Dave Reid

The Park East Disaster? No

By - Dec 15th, 2009 12:56 pm
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The Moderne Shipping Containers and Sales CenterWould Milwaukee be better off with the Park East Freeway spur intact?  No.  Has development been slow so far?  Yes.  Is that a problem?  Only if you have a short-term perspective on the future of Milwaukee.

So we should ask if the Park East Freeway spur was worth keeping or is the long-term benefit more worthwhile than the long-term costs.  One of the big concerns regarding the removal of the Park East Freeway spur was that congestion would increase, but the numbers show that traffic delays peaked after the removal and have settled back to 2001 levels, the last full year of regular operation of the freeway spur.  Access to downtown Milwaukee has actually been improved, because the new street level boulevard allows drivers to turn on to more streets than the freeway spur allowed.  Simply, looking at it from a cost point of view, the freeway spur’s repair costs at the time of its removal were estimated at $100 million, clearly this is significantly more expensive to maintain than a street level boulevard.  From a tax base point of view, the freeway limited development of property, not just under it, but near it, and although it has yet to develop, the potential is at least there, and some neighboring properties have added to the tax base.

The big complaint in regards to the Park East is that development has been slow to take hold in the area.  Unfortunately, there is truth to this, but looking at the edges of the Park East corridor it is clear investment is starting to take hold.  Developments such as the North End, the Flatiron, the Aloft, the Brewery, and the soon to break ground Moderne are a direct result of removing the Park East Freeway spur.  These would of been undesirable sites to develop, because of limited access, a perceived disconnect from downtown, and the blighting influence of locating in the shadow of a concrete ramp.  Finally, Milwaukee has already proven it can fill-in underutilized land. The Park East Freeway was supposed to extend to the lakefront and the land was cleared for it, but the freeway never happened and the land sat vacant for years (east of the spur that was built).  That land now contains a long stretch of residential apartments, a Pick ‘n’ Save, and fits in the neighborhood fairly well.  It’s unfortunate that this land was ever cleared, but it shows Milwaukee can reclaim once underutilized land and can do it again.

There is no question that there are a number of factors that have slowed development in the Park East.  The lot sizes that Milwaukee County is attempting to sell are too large, which limits the number of developers able to participate and forces the scale of the development to a point that requires very significant financing.  It’s also possible Milwaukee County’s PERC regulations have limited the number of developers interested in developing within the Park East.  Further, these regulations may have played a role in developers requesting TIF’s from the City of Milwaukee to finance projects, though the existence of a direct relationship isn’t clear.  The problem that has come up more than once is developers having to deal with two levels of government with differing goals.  A clear example of this is RSC & Associates’ Park East Square proposal.  Milwaukee County closed on the land sale, despite RSC & Associates lack of financing, fluctuating plans, and continued attempts to gain City of Milwaukee financing for the project.

The opportunity lost had Milwaukee not removed the Park East Freeway spur was simply too great to miss out on, but it does seem it’s time for Milwaukee County to get out of the way and allow the City of Milwaukee to control the land in order to expedite development.

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25 thoughts on “The Park East Disaster? No”

  1. Chris says:

    There’s no question this was a great idea and will prove a long-term payback to the city in so many ways. This article hits the nail on the head in terms of identifying the two biggest problems: The County, and the lot sizes.

    Great cities unfold in piecemeal fashion, not from mega-block superstructures. Look at any truly alive part of Milwaukee — Brady Street, Broadway in the Third Ward, etc. You see small scale projects that create a neighborhood fabric – human scaled and tailored to the streets. Contrast that with almost any super-block development in the city – lifeless and homogeneous. Not only are these places unable to adapt to subtle forces on a site, they’re very difficult to get built – the Palomar, etc.

    So I for one hope the County gets out of the way, and the City recognizes what makes cities great – incremental growth through high quality architecture (both materials and design) and space-making. That last sentiment may be my biggest regret. Why didn’t the City have the foresight to create a truly magnificent space with the freed up land? – an urban center that could truly become Milwaukee’s living room…

  2. Steven Schrab says:

    Regardless of development, it just looks better without it. Feels more open now. I’m sure more things will be built there in time.

  3. Dave Reid says:

    @Steve Yup agreed it is simple better now than it was before, and that is with little development.

  4. Dave Reid says:

    @Chris Agreed. As far as why didn’t the city come up with more of a plan, my feeling is the politics of tearing it down precluded them from doing much more. i.e. County control, street widths and so on… That said it will eventually have a park, as that is part of the plan.

  5. c. says:

    Excellent article in regards to the points made about the developments that have/are happening on the fringes of where the highway once stood. No way does a building like the Moderne go up across the street from an elevated highway. In Milwaukee, that is. And an excellent example as to the area that has infilled where the Pick N’ Save, etc. is. I never knew this was once cleared land for that failed highway project. More should be made aware of this so they would have faith on the current cleared land.

    I personally think those that are bothered by the speed of development in the Park East are doing so merely because the landscape now looks very blighted, with no end in sight, rather than a preference for a highway spur vs. a boulevard. It’s too bad a more beautiful, yet temporary, use could have been done immediately to the plots to make it more useful or interesting. If the Parks Dept. had the money to take it over and develop something along the lines of the Block in Portland, that would have been amazing. I know…pipe dream.

  6. Doug G. says:

    Good article.

    I think tearing it down was the right choice. While it looks bad now, the area will undoubtedly fill in. It has been mentioned already, but smaller lot sizes would make for an more interesting mix.

    What I am curious about is the future of the Bradley Center and the potential of a new arena on some of that land.

  7. AnnaO says:

    Do you know of any plans to remove the surface parking lot along the river, between knapp and cherry?

    Also, what do you think of the idea of demolishing I794 and creating a street level boulevard in order to maintain a visual/practical/safe connection between these the third ward and downtown? Before the expressway was built I believe this was proposed, and later Peter Park floated the idea. How grand would that have been, despite the cost.

  8. Dave Reid says:

    @Anna Yes there have been a variety of proposal for that site, but as of yet nothing has come to fruition. As far as 794 yes, in particular if the lake interchange was removed and then 794 was landed earlier you could open up some great land in the Third Ward and knit the city back together.

  9. I’ve heard the complaints about the Park East Corridor however as this article clearly points out, “patience is a virtue”. Good work UM!

  10. How about grading the land and tossing down some pavement gravel on the lots so someone could make some money on parking until the land is developed?

  11. Dave Reid says:

    @Bill No. Parking lots just never go away, and large surface lots are not a desirable feature (crime, low density) in downtown Milwaukee. For example the Residences on Water site was a parking lot for some 40 years after some demolition work. Further we already have a massive amount of surface parking in Milwaukee, stunning amounts actually. I fear putting in any temporary use, as temporary uses have a history of becoming permanent.

  12. Dave Reid says:

    @Keith Exactly. Patience is a virtue. Development just doesn’t happen overnight.

    PS Keep up the great work at SOHI and thanks for the mention in the last emailer. And I added the SOHI link to the Avenues West UrbanMilwaukee.com page.

  13. Ben says:

    Thank you for this realistic and optimistic perspective on Park East.

  14. Ken says:

    “One of the big concerns regarding the removal of the Park East Freeway spur was that congestion would increase, but the numbers show that traffic delays peaked after the removal and have settle back to 2001 levels, the last full year of regular operation of the freeway spur.”

    Traffic delays peaked after the removal- I believe the reason is because of the Marquette Interchange growth. Thank goodness they expanded the downtown freeway system to alive traffic. Agreed, the spur was not the most efficient part of land. It would be nice to see some new businesses or entertainment in the area. When you have the local (or federal) governments run anything it’s always a slow, inefficient, and a mentally challenged process.

  15. Dave Reid says:

    @Ken Nope. Traffic congestion actually dropped to 2001 level before the Marquette Interchange was completed.

  16. Ken says:

    Dave- has anyone proposed not only taking the land out of the hands of the county, but out of the hands of government altogether and privatizing the land?

  17. Dave Reid says:

    @Ken Ummmm yeah that’s the plan.

  18. Ken says:

    So why are you looking for the city to take over? You are trading one incompetent form of government for another.

  19. Dave Steele says:

    Another major factor in the slow pace of development in the Park East is the national economy. The recession officially began in 2007 and in 2008 we saw the most catostrophic financial collapse since the Great Depression. The troubles in the economy have halted development all over the US, not just in mid sized cities like Milwaukee.

    The freeway was torn down in 2003, developable parcels entered the market in 2004. That means there was a three year window for projects to take hold and get underway before the economy collapsed – which of course no one saw coming. Can we expect a corridor the size of the Park East, in a relatively small city like Milwaukee, to fill up in three years?

    In that three years we did see considerable progress – the North End, the Flatiron, the Manpower headquarters and the Brewery project. Was it a “building boom?” No. But it was progress that most likely would not have happened at the pace it did had the Park East still been there.

    Taking the long view, I anticipate that at some point in the not too distant future, people will forget that there ever was a freeway in the Park East corridor, just as many people have forgotten that the Pick N Save and East Pointe Commons sit on land once cleared for a freeway.

  20. Dave Reid says:

    @Dave Thanks. I didn’t even mention the Great Recession, but yes that most certainly is playing a significant role.

  21. Jeramey Jannene says:

    @Ken – I think the city has proven to be pretty competent when it comes to downtown land sales. All the city’s land in the Park East has been sold to private interests.

  22. Ken says:

    @Jeramey- yes the city has sold the land, however I am referring to the lack of speed local government works. It’s easy to be competent when you have several months or years to complete a sale or project. More often than not privatization has proven to be the most efficient way to accomplish anything.

  23. Dave Reid says:

    @Ken If say an outside broker (if that’s what you mean by privatizing, because the process of selling the land is privatization but anyhow) was handling the land sales today, a developer would still have to deal with the County as the property owner, and the City as the governing municipality and very likely project source of financing (every County PE project has requested TIF funds from the City). So in fact that would be adding a third layer for a developer to deal with, and in the end these developers would still be dealing with the City over issues such as financing, zoning, infrastructure, and so on anyhow.

    PS Not only did the City sell its Park East land, it has long since been developed and people live there today… hardly a slow process.

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