Highways for Habitats #9: Park East Freeway, Milwaukee

Milwaukee Park EastTransportation planning is tough.  Roads have to serve a number of (sometimes competing) purposes.  Roads whose primary purpose is moving people and goods quickly through a community often have a detrimental effect on the communities they bisect (see: the history of freeways in Detroit).  Take state trunk lines for example, which you can recognize because they’re usually twice as wide to cross as the other roads in a neighborhood, and, of course, highways and interstates.  We’re currently running a series of posts featuring creative solutions from around the globe to make these roads – roads that must run through communities – also work to serve those communities.  Check out more about our inspiration here.

The elevated Park East Freeway was designed to connect the city of Milwaukee to Lake Michigan and the Lake Freeway, despite strong opposition from many community members.  After hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed during construction of part of the highway in 1971, neighborhood and environmental activists launched a strong campaign to oppose completion.  The remaining piece to be built would have ruined Juneau Park, a popular lakefront public space, and its relationship to the great lake.

In 1972 plans to move forward were ended.  Then-Mayor Henry Maier, who pulled the plug on the project, said, “America is the only nation in the world to let her cities ride to bankruptcy on a freeway… My city has discovered that the freeway is not free.”  For years the built portion was underutilized, and the land cleared for the never-built portion remained vacant.  The whole area served as an eyesore and a wasted space until the ‘90s.  The vacant land was positively redeveloped as the East Pointe neighborhood, and the freeway was in need of major repair.

Once again community members advocated for their neighborhoods.  Mayor John Norquist – who had been an activist opposing the freeway construction 30 years before – agreed that the Park East should go.  Many factors contributed to the decision to demolish the freeway, but perhaps most influential was the cost assessment: $100 million to repair, $25 million to remove.  The fact that the road was much too big for its traffic volume, coupled with the less than average land values surrounding the freeway (and therefore used as parking lots), solidified the plans.

In 2003 the at-grade McKinley Boulevard replaced the freeway with an appropriate four lanes that fit better into the local road grid and reduce traffic by dispersing it.  Downtown access has also improved.  The city composed plans to divide the 24 acres of newly available land into three districts: an office and entertainment core, a waterfront business district, and an urban-scale residential district.

Though some say redevelopment has been slow, the last decade has seen increased interest in the area, and development is starting to take hold.  Hundreds of millions of dollars of investment plans are in the works, and land values have increased significantly.  The conversion into a more walkable, higher density urban area will continue to show its benefits as time goes on.

Photo from trevor.pratt on flickr.com