Jeramey Jannene

What’s The Cost of Parking in Downtown Milwaukee?

By - Jul 24th, 2008 12:10 pm
Sign-up for the Urban Milwaukee daily email

What’s the cost of parking in downtown Milwaukee? It might just be more than the cost of plugging the meter. The low cost of parking in Milwaukee might actually be preventing new development from happening downtown.

Consider the prices for parking in downtown Milwaukee (thanks to SBT and Colliers International)…

  • The median monthly unreserved parking rate in downtown Milwaukee is $120, compared to the national average of $153.79, according to the report.
  • The median monthly reserved parking rate in downtown Milwaukee is $150, compared to the national average of $185.78.
  • The median daily parking rate in downtown Milwaukee is $12, compared to the national average of $15.42.
  • The median hourly parking rate in downtown Milwaukee is $4, compared to the national average of $5.10.
  • The median metered hourly parking rate in downtown Milwaukee is 63 cents, compared to the national average of $1.48. (emphasis ours)

At a glance, the most drastic difference from the national average comes in the form of Milwaukee’s parking meters. The difference is so great that in downtown Milwaukee people are paying 50% less for metered parking than the national average.

A now dated study from HNTB indicated that the city had an adequate supply of parking in 1998, but was short on metered parking. By 1999, the city had increased the number of parking stalls by 1,525 during John Norquist‘s term alone. More have been added since, helping to lead to what today is believed by many to be an oversupply.

There is by this author’s pound-the-pavement, visual survey a disproportionately high number of surface parking lots in downtown Milwaukee compared to many other major cities. To make matters worse, there is a great number of free street parking spaces just north of the MSOE campus that are filled daily. These are problem areas for a variety of reasons.

This oversupply is bad for development downtown because building a parking structure is often required to obtain financing for a new development, yet is currently a huge money losing venture. To put it in perspective, per-stall costs are well over $20,000 and will be pushing $30,000 if material prices keep rising. Underground parking is significantly more expensive. The market currently doesn’t generate the revenue required to pay back the costs per stall. Informal sources have put the break even point for a new parking garage at $180 a month per stall. Building facilities to parking cars isn’t cheap, and Milwaukee’s below-average parking costs are a hidden burden on making new developments happen.

The end result is that developments don’t get done because downtown Milwaukee has too much parking. Infill developments that do happen (The Residences on Water being a good example) help the problem very slowly by replacing surface parking with buildings, but aren’t enough at the current rate.

The cheap cost of parking in downtown Milwaukee is definitely is a huge obstacle, if not the biggest, for new developments downtown.

What can be done to help the private market, encourage development downtown, and fix the surface parking lot problem?

First, Milwaukee needs to implement parking benefit districts downtown.

What is a parking benefit district? In short it’s market rate street parking with the money generated in excess of city expenses and enforcement costs going towards improving the neighborhood through improvements like bicycle lanes, expanded sidewalks, and other streetscaping improvements. The decision on what to spend the money on would be made by the Business Improvement District (BID) or a similar organization. Prices would be adjusted to ensure 80% of stalls are occupied during peak business hours.

A parking benefit district would actually make parking easier in downtown Milwaukee. Higher rates for on-street parking would discourage all-day parking, leaving more spots open for people coming in and out of the neighborhood. It would also ease congestion slightly, by opening up the street and eliminating people circling looking for spots. More information is available from various sources after a quick search.

Second, the city should explore ways to reduce and eliminate surface parking lots.

]Surface parking lots break apart neighborhoods, both visually and physically. They offer rates cheaper than parking garages. Modern parking garages integrate with neighborhoods much better than surface lots. To make matters worse they’re a great source of run-off. Surface lots by lowering the market rate for parking in Milwaukee, actually prevent new developments from happening. Surface lots should be looked at as an opportunity to turn a negative into a positive. Converting unsightly, polluting pieces of blacktop into wealth-generating buildings should be a priority in Milwaukee.

The city can do this by offering incentives to develop surface lots or by imposing taxes or fees on them. Taxes on early bird specials, and special taxes or fees on surface lots are sure to be met with political opposition. More politically appealing may be the route of offering incentives to developers in the form of TIF districts. Incentive packages could also be made for lot owners to sell the lot, as many have been reluctant to sell to-date.

Milwaukee needs to move to market-rate metered street parking and work to eliminate more surface lots to encourage new development, help existing parking garages, increase safety and walkability, and most importantly keep downtown as the economic and social heart of not only the city, but the region.


9 thoughts on “What’s The Cost of Parking in Downtown Milwaukee?”

  1. Coldwake81 says:

    What your saying in this article is that you would like people who live and work downtown to pay substantially more money for parking so we can have more development? I’m all for new development but if I was one of those people who has to pay an extra $30 or $40 a month to see a new building go up I would be rather upset.

    Your entire argument doesn’t make a lot of sense in the fact that you want to elimenate parking so developers can build more parking! Even if they did add that parking the people who use it have to spend that much extra each month to do so.

    Cheap and available parking and the easy of getting around are some of the great aspects of downtown milwaukee that make our city superior to many others our size and larger. Lets not give that up so easily. Natural demand will create new developments as they would normally arise in due course. Lets let that demand happen and/or spur it in ways that do not ruin some of the greatest aspects of our city.

  2. Jeramey Jannene says:


    Eliminating free street parking and surface parking lots would allow new developments to come. New mixed use developments would eliminate the need to drive for more and more people. The new developments would also further encourage the development of a transit system (or serious repair of the one we have now).

    The street parking system proposed also would encourage more bike lanes and better streets, further eliminating the need for driving.

    As more and more people jump off their cars (which I have witnessed many do this summer with gas prices), car share programs become a reality, so that you have the car when you need it.

    You’re absolutely right, my argument doesn’t make much sense if you assume that everyone keeps their car. My idea is to enable more people to get rid of their car, and even more than that to drastically reduce their usage.

  3. Jon says:


    Thanks for the interesting article on parking supply downtown. I have a question regarding the point that new development frequently requires structured parking. Is this a regulatory issue, i.e. in the zoning code? Or is this a priority for lenders involved in larger developments?


  4. Jesse276 says:

    I take issue with some of your facts. Where do you get the “median metered parking rate” for Downtown Milwaukee? It’s .25 per 15 minutes = $1.00 per hour, what is “Downtown”?

    I agree with some of your ideas on raising the cost of metered parking, which has been suggested elsewhere, but then you have to confront the reality of all the restaurants, retail, and other businesses that already have to work against the misperception that Downtown is a parking hell.

    As far as what to do, giving handouts to the parking lot owners will just spur them to buy more land and turn it in to parking lots. You will see lots disappear when they can make it expensive to have a parking lot Downtown. Mandate that if cars are parked in them, they must have an attendant on duty. Initiate a land-value tax that taxes on what the land could become given its zoning, focus less on its use. I’m sure there’s more options and opinions out there how to shrink the lots. Overall good article.

  5. Jeramey Jannene says:

    @Jesse I linked to the source article right before I listed off the quoted facts. I’m not sure what they define as downtown.

    Raising parking prices downtown on the street would actually make it easier to park by opening up more spots. People don’t complain about the price often, they complain about the hassle.

    It’s a tough issue.

  6. Angry Parker says:

    Congrats on your article! Thanks to the efforts of you and others, we are now paying MORE than the national average per parking. To pay 25 cents for every 10 minutes is rediculous in a city as small as Milwaukee. What a horrible idea. Maybe you don’t park downtown, but it is sure a hassle to have that much change available for the meters.

  7. Jeramey Jannene says:

    @Angry Parker

    I assume you’re referring to the Third Ward, where rates were raised around the turn of the year. Do they not have the new electronic machines to pay with credit cards?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>