less parking near high-frequency transit, where we know residents won’t be driving much or at all.
Must-have: The BRT should be built with a dedicated lane and we should reassess our land use planning along the route for transit-oriented development potential.
7. 30th Street Rails-to-Trails: The next mayor has to ensure the conversion of the Canadian Pacific railway into a multi-use trail. Milwaukee has an enviable history of converting old, underutilized rail corridors into multi-use trails. They provide safe spaces for exercise and recreation. Major job centers – UWM, Menomonee Valley, downtown Milwaukee – connect to existing trails. But the data shows the current trail network does not serve underprivileged communities. That means we have a physical manifestation of all the inequity, segregation, dangerous-by-design planning that has plagued us for generations. So, a high-profile opportunity that will tangibly alter the physical shape of the city sits ready to be ushered across the finish line.
Work is already underway. Led by The Corridor, Milwaukee County, NWSCDC, and other partners, the planning partners recently received a $200,000 grant to support their efforts. The Mayor’s office can play a major role in seeing this to completion.
Must-have: Multi-use trail along the 30th Street Corridor
8. Develop Pedestrian Zone Policy: In order to design people-first infrastructure, the city needs to be creating pedestrian zones for schools, parks, and high commercialized main streets. These zones would be granted resources initially for tactical low-cost urbanism approaches to safer streets. When construction, repaving, or any alteration to the road is planned, pedestrian zones will prioritize larger sidewalks, multimodal lanes, parklets, lower speed limits, outdoor dining, trees, and social furniture to interact.
Must-have: A willingness to put design first and to engineer second and be open to unorthodox methods
9. Stop expanding freeways: We have expanded freeways in Milwaukee, and we continue to spend billions on them. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) is out of control over building on-ramps and spending taxpayer money to build financially unstable projects that ruin neighborhoods. Between 2004 and 2008, roads in the state cost an average of $4.24 billion annually. According to 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin, “Of this, $1.74 billion came from revenue sources unrelated to road use—primarily property and sales taxes—while another $600 million was borrowed. So, even counting federal aid as user-based—which is generally but not always true—between 41 and 55 percent of road money, depending on how borrowing is repaid, comes from non-users.”
Must-have: A willingness to join the movement and be more vocal about these issues impacting our city
10. Eliminate parking minimums: Get rid of all parking minimums and introduce parking maximums, so we do not continue to overbuild parking for new developments. Minimum parking requirements hinder the potential of cities. They fill cities with unproductive, mostly empty spaces that don’t add value. They push homes and businesses farther apart, impede the walkability of our neighborhoods and they raise the cost of housing and commercial property.
Milwaukee has lifted the parking minimum requirement in downtown now it is time to expand this out across the entire city.
Must-have: Removal of all minimums across the city
11. Bold Milwaukee Watersway Plan: In the last 15 years, we have seen an explosion of people living on the Milwaukee River, along with restaurants, bars, and water traffic. The Milwaukee River has made a comeback. The River Trail program from MMSD has been a success, but still has a long way to go. The city can play a part in this.
We have three major rivers in Milwaukee. Most of them are stories of yesteryears, inaccessible, uninhabited by wildlife or humans, or some poor use of city property. It's time to make a bold plan for the future of Milwaukee waterways that the entire city can realize and get behind. This plan includes more clean-up initiatives of contaminated property along the river.
Must-Have: Conviction to set a vision for the future of water in Milwaukee
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.