Removing Freeways - Restoring Cities

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Tear It Down!
by John Norquist

Portland, OR:
Harbor Drive

San Francisco, CA:
Embarcadero Freeway

San Francisco, CA:
Central Freeway

Milwaukee, WI:
Park East Freeway

Toronto, Ontario: Gardiner Expressway

New York, NY:
West Side Highway

Niagara Falls, NY:
Robert Moses Parkway

Paris, France:
Pompidou Expressway

Seoul, South Korea
Cheonggye Freeway

Other Freeway Removals

Freeway Removal
Plans and Proposals

From Induced Demand
to Reduced Demand
by Charles Siegel



Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Park East Freeway

In the 1970s, John Norquist was a lathe operator and a community organizer who worked to stop a plan to surround Milwaukee with freeways. 

Three decades later, Norquist was mayor of Milwaukee and a member of the board of the Congress for the New Urbanism.  He was the force behind a plan to remove Milwaukee's Park East Freeway, to restore the traditional street grid that the freeway had disrupted, and to redevelop the land using a New Urbanist zoning code that would create a district of housing, offices, and entertainment. 

Demolishing the freeway cost $25 million, with the federal government paying 80% of the cost - a big savings over the $100 million that it would have cost to rebuild the freeway, which was 30 years old and in need of reconstruction.   It also freed 26 acres of land for new development, including the freeway right of way and surface parking lots around it, which have already attracted investments of over $300 million in new development. 

Milwaukee's Freeway Plan and Freeway Revolt

Park East was a one mile freeway spur, left over from a more ambitious plan to develop a ring of freeways around downtown Milwaukee.

In 1948, in a referendum, Milwaukee voters approved a "system of express highways," and later referendums also approved of freeway plans by substantial margins.  Work on the freeway system began in 1952, and the city's Expressway Commission added the Park East freeway to its plans in 1958.

In the original plan, the Park East freeway would have continued to Lake Michigan.  There it it would have conneceted with the Lake freeway, which would have run along the lake through Juneau Park connecting with what is now I-794, so that downtown Milwaukee would have been completely encircled with freeways.  There was also a planned Park West freeway, which would have continued the Park East freeway to the West of what is now I-43, where it would have connected with the proposed Stadium freeway, which would have led to I-894.  

Property acquisition for the right of way began in 1965, when there were already 24 miles of freeways open in the Milwaukee County.  Hundreds of houses and scores of businesses were demolished to clear the right of way.

In 1971, the the first stretch of the Park East freeway opened to traffic, and a block-wide strip of land had been acquired and cleared to continue construction to the lakefront. 

Neighborhood and environmental activists mounted a strong campaign against the freeway.  Their strongest argument was the fact that it would have cut right through Juneau Park and cut it off from the lake.  Elected officials soon joined with activists to protect this cherished open space.

In 1972, Mayor Henry Maier killed the rest of the project by vetoing funds for relocating utilities in the corridor. Maier emphasized the cost to the city, saying: "America is the only nation in the world to let her cities ride to bankruptcy on a freeway . . . . My city has discovered that the freeway is not free."

Ted Seaver was the community activist who led the battle against the Lake freeway, Park East freeway, Park West freeway and Stadium South freeway during the 1960s and 1970s, one of many activists in the freeway rebellions that swept across American during these decades.  Because of the efforts of Seaver and other activists, these freeways were essentially stopped.

Norquist called Seaver one of his mentors, and after Seaver died in 1999, Norquist got the city to name a bus-only freeway on-ramp in his memory.  East Ted Seaver St. is now an on-ramp for I-794, right at the point where Seaver stopped the freeway system from continuing north along the lake. 

Removing Two Freeways Or One

Because it was not completed to the lake, the Park East was an underused one-mile long freeway spur, leading from I-43 to downtown.  The elevated freeway lowered the value of the surrounding land, so it was used primarily for surface parking, though some of it was right on the Milwaukee River. 

The land that was cleared for the right-of-way needed to continue the Park East freeway to Lake Michigan remained vacant for over  twenty years.  Then, in the 1990s, the state removed its designation as a transportation corridor, and it was redeveloped as the East Pointe neighborhood, a community of shops, townhouses, condominiums, and rental apartments, part of a revival of residential construction in downtown Milwaukee and in downtowns across the country. 

East Pointe before and after redevelopment

The East Pointe neighborhood was build on land that
had been cleared for the freeway right of way

The success of East Pointe and revival of downtown convinced Mayor John Norquist that the time was right to demolish downtown freeways and replace them with mixed-use neighborhoods.  After beginning as a lathe operator and community organizer, Norquist was a state Assemblyman from 1974 to 1982, a state Senator from 1982 to 1988, and had been Milwaukee mayor since 1988.   

Initially, City Planning Director Peter Park proposed removing two freeways that were scheduled for reconstruction in the coming years, and replacing them both with boulevards - not only the Park East, which was the northern part of the early proposal for a freeway look around downtown, but also I-794, which was the southern part of that loop.  In the 1950s, before I-794 was built, some activists had called for a boulevard there, saying that the elevated freeway would be a barrier between downtown and the historic third ward.  Park taught urban planning at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and in 1995, one of his classes studied the possibility of replacing this freeway with a boulevard.

Removing I-794, a mainline freeway, would have been a more radical change in transportation patterns than removing the Park East spur: I-794 carried 89,000 vehicles a day while Park East carried only 35,000 a day and was clearly underused. 

Park East Freeway Was Conspicuously Underused

Because it was never completed, the Park East was conspicuously underused.

Because of its low traffic volume, Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson and the state Department of Transportation dropped their opposition to removing the Park East freeway.  Traffic volume was low enough that state transportation planners found that it was not necessary to build a boulevard to replace Park East.  It would be enough simply to restore the local street grid and to build a new bridge across the Milwaukee River.

On May 3, 1999, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal reported that Norquist had reached an agreement with the governor and the county executive on how to spend $241 million in federal transportation funding, by dropping the I-794 removal in order to get some of that funding for the Park East removal. Einar Tanger, president of the Historic Third Ward Association, had worked for replacement of I-794 with a boulevard, which would have cost less than
rebuilding it and would have improved access to the Third Ward, but he admitted that he did not have the support he needed, saying the deal between the city, county, and state was "a political reality." 

The Controversy Over Removing Park East 

With the governor, state Department of Transportation, county executive, and mayor lined up behind it, the proposal to remove Park East received the political approvals it needed without any delays, but there was constant controversy along the way - most of it stirred up George Watts.

Watts was born and raised in Milwaukee.  He was a marine during World War II.  After the war, he worked in his family's china shop in downtown Milwaukee, George Watts and Son.  He lived in a farm in Ozaukee County, at the edge of Milwaukee metropolitan area, and commuted to downtown. 

In 1988, Watts ran unsuccessfully for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. In 2000, at age 77, he ran against Norquist for Milwaukee mayor, largely to contest the freeway demolition: he had moved to a condominium in the city in 1998, after living on his farm for about 50 years, and he changed his registration to Democratic, though the mayoral election was non-partisan.   

A May, 1999 article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal said that most downtown businesses supported the removal, but that a group of property owners wanted the freeway to stay.  Watts, who had recently declared himself a mayoral candidate, was running newspaper and radio advertisements opposing the removal. 

At a December, 2000 hearing, the crowd of about 100 people was evenly divided, with public officials, business leaders, and developers supporting the removal, and with Watts leading a group of opponents named Save Our Spur, and claiming that the freeway system is "is the life blood of the city." 

The Freeway Discouraged Pedestrian Movement

The Park East freeway made it unpleasant to walk between
downtown and surrounding neighborhoods.

Before the hearing, Watts had written a column in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel listing sixteen 16 businesses and institutions in downtown that would be damaged if the freeway were removed, but at the hearing, developer Gary Grunau said he had talked with 14 of the organizations on Watts' list, and ten said they supported freeway removal, while the other four said they did not think it would affect them. 

When he was asked about traffic engineering studies that showed freeway removal would not increase traffic, Watts answered that they are "as phoney as a three dollar bill." Watts also accused Norquist of trying to kill the city, as his supporters shouted "Watts for Mayor" and "Recall Norquist." 

Watts did not have a chance of winning the mayoral election.  He spent over $500,000 on the campaign, mostly his own money, while Norquist raised over $1.4 million. In April, 2000, Norquist won reelection over Watts by about 56 percent to 44 percent, in an election that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal said "often seemed more caustic than competitive." 

Despite the controversy that Watts stirred up, the freeway removal moved through the public process quickly. 

In June, 1999, the County Board approved the freeway removal by a vote of 20-2. 

At the end of June, 1999, the Public Improvements committee of the Milwaukee Common Council approved the removal by a vote of 5-0, and sent it to the Common Council for approval on July 15.  No opponents of removal attended the Public Improvements committee meeting, but when George Watts was contacted after the meeting, he vowed to stop removal with a lawsuit.

In October, 2000, the Federal Highway Administration slowed the process a bit by asking for more study of the project's impact on traffic.  HNTB Corp had produced two alternative final plans that were different from the original plan studied in 1998, increasing the land that could be developed after the freeway removal from 18 acres to 23 acres, and the federal government wanted the new plan studied.  A vice-president of HNTB said that he thought the federal government was being cautious because it was worrried about a threatened lawsuit from Watts.  Watts said he was pleased by the delay, and that he had alway thought traffic jams would be much worse than the original study had predected. 

But the new study, released in November, 2000, found that the project would have even less impact on traffic than the original study predicted, because it offered better connections with existing streets.  This study found there would be 8,000 to 10,000 more cars on other freeways or local streets on an average weekday, much less than the 21,000 cars predected in 1998 study, and that existing roads could easily accommodate this increased traffic. 

Demolition of the Park East Freeway

The Park East was demolished between June 2002 and April 2003

George Watts simply refused to believe the new figures, as he had refused to believe the original study, saying "I find that just outlandish. We question its validity. We don't think it's realistic."  An aide to Mayor Norquist commented that Watts' claims were "more of the same scare tactics and not rooted in any information."

With federal approval, the only obstacle that remained to the freeway removal was George Watts' lawsuit.  In February, 2002, at the request of federal, state, and local governments, U.S. District Judge Charles Clevert judge narrowed Watts' lawsuit, refusing to consider Watts' claim that the Environmental Impact Study for the project did not consider its impact on downtown business.  Clevert also ruled that the organization that Watts had created to file suit, the George and Martha Foundation for Freedom & Common Sense, did not have legal standing to sue. 

After these rulings, what remained was a suit by Watts and nine other individuals about the impact of the freeway removal on air quality and traffic safety.   In March, 2002, Clevert ruled against the plaintiffs of this suit, removing the last obstacle to freeway demolition.

Demolition of the Park East freeway began in June, 2002 and was completed in April 2003. 

In 1971, Watts suffered from a stroke.  He had already used crutches because of arthritic knees, but after the stroke, he was confined to a wheelchair. Though he owns a downtown china shop and a large farm, he felt financially pressed because of the money he has spent on politics - over $500,000 of his own money on his mayoral election campaign alone - and he soldhis Milwaukee condominium and moved back to his farm, because he could not afford two homes.  He said he did not regret the political battles that he had lost: "All challenges make us better people. Without them, you really have not lived." Though suburban developers would have paid enough for his farm to make him wealthy, he attached a conservation easment to parts of the property, so the land he loved would always be preserved.

New Neighborhoods in Central Milwaukee

Before its demolition, the Park East freeway and the surface parking lots around it blighted a stretch of land leading across the Milwaukee River and toward downtown.

After demolition, the plan calls for replacement of the freeway with a new Knapp St. bridge across the Milwaukee River and a restoration of the traditional street grid where it was broken up by the freeway east of the Milwaukee River. 

Restoring the street grid should reduce congestion by dispersing traffic. When there was a freeway, its off ramps concentrated all its traffic on three streets.  With the street grid, this traffic will be dispersed on two dozen streets.

Access to the freeway

The freeway generated congestion by concentrating traffic on a few local streets. 

The restored grid disperses traffic

The restored grid disperses traffic on many streets

The city's plan uses the 26-acre Park East redevelopment area to create three new neighborhoods:

  • McKinley Avenue District: This district slated for office development, retail and entertainment, because of its large sites and access to the water front.  Entertainment uses must fit into the street grid, and will include small-scale activities such as restaurants, cafes, and clubs. The district will also contain some small apartment buildings and hotels, to create a finer grained pattern of land uses and to add to its liveliness.
  • Lower Water Street District: This district is slated for office districts near the waterfront.  It already includes a mix of residential and retail uses that will complement the new offices.  More residences, including live-work units, are planned for the east part of the district, adjacent to the popular residential neighborhood to its east.
  • Upper Water Street District: This district will allow only small infill office buildings and will concentrate on mixed use buildings, with an emphasis on urban-scale residential development (including live-work units), which will build on the residential development that has already occurred to its east and north-east.

The redevelopment area is divided into three districts

The redevelopment area is being used to create three new neighborhoods

Development in all the districts is regulated using New Urbanist design codes, which prescribes the building envelope allowed on each street.

The city expects the freeway removal to bring at least $250 million of investment in the Park East redevelopment area. The first project proposed in the area, a $90 million complex of condominiums and apartments on 7.5 acres on two blocks of North Water St, is made up primarily of with urban-scale residential development. As of the beginning of 2007, five more projects have been approved and are under construction in the redevelopment area, representing an investment of over $140 million, an additional five projects are going through the city's approval process, representing an investment of $339 million, and more projects have been proposed.

The freeway removal has also helped to stimulate development in nearby locations that are not in the redevelopment area itself, beginning with a proposed $300 million development on the former site of the Pabst brewery, including restaurants, offices, nightclubs, and 200 to 300 loft apartments.  It seems likely that the freeway removal will bring even more development to the surrounding areas than to the redevelopment area itself.

Text copyright 2007 by The Preservation Institute
All photographs courtesy of City of Milwaukee Planning Dept.

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