Conference Touts Mayor’s 1,000,000 Milwaukeeans Goal
Urban Spaceship speakers offer ideas from scrapping I-794 to eliminating zoning code.
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.
“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.”
“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.
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.
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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