Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Key Players Back Renaming Old World Third to MLK Drive

Westown Association, Mayor, all 15 council members back proposal. But there are complications.

By - Jan 27th, 2021 12:39 pm
Part of Third Street became Old World 3rd Street. Photo by Carl Baehr.

Part of Third Street became Old World 3rd Street. Photo by Carl Baehr.

King Drive is coming Downtown, but Old World Third Street won’t quite disappear.

The Common Council’s Public Works Committee unanimously recommended renaming N. Old World Third Street to N. Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. Drive from W. McKinley Ave. to W. Wisconsin Ave.

The move, if approved by the full council in February, would eliminate a 1984 political compromise when the council and Mayor Henry Maier split N. 3rd St. into the two different streets. The compromise was brokered to appease merchants on the street, including Usinger’s Famous Sausage, who objected to the name change and said it would negatively impact tourism.

“To move forward sometimes we have to correct things from our past,” said lead sponsor Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs. All 14 of her colleagues are co-sponsoring the proposal. It’s “long overdue,” she said, for city to address this issue “and many more.”

“Many people ask why now? To them I say why not?” said Coggs. She said the move would set a positive example for future generations and honor the civil rights leader.

King Drive would run from its current northern terminus at W. Capitol Dr. and N. Green Bay Ave. south to W. Wisconsin Ave. in front of what is to be called the 3rd Street Market Hall on the first floor of The Avenue.

But Coggs said the change wouldn’t be made as soon as the legislation is approved. She said she knows businesses in the city are suffering as a result of the pandemic. The city would work with stakeholders to address implementation issues.

“My colleagues and I are sensitive to this issue,” said Coggs. “I believe we all remain committed to helping businesses through these hard times.”

The renaming is backed by the Westown Association, the business improvement district for the area.

“Although the physical barrier, the Park East Freeway, has been removed [in 2004], a psychological barrier still exists,” said executive director Stacie Callies. She said the association is offering its “unequivocal support.”

Callies requested that the city start the process of assigning an honorary street name to the stretch. Such a designation, often applied to a one-block stretch in honor of an individual, would place a brown street sign above the official green one. Callies noted that the local and national historic districts for the stretch are already named “Old World Third Street.”

She ticked off a list of businesses also named for the street, including Brick 3 Pizza, Who’s on Third tavern, Third Street Tavern and the soon-to-open 3rd Street Market Hall.

“We look forward to what city resources can be allocated,” said Callies.

While Coggs represents all of the current N. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr., she only represents one block of Old World Third St. The remainder of the 0.6-mile street is represented by Alderman Robert Bauman. “I have to tell you, I think it’s about time,” Bauman told Urban Milwaukee when asked for his stance.

There still will be a N. 3rd St. if the measure is approved. A one-block stretch runs south of E. Michigan St., another under Interstate 794 and a third from W. Auer Ave. north to W. Capitol Dr. The last segment occurs because the King Drive name was applied to the angled N. Green Bay Ave. starting at W. Burleigh St., where N. 3rd St. is interrupted for a block. For more on the many names for 3rd Street, and other city streets, see a 2016 article by City Streets columnist Carl Baehr.

The full council is scheduled to vote on the change on February 9th. Mayor Tom Barrett, who would act on the name change after the council vote, put out a statement in support of renaming the street.

It would be the second time the council has renamed a downtown street in recent years. In 2018, Coggs led the unanimously-adopted renaming of N. 4th St. to N. Vel R. Phillips Ave. from W. St. Paul Ave. north to W. Capitol Dr.

Vel Phillips, a civil rights pioneer in Wisconsin, passed away in April 2018 and was heavily connected to the street. She went to elementary school at the former Garfield Avenue School, now an apartment building, which is located on 4th St., she attended church at St. Marks, and was later married in the church when it was on N. 4th St., and she represented the residents that lived along the street during her time on the Common Council.

Coggs said Phillips was clear that she wanted to avoid a N. 3rd St. situation and that any street name should go all the way through Downtown. The alderwoman, in 2018, said it was also symbolically important that Phillips Ave. and King Drive ran next to one another on parallel streets. King and Phillips were believed to be friends.

What’s The Process to Rename a Street?

Attorney David Halbrooks, representing Grand Avenue Apartments owner David Weir, suggested the city needs to clean up its process to rename streets.

Under its code of ordinances (Chapter 113-3), the city is required to conduct a postcard survey and get a 50% opt-in rate from property owners to change a street name. The name change must go through the Citizen Advisory Committee (on which Urban Milwaukee freelancer Carl Baehr serves) and be approved by the full council.

The council, by proposing this name change, is circumventing its own rules. The Vel R. Phillips Ave. change was accomplished in the same manner.

But Halbrooks said the council should amend its new King Drive legislation to include a clause indicating it was willfully overriding its own ordinance.

He also said the council should seek to change its existing naming ordinance. “It contains to me vestiges of the past,” said Halbrooks, noting that it includes limited exceptions for health and safety issues.

“That is a fair observation,” said Bauman. He said the city would consider amending the King Drive proposal at the full council meeting.

“We do have the power to do this,” said the alderman, also an attorney. “There is no question about that.”

Halbrooks proposal to change the ordinance found immediate support from Ald Jose G. Perez. He said S. Cesar E. Chavez Dr. (formerly S. 16th St.) ends at W. Mitchell St. because of difficulties obtaining buy-in to continue it south. More recently, property owners rejected renaming Pittsburgh Ave. to Freshwater Way, creating a bifurcated street name in Walker’s Point.

“We want to make it easy for residents and smaller communities to change the name of streets,” said Perez. “It is costly the way it is now.”

“It is, and I assume that is somewhat by design,” said Bauman.

But he said the council has the power to change its rules: “We make the laws, we can amend the laws or repeal the laws.”

Categories: City Hall, Weekly

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