It is not an unfamiliar tale in the history of planning: a municipal push for urban modernity in the form of freeways leads to neighborhoods being razed, residents displaced, and a city bisected. Entire communities, primarily composed of historically underserved groups, are those most deeply impacted by the plan.
The urban landscape, altered by highway construction, leads to blight, impacting nearby home values and businesses. Residents in the vicinity of the freeway experience a higher rate of illness, including asthma, as a result of their proximity to increased air pollution from exhaust. While the freeway permits rapid vehicle transit from one part of the city to another, the harms far outweigh the benefits.
Such is the story in Milwaukee, where the Park East Freeway, a spur originally intended as one phase of a more expansive and ambitious freeway project. The one-mile stretch of elevated highway cut through the heart of the city, alienating downtown from Milwaukee's north side.
The former Park East Freeway. Photo courtesy of City of Milwaukee Department of City Development.
From the time the plan for the freeway was announced in the 1960s, it was strongly opposed by residents and business owners. Despite this, in 1965, property acquisition began for construction and the freeway opened to traffic in 1971. The Park East consumed 16 acres of land, with additional acres of property purchased or acquired through eminent domain and demolished for future phases of freeway development.
Yet, as the freeway opened, vocal opposition continued. So strong was resistance — complete with legal battles — that further planned development of the freeway was successfully halted in 1972. Unfortunately, the damage was done: while the Park East was one of several freeway projects in the city, collectively the freeway projects were the cause of the greatest public housing loss in the history of Milwaukee.
Through the 1990's, the Park East remained in use, but with an estimated 54,000 vehicles crossing it daily, it was considered underutilized at best; and pointless at worst. Further, the freeway caused traffic congestion in its radius, due in part to its disruption of the street grid. Mayor John O. Norquist, an anti-freeway advocate, began to push for the removal of the Park East during his tenure.
As a designated state highway, authorization for removal would require state government support. Mayor Norquist fielded studies to demonstrate not only the economic value of redeveloping the land but a reduction in traffic congestion.
He eventually won support in 1999, but an obstacle arose in the form of George Watts, a wealthy Milwaukee business owner who vehemently opposed the removal of the freeway. Watts characterized the freeway as a vital capillary within Milwaukee, and without it, the city would suffer financially. Watts not only filed a lawsuit contesting demolition, he ran for mayor in 2000 against Norquist, spending an estimated $500,000 of his funds. This, however, only delayed an inevitable outcome; by this time, support was almost universally in favor of the freeway's removal. Watts lost his bid for mayor, and in 2002, a federal judge threw out his lawsuit, eliminating the final barrier to demolition, which finally began in June 2002.
After three decades, the Park East Freeway was removed between 2002 and 2003. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Department of City Development.
George Watts' dire warnings about the catastrophic impact the Park East removal would have on the city's economic picture did not come to fruition. The land freed up by its demolition led to an economic boom for the city.
If you did not know, you would not suspect a freeway once resided here. (ⓒ2022 Google TerraMetrics NOAA Landsat/Copernicus Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO)
With the Park East gone, 24 acres of land was freed up for economic development. By 2006, land values in the area of the Park East increased an estimated 180 percent, and property taxes grew by 45 percent. Three new neighborhoods emerged from the freeway's rubble: McKinley Avenue District, Lower Water Street District, and Upper Water Street District.
Finally, the grid lost to the footings of the Park East was restored, improving traffic and access to downtown. Now known as the Park East Corridor, the area has generated over $1B in investment funding. What started as an opposition movement has led to a revitalization within the city of Milwaukee.
"The removal of the Park East Freeway in 2003 shows the transformative impact that reimaging freeways can have on our cities. Where an elevated freeway once divided downtown Milwaukee from adjacent neighborhoods, people will now find new homes and businesses, a growing entertainment district anchored by the Fiserv Forum, an exciting future public museum, and a reconnected downtown. The City of Milwaukee's adoption of the Park East Redevelopment Plan to guide new development in the area of the former freeway demonstrates the power of thoughtful long-range planning that fosters ambitious visions and delivers results that align with community planning goals," said Sam Leichtling, AICP, city planning manager for the Milwaukee Department of City Development.
Considerations for Your Community
The success of the Park East Freeway's removal is evidence of how cities can generate revenue by eliminating obstructive structures bisecting urban areas. It has also inspired further progressive development within Milwaukee.
In October 2022, a new coalition called Rethink 794 announced a plan proposing the removal of Interstate 794 in downtown Milwaukee. The plan calls for the demolishment of the elevated freeway, opening approximately 32 acres of land underneath for economic development. Additionally, the removal of the freeway will reconnect the trendy Third Ward District to downtown. As a pedestrian-friendly district with hotels, restaurants, and shopping, Third Ward residents and visitors would traverse downtown if it were accessible. The plan, if realized, will be almost assuredly beneficial to the city's budget, generating an estimated $1.5 billion in new development and $15 million a year in property tax revenue. Given the success of Park East, such progressive projects can make a city prosper.
Top Image: View of the former Park East Freeway. Photo courtesy of City of Milwaukee Department of City Development.
About the author
Dina Walters is part of APA's equity communications team.