Jeramey Jannene

Conference Touts Mayor’s 1,000,000 Milwaukeeans Goal

Urban Spaceship speakers offer ideas from scrapping I-794 to eliminating zoning code.

By - Nov 15th, 2022 05:22 pm
M. Nolan Gray presents on the potential of abolishing zoning at Urban Spaceship conference. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

M. Nolan Gray presents on the potential of abolishing zoning at Urban Spaceship conference. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

How can Milwaukee grow to be home to one million residents?

On Tuesday, it was the central theme at the third annual Urban Spaceship conference, and the explicit topic of the event’s closing discussion with Mayor Cavalier Johnson.

The mayor made growing the city to one million residents, a more-than-400,000-person increase, a goal during his bid to win a special election earlier this year.

“Years and years ago Milwaukee was on track to doing that,” said Johnson, speaking to a full room at No Studios, 1037 W. McKinley Ave. “Then we saw the collapse of manufacturing and family-supporting jobs.”

Johnson said he loves the energy of cities. “They are supposed to be an experience, to make you have a feeling,” said the mayor. He said he’s tasked the leaders of the Department of City Development (DCD) and the Department of Public Works (DPW) to put the city in a position to get one million residents. “I’m working with the leaders of those departments day in and day out in order to push the city to where we need to be.” DCD secured council approval in July to plot changes to the zoning code and other city policies to accommodate growth. DPW is implementing street modifications to favor local residents over allowing motor vehicles to speed through the area.

Michael Bradley, an accountant, policy wonk and Urban Spaceship panelist, noted it would take approximately 71,000 more households just to get back to the previous peak population of 740,000. How to get there? Johnson pushed the need to grow the number of family-supporting jobs, noting the city’s recent success in landing Fiserv’s headquarters relocation from Brookfield to Downtown. “Same thing for Milwaukee Tool. These jobs were going to exist, my thought was it was not good enough for them to exist in the region, they needed to be here in the city,” he said. He also brought up the opportunity to convert aging office towers, like 100 East, to housing, the deployment of bus rapid transit lines and the Community Development Alliance’s plan to develop affordable homes on vacant lots. “It’s those sort of things.”

The audience in the room was a mix of real estate developers, architects, urban planners, business improvement district leaders and interested, urbanist citizens.

“This room is like my Twitter feed in real life,” said Johnson, referencing the growing number of “urbanist Twitter” users that champion Milwaukee.

“This isn’t our day job,” said event host Jeremy Fojut. “It may seem like we’re only on Twitter, but this is part-time.”

Fojut pushed Johnson for his views on removing freeways, including Interstate 794 through Downtown.

“Our view is long-term we wouldn’t like to have a facility like that Downtown, presently because of the way the state funds local government,” said Johnson. “That’s a lot of land that could generate a lot of property tax [revenue].” But the mayor noted he was new to the office and removing a freeway required multiple parties to cooperate, which was akin to turning an aircraft carrier. “Where it makes sense to do it, we should know what our options are.”

The full-day event drew a number of national and local speakers.

Author M. Nolan Gray gave a keynote speech. Research director for California YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard) and former city planner, Gray published “Arbitrary Lines” in June. The book explores how zoning damaged American cities and argues that it should be abolished. He argued it inhibits growth and drives up costs by blocking new development in areas where it’s in greatest demand. He broadly advocates that cities implement policies like allowing accessible dwelling units (housing units at the rear of the lots) and eliminating parking minimums. He declined to make specific comments about Milwaukee’s zoning code, noting that people much more familiar with the city’s code were in the room and could better discuss it.

Gray might be best known to Milwaukee residents as the person behind the “Best City in the USA” Twitter bracket in fall 2021. Milwaukee residents obsessively voted the city to the top in the 64-city bracket, yielding an embarrassing number of local news articles and a good-humored “celebration” plan from VISIT Milwaukee. Gray, who has spent much of the past week in Milwaukee, said he was happy to be in the best city in America.

The coalition pushing to replace the downtown portion of I-794, led by Gregg May, presented its vision. A representative of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District did a presentation on efforts to clean the city’s waterways and manage stormwater runoff.

Other speakers included Doug Gordon, co-host of The War on Cars podcast, and John Bela, co-founder of Park(ing) Day and founder of consulting firm Bela Urbanism + Design.

The conference is a spiritual successor to the Empty Storefronts conference run by NAIOP and NEWaukee for five years. The conference sought to serve as a platform to exchange ideas and strategies for filling vacant storefronts and addressing blight. Urban Spaceship has a broader focus and is intended to identify actionable items and spark new ideas that can improve cities. Greenfire Management Services is the presenting sponsor.

Urban Spaceship was originally launched as a podcast in 2020 by NEWaukee’s Fojut alongside fellow urban advocates Bradley and Montavius Jones.

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4 thoughts on “Conference Touts Mayor’s 1,000,000 Milwaukeeans Goal”

  1. Ryan Cotic says:

    There are allot of awesome things going on in this city but leaders need to know things would have to change dramatically. The crime and schools are the major reasons families move out to the suburbs so for people to stay universal school choice would have to be implemented and a dramatic crackdown on repeat criminals. If neither of these things are addressed families will not stay.

  2. dmkrueger2 says:

    We have a speaker come to Milwaukee to promote his book “Arbitrary Lines” which explores how zoning damaged American cities and argues that it should be abolished.

    Meanwhile, the historic preservation committee is holding up housing – high end housing that would pay taxes:

  3. RetiredResident says:

    Eliminate zoning? Sure, who doesn’t want a 4-story modernist Zelinsky eyesore 6ft from their modest bungalow, or a factory in a quiet residential neighborhood. This idea is greed-driven by snake oil salesm…ah, I mean, real estate speculators.

  4. Marty Ellenbecker says:

    There’s trouble in the mayor’s wording “…push the city where we need to be”. Our ~670,000 people aren’t going to provide the clones to do this.
    A better approach is to build the kind of place that draws people by being where they both need and want to be in our soon-to-change-drastically future.

    Before climate disasters get better they’re going to get worse, with heat being the biggest driver of the changes to minimize chaos and loss.

    Locally and regionally we will need to be largely self-sufficient. Many existing supply routes will become intermittent or broken.
    Not only will the equatorial belt be a hazardous crossing zone, but increased heat between here and there is going to buckle concrete and railroad tracks, melt asphalt, and thin the very air that planes depend on for lift.

    Two baseline goals must be reached.
    1) Milwaukee must attract and nurture robust and diverse manufacturing capabilities and infrastructure. (FYI – manufacturing did not collapse, it was yanked away, with the greatest amount sent to China)
    An article I read years ago stated that the most successful cities in the future will be those that have plentiful industrial rail spurs/sidings. We need to guard against encroachment of developments that might eliminate, incapacitate or prevent rail access. Milwaukee has a port, but it’s success depends on future water levels in various locations

    2) Milwaukee will need to become not only more populous but a more desirable and efficient place to live in numerous and new ways.

    In the annual competition called Most Livable Cities, a major factor is something called “absence of friction”- how easy is it to do the things you must do and those you want to do.
    How close and available are the goods and services you need? How do I get there? How easy is it to combine errands into one or few trips? How safe is my neighborhood? The rest of the city? How close and available are entertainment? recreation? relaxation? education? And plan to accommodate plentiful barber shops, beauty parlors, repair shops and all the varied types of storefront businesses that national chains may have neglected or crowded out.

    A million people gotta move around. Housing density will need to grow in varied ways shapes and forms to accommodate our larger population.
    Any expansion in density will require sufficient current transportation capacity or increased capacity that is funded, with implementation underway before such accommodations begin. Sooner or later we will have to face up to the need for RAPID rail transit. Milwaukee’s Hop is cute, fun, relaxing, and SLOOOW (and disconnected from the remainder of Milwaukee’s transit system). It castrates the racehorse in rail transit by putting it into the street and subjecting it to the same speed limits, traffic clogs, weather and emergency disruptions, accidents etc. that plague regular ground traffic. It’s right-of-way costs are excessive for the benefits derived.

    The solution is over 120 years old. It goes by 2 names – elevated and subway. It defies traffic clogs and hazards,, weather, and most often beats the clock. By being built above or below other infrastructure it is less of a disruption to other city life functions and moves more people with fewer units of energy, space and time than other modes. Chicago is a fun day trip. Take a stopwatch, go down there, get a transit map and ride a train for a while. Take headcounts for the car you’re in at rush-hour. Your official excuse will be research.

    Beyond these baseline goals, we will have to face and accommodate massive immigration.
    The immigrants will be in both domestic and foreign.

    Much of what we need is going to come from the same people producing or growing it now, but farther south and much farther south. We in the
    North historically have caused most of their current and future heat catastrophes. We owe them.

    A question for all including the whiners – where do you think we’re going to get people with the skills, knowledge and experience to make and grow the things we consume now?

    New crop species are going to replace some or many current ones. We can’t await the learning curve to become reliable inspectors, reporters, troubleshooters and growers of these new crops.
    Many of the biospheric elements that currently support these crops could be deployed late if they are available at all. These include mineral and microbial components of soil, protective microbes and insects, suitable pollinators, suitable synergistic/companion/soil rotation plants.
    There will also be predatory animals and insects, invasive species etc.
    Farmers experienced in our ‘new’ species may not have all the answers to the new questions,
    but they will damn well know when a crop is in trouble and what they did about it. They and inspired and fast-acting biologists – both theirs and ours will be equally necessary.

    In manufacturing, the US population at large knows little about the skills and logistics of manufacturing. It would be stupid to overlook and/or neglect those people who do.

    We need to find the examples of peacefully and productively absorbed immigrants with none of the baggage that’s clogging headlines.

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