Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Supervisors Oppose Controversial Road-to-Trail Project

Parks department wants portion of Jackson Park Drive with no driveways converted to trail.

By - Feb 8th, 2024 05:37 pm
Jackson Park Roadway. Photo by Milwaukee County Parks.

Jackson Park Roadway. Photo by Milwaukee County Parks.

Two supervisors vehemently oppose a polarizing road-to-trail conversion in the Milwaukee County Parks system.

The project would rebuild a section of Jackson Park Drive running through the Kinnickinnic River Parkway as a multi-use trail, and narrow the roadway in other areas.

Compared to efforts to reduce the footprint of freeways in Milwaukee, the Jackson Park Drive project is rather small and inconsequential. The effectiveness of the opposition in turning local supervisors against the project, though, underscores the massive challenge facing urbanists and multi-modal transportation advocates attempting to reorient transportation spending away from expensive, car-focused infrastructure.

The two supervisors whose districts straddle the project area, Peter Burgelis and Juan Miguel Martinez, released a statement Wednesday expressing opposition to converting the road to a multi-use trail. Both supervisors cited the project’s significant pushback and criticism in their reasoning for opposing it.

In 2017, Parks received funding to design the redevelopment of Jackson Park Drive. The road is in horrible condition and is long overdue to be rebuilt, according to the department. In 2022, Parks came forward with a design that narrows the roadway along sections that have driveways, and converts a section roughly between S. 51st and S. 58th streets, where there are no driveways or houses facing the street, to a multi-use trail. The project would not eliminate driveway access, though some homes have walkways from the street to their homes.

At subsequent community meetings, the pushback was intense. Neighbors have since organized a group called Save Jackson Park Drive to advocate against the project. The group circulated a petition against it and developed a long list of concerns including fears that the trial will decrease home values, make it difficult for emergency vehicles to respond to the area, lead to an increase in crime and sexual assaults, encourage homeless people to camp in the parkway, increase drug use, enable public drinking, increase traffic along other roads and pose access issues for those with disabilities.

For several years, Milwaukee County Parks has prioritized reducing the footprint of paved roads and parking lots in the parks system, and the reasoning is both environmental and fiscal. Reducing pavement reduces stormwater runoff, which contributes to flooding and carries pollutants. Trails are also less expensive to replace and maintain than roads.

“Roads are killing us,” Deputy Parks Director James Tarantino previously said. The parks system has a massive backlog of infrastructure needs, estimated at approximately $500 million. Annually, half of the department’s funding for infrastructure is used on roads and parking lots, he said, “And this is not something that really, really impacts recreation or health outcomes for our citizens.”

For Burgelis, the residents opposed to the project are not just constituents, they’re also his neighbors. He told Urban Milwaukee his house is on Jackson Park Drive. “I purposely have stayed as neutral as possible on this up until now, because I wanted to give the department an opportunity to listen to what neighbor’s concerns were,” Burgelis said.

The supervisor said he supports the department’s policy of removing roadways and impervious pavement, except not in this case. “I can’t stomach that our park system, or the administration for county government is okay removing access from the front of 18 people’s homes.”

The access he is referring to is automobile access to walkways that run between homes and Jackson Park Drive. Every house along Parks planned trail conversion has driveway access on the opposite side of the properties, along W. Andover Road. Burgelis has proposed a design alternative he intends to be a compromise, which includes a shorter section of roadway converted to a trail.

After hearing the anger and frustration expressed at community meetings, Martinez said it was clear nearby residents do not want the trail. “Now, I myself, do like the idea of the trail there,” he said. “But the people don’t want it. So I’m gonna vote how the people want.”

Committee on Parks and Culture Chair Sup. Sheldon Wasserman said the project should “align with the vision and needs of the people” and he hopes a “balanced solution” can be found. “I look forward to hearing from the Administration and neighbors at our next meeting,” he said in a statement.

Parks is expected to present a final design to the board in March and to pursue funding for construction in the 2025 budget.

Four Alternatives

The department has designed four potential alternatives for the roadway; including one developed at the request of Burgelis. The design alternatives are included below.

Option A rebuilds the entire road in a narrower footprint and builds a trail next to it. Parks estimates construction costs at approximately $2.1 million.

Option B is the partial conversion of the roadway to a trail, or Parks’ original proposal. Construction is estimated to cost approximately $1.5 million.

Option C was designed upon Burgelis’ suggestion and would include converting a smaller portion of the roadway to a trail and building a trail adjacent to the road along the rest of the drive. Construction is estimated to cost approximately $1.8 million.

Option D would rebuild the roadway exactly as it sits today. Construction is estimated to cost approximately $1.7 million.

Burgelis Accuses Parks of Wasting Resources

While his colleagues struck a more diplomatic posture, Burgelis was more pointed in his remarks, accusing the department of wasting taxpayer resources.

“Not including neighbors in the design process was a mistake,” he said. “Not addressing their concerns is a waste of taxpayer resources and an insult to residents.”

Given that Parks estimates their original plan to be the cheapest in the short and long term, Urban Milwaukee asked Burgelis to justify accusing the department of wasting taxpayer resources. Burgelis declined to respond, as he was entering a meeting, and later provided Urban Milwaukee a written response: “Spending a year and a half pretending to listen to neighborhood and community concerns is a waste of resources and everyone’s time.”

Burgelis said the design option he proposed represents a compromise between Parks’ goals and community concerns.

What’s Next?

Parks will present their final design to the board in March. Supervisors will decide in the fall whether to include it in the 2025 budget.

The press release from supervisors pointed to an email from Tony Giron, a public engagement manager for Parks, which expressed support for the original plan.

Giron described it as a “tough decision” as Parks weighs public “desires” against the department’s mission.

The majority of the trail supporters are younger families with kids who stand to benefit from the recreational opportunities and safety improvements of a trail without motor vehicles,” said Giron of a demographic divide on the project.

Supervisors said Parks officials confirmed in a meeting this week that they intended to advance the original design concept of partial conversion to a trail.

“Capital improvement projects, like the Kinnickinnic River Parkway – Jackson Park Drive development, require thorough discussions, planning and time,” a Milwaukee County Parks Department spokesperson told Urban Milwaukee in a statement. “There will be additional opportunities for elected officials and the public to weigh in on this project in the future.”


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