Group Unveils Plans To Replace 794 With Boulevard
Rethink 794 thinks replacing elevated freeway with boulevard could lead to $1.5 billion in development, better city.
A new coalition, known as Rethink 794, has a vision to see Interstate 794 in downtown Milwaukee replaced with a boulevard. It’s a proposal the group thinks could save money, grow Milwaukee and better connect the city.
Their proposal, which they’re asking the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) to study, would keep the Hoan Bridge. But the east-west elevated freeway between N. Lincoln Memorial Dr. and N. 6th St. would be replaced with a street-level boulevard.
“Is the best possible use of the space an elevated freeway? This is the most valuable real estate in all of Wisconsin,” said 1000 Friends of Wisconsin transportation policy analyst Gregg May, a leader of the coalition, in an interview.
WisDOT has an active project that includes considering options on how to reconstruct the freeway east of the Milwaukee River before rebuilding it in 2025. May and others want the state agency to formally examine the potential for replacing the elevated freeway, built in 1974, with an at-grade boulevard. WisDOT’s proposal to rebuild the highway as an elevated structure would cost $300 million, but the Rethink coalition believes its proposal could cost much less and generate value for the city and state in the future.
“From a math standpoint, it’s a no-brainer,” said Ben Crowther, advocacy manager for national nonprofit America Walks.
At its core the coalition’s vision is simple: free up land consumed by an oversized freeway for development or other purposes, while also better connecting the core of the city at street level. Based on conceptual estimates, the group believes the underlying 32 acres could see $1.5 billion in new development and generate $15 million annually in new property tax revenue.
The group believes that traffic data suggests the highway is a good candidate for conversion to a street-level boulevard. “[Traffic counts] are telling us that people are using the Hoan Bridge and Marquette Interchange to access downtown, not travel through it,” said May. “A boulevard is a better way to disperse people through a grid system.”
That’s part of the same reasoning that led to the removal of the Park East Freeway spur on the north side of Downtown almost two decades ago. Travel times decreased for a number of trips because of the increased turning options provided by a grid versus freeway ramps.
“Our effort isn’t to eliminate the Hoan Bridge or that connection that is vital to a lot of the southern portion of the city,” said architect Taylor Korslin. The group, formed by May, came together in January and has worked to refine and build support for the idea.
Korslin and landscape architect Xu Zhang produced aerial renderings to demonstrate the highway’s impact, and how making Clybourn Street into a grand boulevard could function.
“These are just an effort to show an alternative, to give people an inspiration,” said Korslin. His renderings show new high-rise buildings near the lakefront, including the under-construction The Couture tower, and smaller-scale development near the Milwaukee River.
“We are trying to focus on what value can be added,” said Zhang.
Her street-level rendering depicts how new buildings would fill what is primarily a row of parking lots that border the freeway today. Zhang said the environment she’s depicting, a walkable, urban place, is the exact environment many big employers are looking for today.
“I think the Huron Building chose their location not because of the highway, but because of the Third Ward,” she said of the new office building located just north of the freeway.
But while the vision is simple, there are plenty of things a formal study would need to explore.
The group is already considering options for what to do with certain use cases, like truck traffic to and from the port of Milwaukee. One option they’ve considered is improving the connectivity at the southern edge of the port via W. Becher St. to Interstate 43/94. Korslin said it would be a shorter route than what trucks take today through downtown.
Rehtink 794 also would be open to options for different boulevard lengths. Their proposal would have the freeway end near the site of the proposed Iron District development near the Marquette Interchange.
“The most useful tool for getting the Park East [Freeway] removed was having a study in the downtown plan,” said May. The 1999 plan identified it as a catalytic project. In 1995, UW-Milwaukee students studied boulevard replacements for both 794 and the Park East spurs. More political will emerged behind the latter at the time.
The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce has endorsed WisDOT studying a boulevard option for 794. “We’re a big tent group,” said May.
Crowther, who supports approximately 40 highway conversion or teardown groups across the country, said the Milwaukee proposal is among the best for economic potential. “This really is prime real estate,” said Crowther. It’s also a more straightforward case for removal. “It’s not an integral part of the interstate system.”
“This kind of highway removal project is very challenging, but it’s happening all over the nation,” he said.
May noted that the state has already committed to studying replacing the Wisconsin Highway 175 freeway spur with a boulevard, and 794 carries a similar amount of traffic. WisDOT reports 67,700 vehicles cross the river daily on 794 and 67,400 vehicles traverse 175 north of W. Wisconsin Ave.
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- Murphy’s Law: No, I-794 Won’t Be Eliminated - Bruce Murphy - Jan 31st, 2024
- Transportation: WisDOT Getting Closer to I-794 Project Recommendations - Graham Kilmer - Jan 24th, 2024
- Port Officials Have Concern With Potential I-794 Removal - Jeramey Jannene - Oct 13th, 2023
- Murphy’s Law: Park East Removal Didn’t ‘Devastate’ Downtown - Bruce Murphy - Aug 14th, 2023
- How Committed Is City To Tearing Down 794? - Jeramey Jannene - Jul 26th, 2023
- Transportation: State Wants Feedback On Plans For I-794 - Jeramey Jannene - Jul 18th, 2023
- Transportation: See The State’s Design Concepts For Replacing Or Rebuilding Interstate 794 - Jeramey Jannene - Jun 23rd, 2023
- Interstate 794 Named Freeway Without A Future - Jeramey Jannene - Jan 25th, 2023
- Group Unveils Plans To Replace 794 With Boulevard - Jeramey Jannene - Oct 17th, 2022
Read more about Interstate 794 Rebuild here