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
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
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
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
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.
The East Pointe neighborhood
was build on land
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
Because it was
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
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
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
The Park East
freeway made it unpleasant to
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
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.
The Park East
June 2002 and April 2003
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
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.
The freeway generated
traffic on a few local streets.
The restored grid
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.
area is being used to
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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