Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Ravine Road Debate Heats Up

Local parks group wants vehicle access maintained for roadway through Lake Park.

By - Aug 14th, 2023 10:45 am
Ravine Road in 2016. Photo by Dave Reid.

Ravine Road in 2016. Photo by Dave Reid.

It remains unclear when any major Ravine Road reconstruction project will actually occur, but the debate over the road’s future has already begun.

The road has been closed since 2014, due to concerns about the structural integrity of the historic bridge that spans it. The bridge was fixed and reopened to the public in 2022. But the roadway has remained closed.

Milwaukee County Parks has, since at least 2019, identified the need to replace or reconstruct Ravine Road by 2027. That year it presented a handful of general options for the redevelopment of the road.

The options ranged from reconstructing or rehabilitating the road for vehicle use, redesigning it for strictly bicycle and pedestrian use, designing for one-way vehicle traffic and a pedestrian trail and also closing the trail all-together. The cost for the options ranged from $193,000 to $1.3 million, with the mixed-use designs being most expensive.

The department has requested funding for an extensive public engagement and design project in the 2024 county budget. Whether that funding is allocated remains to be seen as will be up to the Milwaukee County Board. The project will be competing for limited funding with many other parks projects, as well as projects in other departments.

Lake Park Friends, a nonprofit citizen organization, has begun publicly advocating for restoring vehicle access to the road and also called for its immediate reopening.

“Further, reopening the road to pedestrian-only traffic would constitute a fundamental change in the use of the road and undermine the integrity of a beloved historic treasure in Milwaukee,” wrote Anne Hamilton, president of the group, in a letter to the local supervisor Sheldon Wasserman. “And such a move would violate the historic preservation requirements over which the Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission has oversight.”

The road was part of the original design of Lake Park, which was the work of famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. “The road, a key element of Olmsted’s design, intentionally provides a unique ‘pleasure driving’ experience in the park, especially for people who are not ambulatory,” Hamilton wrote.

Parks has not endorsed an option for the roadway. But it does have an internal policy to reduce pavement throughout the system. And it has found that redeveloping roadways into bicycle and pedestrian trail reduce pavement and long-term maintenance costs. Though, plans for these types of projects have not always been greeted warmly.

It’s possible that the future of Ravine Road will be out of the department’s hands. Lake Park falls within the City of Milwaukee’s North Point Historic District and is therefore subject to the Historic Preservation Commission’s (HPC) approval process for any alterations, according to Tim Askin, a senior planner with the commission.

In a letter to Ald. Jonathan Brostoff, Askin notes that Parks own roadway management plan “specifically notes the requirement to comply with Historic Preservation Commission rules regarding Lake Park.” The general redevelopment options from 2019, which Parks plans to make the foundation of its public engagement and design project, would all constitute alterations subject to HPC approval.

Will concerns for historic preservation be found in conflict with ideas about the future of county parks? That’s also possible. Parks officials have already made clear that the department is wrestling with what the future of its roadways should be. “Over half of our capital requests are for parking lots and roads,” Deputy Parks Director James Tarantino has said. “And this is not something that really, really impacts recreation or health outcomes for our citizens.”

Tarantino has said that bicycle and pedestrian trails are safer, encourage healthy activity and cost the department less money long-term. “We’re trying to build out a future park system for people, not only for cars,” he said. “We’re trying to prioritize our investment away from paved assets.”

In the meantime, Lake Park Friends is still calling for the immediate reopening of Ravine Road now that the bridge has been fixed. The friends group commissioned a field review of the pavement conditions by the engineering and design firm Kapur & Associates. The engineer, Tim Anheuser, concluded, “With tree trimming and minor maintenance I believe that the roadway could be quickly reopened.”

The pavement is in “fair condition with 50-60% residual value remaining,” Anheuser wrote. Parks has not invested in maintaining the vegetation and tree canopy of the road during the 8 years that it was closed and it has become very overgrown. This is creating a shady, moist environment contributing to deterioration. There is also some areas where water has infiltrated the subsurface of the road, which has caused damage.

Anheuser said the road should probably be closed to truck traffic and that, regardless of further deterioration, it should be rehabilitated within three years, which is roughly the same schedule Parks had for the project.

Sup. Wasserman said Friday in a message to constituents that he was working have the metal fencing at either end of the roadway removed. Though he noted the concrete barriers would remain, for now, adding that he is relying on the determinations of county engineers, “who are still assessing the road conditions of a road that has visibly decayed over the last eight years.”

The supervisors previously released a survey to constituents that found significant support for closing the road to vehicles or adding pedestrian-friendly design elements to the roadway.

Wasserman also announced two community meetings he will hold on the project. One in August another in September.

Monday, Aug. 28
Lake Park – Marcia Coles Community Room
3133 E. Newbury Blvd.
7 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Tuesday, Sept. 12
East Branch Library
2320 N. Cramer St.

6 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated in one paragraph that Lake Park Friends wanted a pedestrian-only street.

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Categories: MKE County, Parks

16 thoughts on “MKE County: Ravine Road Debate Heats Up”

  1. Colin says:

    “Constituents” foaming at the mouth because they can’t drive their Tahoe down a tiny ancient road that cuts through a park that’s been closed for nearly a decade… jfc.

  2. steenwyr says:

    “Historic Preservation” for a traffic shortcut? LoL. “Historic Preservation” coming soon to the argument over whether or not to remove I-794… It’s been there for 54 years for chrissakes, that’s historic in my books!

  3. kaygeeret says:

    I think the road should be repurposed for pedestrian and bike/scooter traffic. altho with the advent of all the electric enhanced bikes, scooters, boards, maybe a speed limit or something to make sure the motorized things are not barreling into walkers.

    People driving are used to not using it, so no loss.

    I live Washington Heights adjacent and I would love to see it used as a pedestrian, etc. road. And I would have to drive to get there.

  4. GBJames says:

    “The road, a key element of Olmsted’s design…”

    Frederick Olmsted died five years before Henry Ford started selling his Model-T. It is ridiculous (certainly ignorant if not disingenuous) to use Olmsted’s intended use of the road as justification for re-opening Ravine Road to automobile traffic.

    Olmsted’s intended use… horse-drawn carriages.

  5. JMcD says:

    There are already 8 pedestrian paths along the length of the park. This would be the only vehicular road. That was the design. Keep the design. Restore the design. People get so hysterical about cars(!) driving up and down this pretty path. It works for decades that way. Kaygereet, do you already drive to the park to use any of the existing paths?

  6. Neal Brenard says:

    Restoring the road as it’s been for the past 100 years is the quickest way to get the fences and barricades that make it just one more of so many closed-off, shut down public spaces in Milwaukee. It’s not used very much by cars anyway. Pedestrians nor cyclists either. Re-opening the road should have been included as a very important part of the bridge restoration project. It was only closed because the bridge above it needed repair. The repairs are finished. Just re-open the road already.

  7. dmkrueger2 says:

    Re-open the road!

  8. joerod says:

    It’s rich that LPF, the group that delayed the bridge’s reconstruction for 10 years, now wants to speed up road opening for cars.

  9. Marty Ellenbecker says:

    I’ll say it again, with additional points –
    How about a compromise?
    When opened to traffic, Ravine Road provides an early opt-out of
    or detour around heavy Lakefront user traffic.
    It provides closer/alternate access for police, fire and rescue.
    Same applies not just for users, but park employees,
    service contractors, suppliers, vendors, exhibitors,
    and performers.

    Last time I was down there, sight lines around curves
    weren’t adequate for pedestrian or traffic safety.

    How about allowing traffic, and providing safely engineered
    walkways (on both sides of the road – let’s not let a mudslide,
    fallen tree or accident show the world our Milwaukee Cheap)?

    Make the walkways fun!
    Perhaps include bump-out observation / information platforms.
    Perhaps make parts of it elevated through tree crowns.
    Perhaps a section that crosses the road.
    Perhaps all 3.
    Design it for easy snow removal.
    Include kids as design consultants!
    Keep it subtle, but go for an award!
    Go for a grant.

    If you make it enough fun, maybe kids will
    drag their parents out of their cars and lighten
    or moderate traffic.
    If instead it becomes a destination,
    emphasize plentiful parking, restrooms etc.
    on top of the hill.

    As for historic preservation, don’t ruin anything
    Olmstead built. Tree crowns can conceal most of
    the walkways to viewers on the bridge, and likely
    all of them from other vantage points.

    Today’s taxpayers can enjoy new benefits in the park
    while respecting and preserving the beauty and the
    work done with money from taxpayers
    that built the park.

  10. Marty Ellenbecker says:

    Cost/benefit anyone?

    …“Over half of our capital requests are for parking lots and roads,” Deputy Parks Director James Tarantino has said. “And this is not something that really, really impacts recreation or health outcomes for our citizens.”

    These are the arteries and organs that allow children and less-than-super fit citizens and tourists to enjoy the park with their pets, picnic gear, strollers etc. Roads accommodate police fire and rescue. They also aid the functioning of park employees, service contractors, suppliers, vendors, exhibitors, and performers.

  11. gerrybroderick says:

    Were it not for the Lake Park Friend’s considerable investment of time, energy and money, we’d now be looking at a squat, “cost efficient” and incongruous span, rather than the replicated grace of the original bridge. And while Olmstead’s original design for Ravine Road was intended for carriages, aren’t cars the carriage’s natural successors? To paraphrase Robert Frost:

    “Some say the road is for four tires.
    Some say bikes.
    From what I see of discarded Razors
    I hold with those who favor Blazers…..”

  12. Colin says:

    missed a part Gerry
    “But if it had to perish twice,
    I think I know enough of hate
    To know that for destruction ice
    Is also great
    And would suffice.”

    Either way, he wouldn’t settle for cars or bikes. He is right though, this situation is bleak.

  13. GBJames says:

    “aren’t cars the carriage’s natural successors?”

    Only when being pulled by horses.

    Newberry Blvd. was intended to be park-like, not highway-like. When Ravine Road is closed it is. When open to cars, it isn’t. This is a quality of life issue.

  14. Neal Brenard says:

    Ravine Road has no impact on traffic on Newberry Blvd. Never did before. And it won’t going forward when Ravine Road is re-opened. Most “traffic,” that uses Ravine Road as a shortcut up the bluff turn right or left onto North Lake Drive. But truly, very few will take Ravine Road rather than continuing up Lincoln Memorial Drive to the intersection of Lake and Kenwood, same as it always was before Ravine Road was closed. The main point of reopening the road is to get rid of the hideous fences and barricades at entrances to what used to be the crown jewel of the Milwaukee County Park system. Both at the bottom where it looks like residents above just want to claim the park as their own personal front yard and keep it off limits to the public. And, of course, above in the park where it just looks like hell (and serves no other purpose). Thanks to all involved for finally getting the bridge fixed–and doing it right. Time now to finish the job and re-open the road.

  15. GBJames says:

    “ Ravine Road has no impact on traffic on Newberry Blvd. Never did before. ”

    You clearly don’t live along or nearby Newberry Blvd. Take it from someone nearby on Frederick Ave. The difference between pre and post closure is enormous.

  16. Colin says:

    The road can be opened, no temporary project fences involved, while also not being open to motorized traffic.
    If the concern is about the temporary closure / project fencing, then there shouldn’t be any issue with having the project be completed with only being open to pedestrians / bikes / scooters etc.

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