Jeramey Jannene

Does building a park over a freeway in Milwaukee make sense?

By - Sep 9th, 2010 04:22 pm
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Cities across the country are in the process of constructing or exploring ways to turn freeways into public space. The most notable example of this freeway-to-park transition is Boston’s Big Dig project, which turned the elevated Central Artery freeway (Interstate 93) into a 3.5-mile tunnel and replaced it with the Rose Kennedy Greenway. The Boston project was incredibly expensive, but it’s hard to imagine downtown Boston and The North End with a freeway dividing them today. Turning freeways into parks appears to be a wise solution when a city’s central business district (many of which are encircled in freeways) run out of land that can be easily developed or when the freeway serves as a barrier between two successful urban neighborhoods. Would it be wise to implement such an idea in Milwaukee?

Cincinnati’s Planned Freeway Cap Park

For cost reasons, it’s most efficient to cover a trenched freeway rather than to replace an elevated freeway with a tunnel (as Boston did). In Dallas construction of a five-acre park over a trenched freeway (Woodall Rodgers Freeway) will connect downtown Dallas with the thriving Uptown neighborhood. The connection will be further enhanced with the expansion of the M-Line Streetcar through the park.

In 1976 Seattle completed Freeway Park, a 5.2 acre park that covered part of their newly completed freeway. The park has recently been reinvented following a 2002 murder and a number of other crimes. The park is adjacent to the city’s convention center in the heart of the city. Phoenix has a tunneled Interstate 10 and built a park on top (Margaret T. Hance Park).

A number of other cities have plans in place to cap freeways. Cincinnati has pilings in place to build a park over Fort Washington Way that would connect downtown with their redeveloping riverfront (UrbanCincy review of the proposal). The Los Angeles area has a number of plans in various states of completion to cap freeways everywhere from downtown to Hollywood. Oak Park, IL has studied capping the Eisenhower Expressway. St. Louis has a design competition underway to redevelop the grounds around the Gateway Arch, with a number of the designers recommending capping the freeway, and the City to River movement recommending replacing the freeway with a boulevard.

A Freeway Cap Park in Milwaukee

A cap over Interstate 43? It’s an idea that’s happening elsewhere in the country.

How could a freeway cap be utilized in Milwaukee? The most logical spot to build one is north of the Marquette Interchange over Interstate 43 connecting Westown and Avenues West. It could stretch as far north as the Winnebago Street bridge.

The benefits? A freeway cap park would finally make Marquette University feel like it’s part of downtown, instead of just outside of it. This might cause future Marquette student housing (be it built by the university or private interests) to be built in Westown. If the park cap was built far enough north, it’s possible that The Brewery redevelopment might cause a positive spillover effect onto the neighborhood west of it that’s currently underutilized. It also may encourage may infill development in the eastern portions of Avenues West as the park would eliminate the gorge that currently separates the neighborhood from downtown.

Taking the pessimistic viewpoint, a Interstate 43 freeway cap park might not produce much benefit for a number of reasons though. For one, they’re really expensive  to build (~$500 square-foot) so the city would need to recoup a lot of value from new development. Unfortunately, despite the park likely being an attractive space, there isn’t a whole lot of land for development in the area. The Milwaukee County Courthouse consumes much of the east side I-43 as it traverses downtown, drastically limiting the amount of higher value land for redevelopment. The land that isn’t the Courthouse east of the freeway is park land that is already underutilized that likely couldn’t be redeveloped because of it’s proximity to the courthouse.

On the west side of I-43 there is likewise a shortage of land for redevelopment. Aurora Sinai Medical Center occupies most of the land. The parcel north of the medical center that could be redeveloped is unfortunately located just across the potential park from the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (more commonly, “the jail”) handicapping it’s value.

Outside of the area where the capped park could be built, there is likely too much available land in downtown Milwaukee over the next 10 years to effectively return value on the park. The Park East Freeway removal has left a lot of land in county hands, which they’ve been unsuccessful in selling. The Milwaukee Intermodal Station has generated more demand in that area, along with the planned Milwaukee Streetcar and potential Post Office relocation, that’s a lot of land that is set to become available soon. The recently unveiled Downtown Plan also plans for more development near the lakefront and redeveloping MacArthur Square to include potential development sites.

There would be a large amount of value to be captured if the elevated Interstate 794 was to be removed or lowered east of the river, but the lack of political will to do anything other than redeck the Hoan Bridge appears to have doomed any discussion of that issue.

Cities like Dallas and Cincinnati seem poised to capture a lot of value with the cap parks, but they’re using them to connect two thriving neighborhoods. Avenues West, despite a highly laudable continued series of investments by Marquette is not as strong as Uptown in Dallas. Avenues West and Westown will be stronger in the future, and at that point there will be more value to capture with a park to bridge the gap, but until then it would be wise for the focus to be on infill development.

While there are benefits to building the freeway cap park, ultimately Milwaukee is best to invest elsewhere at this time. Building a freeway cap park will likely someday be a good idea, but it doesn’t seem economically feasible in the next 10 to 20 years. Investing and improving connection tools (the Streetcar, the Riverwalk) as well as generating more infill development in the areas outlined by the Downtown Plan appear to be the most promising way for the city to generate a solid return-on-investment with new development.


12 thoughts on “Does building a park over a freeway in Milwaukee make sense?”

  1. Jeramey Jannene says:

    If you’re really into this and want some more reading, check out this Wikipedia page that lists all the structures that list on top of freeways across the country.

  2. Peter says:

    I like the general idea, but not for I-43. The courthouse is just a natural edge to downtown, and other than between Marquette and Westown, I just don’t see a use for a cap there. As far as there being a park, it’s not necessarily in the most attractive part of downtown for it to be used by all (crime on the west side of I-43, not an enviable location). To be honest, I think the DOT actually did a decent job in putting I-43 where it is. Of course any interstate will separate neighborhoods, but it just seems to make sense there.

    Luckily, Milwaukee doesn’t have an interstate running right right between downtown and the lake, in comparison to Cincy and the river. 794/The Hoan is obviously a different story, and it’s not enviable, but it could be worse. Also, I’m definitely a fan of a bridge there over an at-grade draw bridge due to the fact that traffic will never be an issue for ships entering the ports, which would negatively impact the harbor (and yeah I know that’s a whole different argument).

    Like you pointed out, Milwaukee has way too much other land right now and in the foreseeable future to develop a spot like this when there are much more desirable locations on the river, downtown, and near the lakefront. Who knows, maybe in the far-off future Milwaukee will have most of their land developed and will be crying out for green space. Then I could see it being necessary.

  3. Steven Schrab says:

    I’m assuming another benefit of an underground freeway would be that it is protected from the environment. No more skidding around in the snow during winter. In Wisconsin, it seems like a bad idea NOT to do it.

  4. GT says:

    Silly idealist, Milwaukee likes how its freeways divide neighborhoods like so many moats in medieval city-states. Just look at the southside/Bayview relationship – no discernable physical differences in housing stock or business diversity, but one side is perceived safe while the other is dangerous. The 43 downtown corridor may be the low-hanging fruit as it is already sub-street level, but the highest impact freeway for this type of project would certainly be the 794 connector that forms the edge of the third ward and downtown. So much opportunity is nullified by this behemoth.

    As is the case, Milwaukee never does anything unless some other city has done it first and demonstrated success. Maybe that will pay off in this case as you’ve pointed out so many other similar cities are pursuing the parkway approach. Im not sure that removing the 794 downtown spur is possible, or even the best option for the money it would cost. Perhaps Milwaukee should stay the course and see how other cities have approached elevated downtown freeways. Think of the temporary markets that Chinatowns throughout the country set up under freeways (and modify for the midwest of course) or how Chicago treats its elevated light rail downtown. Or even expand on the existing efforts of the Public Market to connect St Paul to Clybourn.

  5. Dan Knauss says:

    Seems like a great idea because of the value of the land and what it would connect if restored to the street grid. Is Milwaukee ready and able to grow that much downtown in the next 10 years? Doesn’t the Park East need to be developed first? How much would it cost to cap I-43, from where to where?

    Driving down I-43 now provides an unattractive and inhospitable view of the city except at the downtown exit into the Park East, before you actually get to the Park East. You are right that MU really does feel cut off, which probably impacts how people imagine it and its possibilities here, in a limiting way. I don’t see the courthouse as Peter does, as a natural edge to downtown. I see it as cut off and hard to get to, since a major face on it points directly at I-43 and the anti-suicide fence.

    The ugliness and non-value of I-43 just west of the courthouse, central library, and other buildings up there seems to have a depressing effect on that edge of downtown. It is hardly a crown to downtown. I’m sure many people look at the public spaces and the DHS building on the other side and think “Poor people, homeless people, non-white people, oh no!” Proposing to connect them would mean (in the popular imagination) another dead space like Park East if that’s still open, and an invitation to bums and thugs to overrun downtown. On the contrary, it should be build without apology as a high-value area with some public space bordering other public spaces that should be central to downtown, not marginal. White Milwaukee does very strongly see barriers like I-43 and the river as “protecting” them, or “their” enclaves. it could be a political fecal storm for that reason.

    That brings up the historical origins of I-43–it is truly scar whose creation cut deep wounds that are still felt. If it could be capped up to or beyond North Ave., it could really help the areas that were most hurt by “urban renewal” and the construction of I-43 long ago. It might be politically tricky too, for a lot of reasons beyond the usual race and crime stuff. For one thing, wouldn’t it force a lot of redistricting? How has that been handled elsewhere?

  6. Dan Knauss says:

    Oh yeah, what GT said! Very much to the point.

  7. Dan says:

    I really hope something like this happens in Milwaukee. I was always hoping for them to put 794 underground, like in Boston and creating a park… but there’s no money for that. Maybe one day something will happen.

  8. cgleiss says:

    An alternate scenario could be looked at that would minimize the initial cost, but still provide the benefit of open space and increased adjacent land values. If you took a few key bridges, ie Wisco Ave, Wells St and Highland, and expanded the decking to the north and south of each you would create an amenity along a few key routes allowing development at the intersections on either side of the freeway to benefit. Then with time, you could fill the space inbetween in with freeway decking etc. until the i43 corridor is completely covered. That way, it is an incremental step that still provides a benefit to downtown as a whole. All in all though, I think it would be an ambitious project that may just be what Milwaukee needs to finally view itself as a visionary city rather than reactionary.

  9. Dan Knauss says:

    Got any studies on safety benefits and cost savings? Good thoughts from Steven and cgleiss.

  10. Jeramey Jannene says:

    I like the idea of somehow altering 794, especially east of the river, but it just doesn’t seem at all politically feasible at this point. The status quo seems to have prevailed, and we’re going to simply see the redecking of the Hoan Bridge and 794. The Lake Interchange continues to waste some of the most valuable real estate in the city, if not the state, and there isn’t real evidence that that’s going to change anytime soon.

    I have absolute faith that if decking 43 were to occur those that use it as a border between “safe” and “unsafe” would find another street to use.

    I would argue GT’s point that Milwaukee never does anything before any other city, the Park East Freeway was the first freeway removed in years.

    As I concluded in my article, lots of other areas could and will need to be filled in first before this becomes a palatable idea.

  11. Nick Aster says:

    Excellent and thought provoking article. I-43 is quite ripe for this, though you’re quite right that it doesn’t make sense to think of it as a priority right now, just too expensive.

  12. Aaron says:

    Marquette proposed something similar after their Wisconsin Ave Mall idea was not welcomed by the community. However Marquette was told to wait until the interchange was completed to see what options are available. In my opinion, a park over I-43 freeway between Wisconsin & Wells would be good start to connect downtown to the near west side. This would give some green space to Marquette that they lost when the much needed law school was constructed. Ideally this should have been considered when the interchange was under construction. This is not a new idea as Phoenix capped a downtown freeway connecting north & south downtown15 years ago & put their central library on top along with a park.

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