Wauwatosa Goes Green With Bike Lanes
Wauwatosa turns North Avenue into a bicycle paradise with green lanes and bike boxes.
Wauwatosa is open for business, and the businesses on North Ave. officially hung up a big welcome sign for people arriving by bicycle and on foot. With enhanced crosswalks, redesigned curb extensions, pedestrian islands, green bike lanes, bike boxes and pothole free smooth asphalt, the stretch of North Ave. from 60th Street to 76th Street might just be the most bicycle friendly stretch of street anywhere in the Wisconsin, outside of Madison. I live in Milwaukee, one block on the other side of the border, but while I may fill my wallet in Milwaukee, I tend to empty it in Wauwatosa. That didn’t used to be the case when my wife and I used to travel to Bay View, Walker’s Point, or downtown to go out. Now we rarely leave our neighborhood.
This project is a great example of how place-making roadway design combined with demand from residents and a progressive business community can work hand-in-hand with government to spur big gains in economic development. The project all started with a few good businesses on North Ave. and nearby residents who wanted to walk and bike there instead of drive. It was probably five years ago when East Tosa resident Ed Haydin, an architect who specializes in community sensitive design and economic development, came to me to get ideas on how Wauwatosa might improve North Ave. for bicycle and pedestrian traffic. Ed is a bike guy, but he was very clear about his goals: “This isn’t a bike project, this is a neighborhood development project. Our goal is to spur new development on North Ave. to improve our neighborhood. I want my property value to go up and have more places to go where I live.”
While it’s too early to tell what private investment we’ll see after the addition of the bike lanes and bike boxes, the mere promise of the plan as proposed (which recommended these design elements) has already attracted significant reinvestment. BelAir Cantina pursued their site after the implementation of the plan. Both Josh Jeffers (owner of the Hue building at 6519 North) and Paul Hackbarth (owner of the Camp Bar building at 6600 North) cited the promise of the plan as reassurance that they’d see returns on their building rehabilitations). Several well-known area developers have expressed interest in building multi-use buildings along North Avenue, hoping to capitalize on the transportation alternatives that North Avenue now offers and appeal to a younger demographic.The businesses are strongly supportive of the new bike lanes and are reporting increased revenue as a result of bike traffic. Both BelAir Cantina and Camp Bar included stationary bike racks in their designs, with BelAir’s bike racks routinely full.
The recent investments and the plan are important, but we also need to give credit to the first businesses that moved in before the plan was even written. I feel like Il Mito and Juniper 61 were pioneering new restaurants on North Ave. Closest to me, Juniper took over the old Jake’s building that had changed hands a number of times. The owners (who also own Cafe Lulu in Bay View) did a modern remodel, offered a delicious menu, creative cocktails and good service. Around the same time, the Rosebud and Times cinemas changed hands and the new owner began reinvesting with modern projection equipment, new comfortable seating and serving food and alcohol. So Juniper built on the success of Il Mito, and suddenly East Tosa had a nightlife scene with enough gravity to be considered a destination.
I live in the area, and I have been trying to remember the timeline for all the businesses that have gone in since, but there are so many, it is hard to do! I think this is the order of development: Il Mito, Juniper 61, Mekong Cafe, Cranky Al’s, BelAir Cantina, Rocket Baby Bakery, Red Dot, and Hue and Camp are going in, and those are just the restaurants. That’s not all, we have new businesses like fitness centers, guitar stores, etc. going in as well. I am friends with Scott Johnson and Kristyn St. Denis, two of the owners of BelAir, and they told me business was off the hook when they opened, busier than any of the numerous other restaurants they have owned over the last 20 years or so.
When the Wauwatosa council was considering approving this project, the public meetings were overwhelmingly packed with supportive crowds that included neighbors as well as many of the area business owners, like Cranky Al’s. “With those bike lanes coming in, it’s going to reduce the traffic flow and bikers are going to be able to bike on the lanes,” said Joey Carioti of Cranky Al’s Bakery. Carioti was so happy to see the green bike lanes go in, he literally invited people to get donuts by bicycle with the image to the right.
Erik Busby, the general manager at the Belair Cantina, said their restaurant group encourages employees as well as customers to commute to work by bicycle. “It’s a beautiful city, so to see it on two wheels is real important,” Busby said.
Even though the construction on North Ave. is not complete, it will be done soon, I have already noticed an increase in people riding on North Ave. Before the project most people (me included) avoided riding on North Ave, taking parallel side streets as much as possible before cutting over to get to the businesses on North Ave. Now I see people confidently cruising down the smooth new pavement. One of the true testimonies to a bicycle friendly street is whether parents are willing to ride with their kids there, and I have been seeing more tiny wheels and Burley trailers too.
In addition to improvements for people on bicycles and on foot, the project removed the left turn only lanes that created a serpentine travel pattern for motor vehicles. That was an early attempt at slowing traffic on North Ave., and while it did slow motor vehicles, it didn’t work well for other users and most drivers hated it. The new design with bike lanes, pedestrian islands and smaller bump outs appears (anecdotally) to have a similar traffic calming effect without the swerving traffic.
All things considered, it looks like Wauwatosa did just about everything right on this project.
You can come to the grand re-opening ceremony on October 4th, which will feature a ribbon cutting, bike parade, pedestrian and cycle safety presentation.
This story was originally published by the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin.