Twenty years after the Park East Freeway was razed, the future of another Milwaukee freeway spur is coming under scrutiny.
This time, it’s Highway 175, also known as the Stadium North Freeway, on the city’s West Side.
At the urging of County Executive David Crowley and Mayor Cavalier Johnson, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation is set to announce Wednesday that it will begin a study of whether to replace most of the spur with a boulevard, from W. State St. to W. North Ave. And the project might get a big boost from the recently approved federal infrastructure legislation.
It’s a move that could lead to reuniting neighborhoods split for decades by the four-lane expressway, offering new possibilities for housing, shops and green space, local and state officials say.
“This is a way to reconnect those communities” on the west side that were cut off from each other when the spur was built, Crowley told Milwaukee Magazine on Tuesday. “(The spur) is one of those dividers that literally separate residents from one another. … This is really trying to right those wrongs” of the freeway construction era.
“It’s a way to break down those barriers of segregation,” agreed state Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee), who has been pushing to reconfigure the spur for a decade. “It can bring us closer together as a city.”
That goal of reconnecting communities torn apart by freeway construction is part of the federal infrastructure legislation. Crowley said he started working on this issue after his election in 2018, and the availability of the federal money was crucial in persuading WisDOT to open the study.
“It’s a once-in-a-multigenerational opportunity,” says newly elected County Sup. Peter Burgelis, whose district includes the spur.
During his spring campaign, Johnson also advocated for converting the spur into a boulevard, in an interview with The Recombobulation Area, which also was the first to report the planned study. The DOT moved its announcement up from Thursday morning to Wednesday afternoon after that news broke late last week.
Johnson and engineers from the city Department of Public Works have been discussing the issue with WisDOT in recent months, mayoral spokesman Jeff Fleming says.
“The reason why I have some interest in converting freeways, where possible, is because of the success we’ve seen Downtown,” Johnson said in a recent interview with Milwaukee Magazine.
That success came in the Park East Freeway corridor. Much of the development around Fiserv Forum would not have been possible if that freeway spur had remained in place, Johnson said.
Then-Mayor John Norquist pushed for removing the Park East, finally winning approval as part of a larger 1999 deal with then-Gov. Tommy Thompson and then-County Executive Tom Ament on how to spend federal transportation money. Work to dismantle the spur started in 2002, although it took years for the area’s development potential to be fully realized.
Both the Park East and the Stadium North were remnants of much larger freeways that were planned but never built. After an initial wave of construction in the 1950s and 1960s, neighborhood protests halted Milwaukee County freeway expansion in the 1970s.
As originally envisioned, the Stadium Freeway would have stretched from the Airport Freeway (now I-894) north into Ozaukee County, with major interchanges at the East-West Freeway (now the east-west stretch of I-94), the never-built Park West Freeway and the Fond du Lac Freeway (now Highway 145). It would have provided a third major north-south route across Milwaukee County, in addition to the North-South Freeway (the north-south stretches of I-43 and I-94) and the Zoo Freeway (now I-41).
But only a few miles of freeway were built, from West National Avenue to West North Avenue. When Miller Park (now American Family Field) was built in the late 1990s, the Stadium South spur, from I-94 to National Ave., was replaced by an expressway, then known as Miller Park Way and now as Brewers Boulevard. The Stadium North spur, from I-94 to North Ave., also has been reclassified as an expressway, with a lower speed limit than a freeway.
When the Stadium North was built between the Washington Heights and Martin Drive neighborhoods, “it split those neighborhoods apart,” Burgelis says. “Urban freeways separate communities and neighborhoods.”
The spur complicates community-building events such as the Vliet Street Artwalk, Burgelis says. Besides, he adds, “Neighbors don’t like the noise. They don’t like the traffic.”
Motorists now can speed past Washington Park without seeing one of the county’s premier green spaces, while others have to go out of their way to reach the park, say Crowley, Goyke and Burgelis. They hope that replacing the spur could improve the park’s access and visibility.
Traffic safety is also an issue, as drivers have to abruptly slow down when the spur ends at W. Lisbon Ave. and W. North Ave., and that contributes to speeding on Lisbon Ave., Goyke says.
By contrast, removing the spur might improve access to some W. State St. businesses, particularly Miller-Coors Brewing Co. and foundries in Wauwatosa, Goyke says. With no exit from the spur to State St., trucks now take a circuitous route through nearby neighborhoods, he says.
At the same time, a reconfigured boulevard could offer more opportunities to improve bicycle, pedestrian and Milwaukee County Transit System routes, Goyke and Crowley say. In particular, it might be a way to improve access to the Hank Aaron State Trail in the Menomonee Valley, Goyke says.
Replacing the spur with a boulevard also could return some of the land to the property tax rolls for homes and businesses, Burgelis says. And instead of speeding through the West Side, drivers might be able to stop and pick up groceries or catch a bite at a new restaurant, he adds.
As with the Park East, it’s possible that some residents will oppose the project because they like using the spur. Businessman George Watts, Norquist’s opponent in the 2000 mayoral election, predicted Downtown would “shrivel up and die” if the Park East was razed.
Ald. Michael Murphy, whose district includes part of the Stadium North, said he would withhold comment until he talks more with neighbors about the issue. Ald. Russell Stamper, whose district also includes part of the spur, did not respond to a request for comment.
Johnson told Milwaukee Magazine that he is also interested in the development possibilities that could be created by reconfiguring Brewers Boulevard, with its connection between American Family Field and the planned redevelopment of the Komatsu Mining Corp. complex in West Milwaukee. But that is not part of the upcoming study, Burgelis said.
Like Norquist, Johnson has his eye on an even bigger freeway spur removal: replacing I-794 with a boulevard between the Marquette Interchange and the Hoan Bridge. And, like Norquist, he knows he might never realize that goal.
Just as razing the Park East removed a physical barrier between downtown and the North Side, dismantling I-794 would remove a barrier between the Third Ward and the rest of Downtown. Various efforts have been aimed at softening the impact of that barrier in recent years.
However, as Johnson noted, the state has made a major investment in recent years in rebuilding I-794 and the Lake Interchange, where the spur’s east-west stretch connects with the Hoan Bridge, and state officials might be reluctant to tear it down so soon.
“Are we going to be able to take down that entire spur just with the city’s desire?” Johnson asked. “Probably not.”