The Debate Over Replacing Highway 175 Is Ignoring a Crucial Piece of History

Targeted for removal, Highway 175 divides two different West Side neighborhoods, but it doesn’t have the racially fraught history of other Milwaukee freeways.

Washington Heights and Washington Park represent two sides of Milwaukee’s West Side.

One is predominantly white and comfortably middle class, its streets lined with large bungalows, punctuated by the occasional mansion on Washington and Hi-Mount boulevards. The other is more diverse in both its residents and its residences, a mostly Black neighborhood that includes the city’s only Asian-American-majority voting ward. 

They are separated by one of the county’s most storied green spaces – the park from which the Washington Park neighborhood takes its name – and one of its least significant highways: State Highway 175, also known as the Stadium North Freeway spur.

In a city where freeway construction ripped through communities and erected multilane barriers between races, it would be natural to assume the Stadium North shares that history. 

State and local officials seemed to be making that assumption when the Wisconsin Department of Transportation announced plans to study replacing 1.5 miles of the highway with a boulevard. In separate interviews, County Supervisor Peter Burgelis said the highway “split those neighborhoods apart,” State Rep. Evan Goyke called its removal “a way to break down those barriers of segregation,” and County Executive David Crowley characterized the effort as “trying to right those wrongs” of freeway construction.

Crowley said a crucial factor in convincing WisDOT to launch the study was a new pot of federal money designed precisely for that purpose: $1 billion in “Reconnecting Communities” grants. 

Goyke, Crowley and Burgelis say the conversion could improve access to the park and local businesses that drivers now speed past on the spur, as well as opening land for more homes, shops, restaurants and green space.

BUT THE STADIUM NORTH has a different origin story than some of its counterparts, historian John Gurda says. It’s a distinction that might require Wisconsin officials to reframe their pitch for federal cash but wouldn’t necessarily disqualify their bid.

The park is central to the roots of both the highway and the adjacent neighborhoods. It was still five blocks outside the city limits – “in the extreme western suburbs,” as the Milwaukee Sentinel put it – when the city acquired it in 1891. It soon featured a zoo, a bandshell and other recreational amenities.

Before then, some of the region’s wealthiest families had built mansions on farmland east and west of the park, Gurda writes in his book Milwaukee – City of Neighborhoods. The county took over the park in 1936, moved the zoo to Bluemound Road in 1958, and built the Stadium North largely through the zoo’s original site on the park’s western edge, completing construction in 1962.

“The park itself was the fatality, not the neighborhood,” Gurda says in an interview. “They weren’t taking houses,” which minimized opposition to that freeway segment.

That was a contrast to Interstate 43, which destroyed the Black community’s thriving Bronzeville neighborhood; and I-794, which tore through the heart of the Third Ward’s Italian community. Meanwhile, Gurda notes, land cleared for another part of the same freeway, the Stadium South, devastated West Milwaukee’s residential tax base – even though grassroots opposition eventually prevented the West Milwaukee stretch and most of the rest of the Stadium Freeway from being built.

In the years that followed, both Washington Heights and Washington Park grew more diverse, but Washington Park much more so, Gurda writes. 

Based on Gurda’s neighborhood definitions and 2020 census data, the two census tracts located entirely in Washington Heights are 71% white, and their average annual household income is $85,269. By contrast, the only census tract located entirely in Washington Park is 73% Black, with annual household income averaging $38,626. And Milwaukee’s Ward 167, which includes much of Washington Park’s Walnut Hill district, is 55% Asian. 

However, Gurda sees that division as a natural extension of migration patterns that were already developing on either side of the park before the spur was built. He doesn’t believe the Stadium North formed the kind of barrier that the now-razed Park East Freeway did between Downtown and the predominantly Black North Side.

DESPITE THE HISTORY, Stadium North critics say the freeway spur has had other negative effects on surrounding neighborhoods. For example, many businesses that used to stand near the intersection of Lisbon and North Avenues folded after freeway ramps eliminated parking, and fast-moving traffic coming off the Stadium North boosted risks for pedestrians trying to cross the street, says longtime Washington Heights resident Ed Szopinski.

But not all neighbors want the spur gone. Ald. Michael Murphy, who represents much of the surrounding area, sees a roughly even split among constituents he’s talked to. Supporters and opponents don’t appear to be divided along geographic lines, he adds. 

Stadium North supporters say the road works well as it is, connecting drivers to I-94 for faster travel to and from Downtown and points west, and they question whether the projected benefits would justify the cost of replacing it, Murphy says.

But others agree with Melissa Muller, executive director of Washington Park Neighbors. “It is a divider of the neighborhood,” Muller says of the spur. “[Highway] 175 separates us. It separates the haves from the have-nots.”

Crowley, Goyke and Burgelis say they still believe that, too, even after learning the spur’s history. “People still are separated from one another,” Crowley says. “It’s still an issue of equity to me.”

Ultimately, the U.S. Department of Transportation will decide whether Highway 175 meets the Reconnecting Communities standard of creating “a barrier to community connectivity, including barriers to mobility, access or economic development.” However, another potential funding source appeared in August, when Congress authorized $3 billion for more broadly defined Neighborhood Access and Equity grants, which advocates say could fund work on projects planned with Reconnecting Communities dollars. 

Even if WisDOT doesn’t get a grant, “The commitment to the project is solid,” spokesman Mike Pyritz says. However, he adds, “The levels and type of funding will dictate how fast the study moves.”  


Interchange Changes Ahead

TURNING THE STADIUM NORTH FREEWAY spur into a boulevard is one of several ideas under consideration to reshape roads and development around American Family Field.

South of I-94, the Milwaukee County Board has called for a study of similarly reconfiguring another stretch of Highway 175 and redeveloping some stadium parking lots and West Milwaukee’s former Komatsu Mining Corp. headquarters into a new entertainment zone. Washington Heights resident and Mount Pleasant urban planner Robin Palm has advocated for the still-amorphous plan, branding it the “Beer District” to play off the success of the Deer District around Fiserv Forum.

Both concepts are offshoots of a larger project: Rebuilding the Stadium Interchange and the east-west stretch of I-94 from Downtown to Wauwatosa. For more than two decades, debate around I-94 reconstruction has focused on whether to keep the freeway stretch at six lanes or expand it to eight. Former Gov. Scott Walker sided with planners who say it needs more lanes to accommodate future traffic. But West Side residents and many local officials vigorously oppose expansion, arguing it would increase noise and pollution. Under Gov. Tony Evers, the state Department of Transportation has become more receptive to neighbors’ concerns – reconsidering traffic projections and studying modified Stadium Interchange designs – but has yet to give up on eight lanes. 

As of this writing, most of those ideas were further along than the Beer District. Some have pitched that concept as a way to help fund future ballpark improvements the Brewers or stadium district couldn’t otherwise afford. Others question whether the development would take business from existing bars and restaurants.

Mayor Cavalier Johnson, County Executive David Crowley and the Brewers have said they’re open to discussing options, particularly downsizing Highway 175. But as of Labor Day, neither they nor other key players – including the stadium district, Evers and business leaders – had explicitly endorsed the Beer District.


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine’s October issue.

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Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included in-depth articles about our lively local politics, prized cultural assets and evolving transportation options. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.