Jeramey Jannene

How Committed Is City To Tearing Down 794?

Council members question 'weasel language' in Milwaukee plan for Downtown.

By - Jul 26th, 2023 06:08 pm
Interstate 794 in 2008. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Interstate 794 in 2008. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The new Downtown Plan is drawing praise for its vision, which includes doubling the residential population, extending the streetcar, rebuilding key streets to be more pedestrian-friendly and removing the east-west section of Interstate 794 that divides Downtown from the Historic Third Ward.

But the language embedded in the 144-page plan, now pending before the council, has at least two alderman questioning how serious the city is about removing the freeway.

“If full removal is not feasible via this current project, any interim alternative should prioritize modernization of the infrastructure to reduce the footprint, activation of the public spaces and streets under the bridges, improvements to the ramp connections, and increased safety for pedestrian crossings,” says the plan, developed in partnership with Milwaukee Downtown, BID #21.

“Weasel language,” said Alderman Robert Bauman at Tuesday’s meeting of the Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee. “To be perfectly blunt, I am not sure the city believes in its own plan.”

He said it creates a false hope, and that the city could instead support one of the six Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) proposals to rebuild the aging elevated freeway.

“My worry is we are being disingenuous with the public out there,” said Bauman, who represents most of Downtown and supports the freeway removal. “If we are not really going to work for this, we should say so… I just want this to be an honest document.” He said he wants the city to back removal “today, not in 40 years, not in 60 years, not in the next time they get around to rebuilding the freeway, but today.”

Bauman said he’s talked with members of the business community, including a board member of Milwaukee Downtown and of the Historic Third Ward business improvement district. “They’re absolutely dead set against this,” said the alderman, who later named Northwestern Mutual and US Bank as two likely opponents, according to what he has heard.

“I was called crazy for supporting this. Literally crazy,” said Bauman.

“What I can tell you what is being said behind closed doors is that this is the plan that represents our vision and what can we do to implement that vision,” said Department of City Development (DCD) planning manager Sam Leichtling. “You have an absolute commitment that we will work to implement it.”

“I think it’s an ambitious and visionary position,” said Leichtling, who noted that Commissioner Lafayette Crump endorsed the concept at a public meeting Monday.

Bauman said there is a revisionist history about how the Park East Freeway was removed on the north end of Downtown. “It was fiercely opposed by the business community,” said the alderman, who credited then-mayor John Norquist for pushing the project through. “Nobody misses it whatsoever; most people don’t even know it was there. This will be the same experience that happens here.”

The vision, introduced by the Rethink 794 coalition last October, calls for freeways to continue to connect to Downtown, but surface-level streets used to get people through Downtown. The Hoan Bridge freeway would end at the lakefront and the Marquette Interchange would have ramps down to Westown. A boulevard would connect the two freeway segments, with more development and connectivity anticipated for the downtown area.

“We need to do the right thing, to do what’s best for our city,” said Ald. Jonathan Brostoff. “794 is the key to this. That’s the most powerful, impact, biggest, boldest move we can make on this.”

Calling it “one of the biggest impediments to a successful downtown,” the alderman and former state representative said the freeway was “choking the life out of our downtown… every day it exists it is stopping us from achieving the next level of what Milwaukee can be… it’s horrible.”

Leichtling said the city needs to work in good faith with WisDOT and he expects the state will hear the same feedback DCD and the council members heard about the proposal. Two public meetings are scheduled for next week to discuss the state’s eight proposed options.

The city’s planning manager said DCD is preparing an estimate on the development potential of the 18 acres of land that could be made available by connecting the Hoan Bridge to the Marquette Interchange with a boulevard. “We think that you will likely be seeing development there north of half of a billion dollars,” said Leichtling.

“I think that’s a very important number,” said Bauman.

Milwaukee Downtown CEO Beth Weirick said her organization would work to support the entire plan. “I can assure you we are extremely, extremely committed to this,” said the CEO.

Rethink 794 coalition participant Taylor Korslin testified that it is important the city supports removal and that the plan proposes an aspirational vision. The coalition initially asked for the concept to be included in the pending Downtown Plan and for WisDOT to study the matter. Both have now occurred, with the group shifting focus to getting one of the conversion options adopted. Korslin said it was important that business executives not be allowed to kill it without a public discussion.

Despite their concerns, Brostoff and Bauman voted unanimously with their fellow committee members to recommend adoption of the plan. The full council is scheduled to vote on it July 31.

For more on the catalytic projects within the plan, see our coverage from April. We will have more coverage next week following a vote on the plan’s adoption. For details on the options to rebuild Interstate 794, see our June article.

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Related Legislation: File 230317

3 thoughts on “How Committed Is City To Tearing Down 794?”

  1. CraigR says:

    The city residents of the East Side and Bay View will enjoy the slower trip to and from work every day so that some new apartments can be built. Let’s remove I-43 Downtown while were at it.

  2. bigb_andb says:

    CraigR is right. Let’s just get rid of all the freeways. (Sarcasm) I43 South of downtown sucks already. I literally would have missed a flight if 794 wasn’t there.

  3. lobk says:

    I’m still partial to keeping 794 in place, but modifying the design with proposed option 5 to allow for new development and to continue to make use of the covered area underneath to join downtown and Third Ward. (River Commons & pickleball courts have been a huge success; dog park to come soon!) The Broadway and Milwaukee 794 ramps aren’t a necessity.

    When the Hoan sat as a bridge to nowhere for decades, it made sense to not have the elevated freeway. But Milwaukee’s location on the lake already limits access to the city center. So, having a viable option to 43 along the lakeshore and to the airport can be a godsend, although I wish it seamlessly joined with 43 on the south end.

    Living downtown, I long for a better option to 43 from the north, especially during the latest construction. Even without it, we’ll often take Lake/Lincoln Memorial for sanity’s sake, and it is a beautiful drive.

    Thanks to some of our feckless leaders, we’ll never get to the ideal we sought before we moved to the city center: easy, cheap, timely, comfortable public transportation with a variety of options to keep downtown traffic manageable and driving unnecessary. While the Hop has added some convenience, it is too limited to be truly useful at this stage. Amtrak’s proposed expansion will help. But then they’ve stopped the Freeway Flyer buses that we often used to avoid traffic and parking hassles when visiting MKE from the ‘burbs.

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