Jeramey Jannene

Water Street Could Become Pedestrian Haven in Third Ward

Wider sidewalks, fewer traffic lanes contemplated.

By - Jun 29th, 2023 12:54 pm
N. Water Street in the Historic Third Ward. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

N. Water Street in the Historic Third Ward. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Come 2026, Water Street in the Historic Third Ward could become a haven for pedestrians instead of a four-lane road for cars.

The Department of Public Works is moving forward on a proposal to narrow the roadway from two lanes in each direction to one, allowing the narrow sidewalks to be expanded to be more in line with nearby Broadway and N. Milwaukee Street.

“Our next step will be alternative analysis followed by a design,” said City Engineer Kevin Muhs to the Public Works Committee on Wednesday. “There will be a design process before we can get to construction.”

Area Alderman Robert Bauman noted that the construction of a 31-story apartment tower at the corner of N. Water St. and E. St. Paul Ave. is providing a test case by closing one of the southbound lanes.

“Everybody claims that is working out fine,” he said.

“It has proved traffic can be minimized to a single lane on Water,” said Historic Third Ward Association executive director Jim Plaisted.

The final design would be more detailed than the one-block, one-lane closure and would likely include turn lanes, which could reduce traffic backups.

It would run from E. Clybourn Street and Interstate 794 to the Milwaukee River near E. Erie Street.

“We are looking at getting this in the queue,” said Muhs, who noted he didn’t want to displace other street reconstruction work in the city with the more discretionary Water Street project. DPW is working with the Department of City Development to identify a funding source.

A request for proposals is to be issued later this year. “We are probably looking at construction in [2026], I don’t want to promise [2025],” said the engineer.

Plaisted said his organization is motivated to see traffic calming on Water Street. “We are ready when you are,” he said.

The growing popularity of the Milwaukee Public Market, 400 N. Water St., has made the narrow sidewalks, long crossing distances and fast-moving traffic more apparent.

“Water and St. Paul continues to be a concern every time I walk through it,” he said.

Alderman Jonathan Brostoff suggested DPW explore interim options similar to what is proposed to be done on Brady Street.

The final construction effort is likely a “significant project,” said Muhs. Moving the sidewalks in to create more pedestrian space would necessitate the relocation of utilities and relocating sewer catch basins.

The discussion around Interstate 794 and what form the reconstruction project takes, including a possible freeway-to-boulevard conversion, could also influence the timing.

“We don’t want to build something that they are going to unbuild in two years,” he said. But that doesn’t mean the city would need to wait until that project is under construction. The city could proceed once a design decision is made by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

The city first began publicly discussing changes to Water Street in 2022. It’s one of several streets in the area that are to be reconstructed in the near future, with changes also planned for N. Van Buren Street and E. Wells St. The intersections around The Couture will also be improved after the building is completed.

Several streets across the city are in the queue for reconstruction, with substantial reconfiguration. The city secured a federal grant last week to rebuild W. Villard Avenue in Old North Milwaukee and a project is also advancing to overhaul W. National Avenue on the South Side.

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Categories: Transportation

9 thoughts on “Transportation: Water Street Could Become Pedestrian Haven in Third Ward”

  1. 45 years in the City says:

    Almost perpetually over the past 30 years have been one or more construction dumpsters along this part of Water St. Technically these are in the parking lane, but they effectively constrict one traffic lane.There will likely be more of this as properties such as the former Milwaukee Ale House and Harry Hoffman building are renovated.

    These blockages do not facilitate smooth operation of buses. Adding bridge openings to the mix with their associated traffic queues, gives me concerns that this part of Water St. might not be a good candidate for narrowing. Generally I support “road diets”, but I’m not so sure if it works in this case.

  2. Neal Brenard says:

    In my 45 years, likewise, I don’t remember Water St. ever being a raceway. Always a nice drive, if you weren’t in a hurry, but wherever you were coming from, north or south, there was a better / at-least-as-quick way to get through that track of downtown. Only time traffic gets stopped on Water St. through there is when the bridge is up. I’d vote to close it to vehicular traffic entirely. And if it happened, no-one would notice.

  3. Marty Ellenbecker says:

    Exactly how do street and lane closures enable
    Milwaukee to reach that 1 million population goal?

    Oops! I forgot. Newcomers will still be so glad
    to be in a cooler climate that they’ll gladly
    put up with the gridlock.

  4. lobk says:

    Unless the Water/1st Reckless Raceway from Erie to Pittsburgh is addressed, proposed plans will do little for safety along this heavily-traveled stretch. Pedestrians are targets at crosswalks. Sidewalks over the Water St Bridge are barely wide enough to fit two people side by side while walkers dodge rental scooters and bikes illegally riding on the walkways and speeding cars and motorcycles whizzing by mere inches from them. Meanwhile, there are no traffic patrols along this very busy two blocks. That is, except for parking checkers, who regularly visit.

  5. lobk says:

    I forgot to mention the deplorable condition of sidewalks and roads in that stretch.

  6. lobk says:

    And frequent, long lasting street light outages.

  7. The origins of these traffic issues arise from tremendous success: it is a significant accomplishment to have so many people who love walking in an exciting historic district that their numbers overflow the sidewalks. We can build on this success if we set aside the decades-old thinking that this “congestion” must be solved only by wide traffic lanes and fast cars. The temporary closure of one of the southbound lanes hints at a solution: it demonstrates the principle of induced traffic (in reverse) by showing the results of reduced capacity and simplified traffic flow.

    Examples worldwide show how we can improve automobile traffic flow, make more space for pedestrians, improve safety, and increase business opportunities by simply rebalancing street space, simplifying the traffic flow, and giving pedestrians priority and room to enjoy the city. An example is the re-imagining of Times Square in New York City. What was once a notorious tangle of traffic has been improved by reworking the space to accommodate a more straightforward traffic flow and to give more space to people. Janette Sadik-Khan and Seth Solomonow describe this in Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution (2016). By identifying how improved street designs could make better use of the entire street in safer, more efficient, and more productive ways, the author and her team achieved remarkable things: improving traffic flow, reducing injuries, and gaining the favor of local businesses. While people initially opposed any changes, the results showed a better-flowing traffic pattern and a more productive and exciting use of urban space.

    I visit the Third Ward often and marvel at the mix of people and activity that makes for a unique urban vibe. The Third Ward intersections of St Paul and Water and St Paul and Broadway are an emerging, valuable area of vibrancy. It can be made even more attractive as a world-class destination if rethinking it could allow more room for people.

  8. Marty Ellenbecker says:

    Most of the plans discussed would work wonderfully
    elsewhere, but not on Water Street.
    This is because traffic accumulates up against
    an obstacle, (river) while seeking its way beyond.

    Remember the purpose of an artery is flow.
    North-South traffic along this obstacle has to take turns sharing
    the intersections with East-West traffic.
    With 2 N-S lanes in each direction, versus 1, congestion
    due to left turns is reduced (directional control traffic lights help),
    and the 2 lanes have more holding capacity
    for cars waiting for the light.

    In all the years I’ve used them, Water Street’s sidewalks appeared adequate to generous for current uses – from St. Paul Avenue on the north until you get to the river bridge just south of Erie Street.
    Widening them, even slightly, would reduce ‘swerve room’ and visibility (safety factors) in the traffic lanes.

    Interruptions and congestion will still happen with the current configurations
    – think accidents, fires, rescue, snow & ice, power-outage-disabled traffic lights, construction, events etc. – they just won’t be as bad as they’d be under planned scenarios.
    If only we could establish and enforce No Surprises Zones!

    Some streets have to be roads versus oases, if only to
    keep our sanity – now and maybe on our way to the
    mayor’s 1 million residents goal.

    Separate from the above – Good luck with these kinds of modifications.
    I hope to enjoy them in appropriate places!

  9. Marty Ellenbecker says:

    Forgot to include (comment #8) congestion from traffic
    generated by the new tower at Water and St. Paul Streets,
    and eventually elsewhere.

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