The DNC Will Still Have an Impact on Downtown Milwaukee Traffic

Secret Service announces street and freeway ramp closures, plus restrictions on trucks, buses and RVs

Although the 2020 Democratic National Convention will be a largely virtual event, it’s going to have a real traffic impact in downtown Milwaukee — but much less than previously expected.

The U.S. Secret Service and other local, state and federal agencies Wednesday announced security arrangements that include closing streets and restricting traffic around the Wisconsin Center, home of the downsized convention, and the block used for parking south of the convention center.

National political conventions typically have a large “security footprint” of traffic restrictions and a smaller “security perimeter” where only authorized attendees are allowed. The originally announced footprint for the Milwaukee DNC was 100 square blocks, from W. Cherry Street to W. Clybourn Street and from N. 10th Street to N. Water Street. 

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But that was before the coronavirus pandemic forced the convention into an online format. Now the presumptive Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his newly named running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, aren’t coming, and no delegates or other speakers are expected. However, some party officials will be there, and protests are still planned

As a result, the footprint is far smaller and the hard perimeter is limited to the convention center itself.

From 6 p.m. Saturday to midday Aug. 21, authorities will close W. Wells Street and W. Wisconsin Avenue, both between N. 6th Street and N. Phillips Avenue; W. Michigan Street, between N. Phillips Avenue and N. 5th Street; and N. Phillips Avenue and N. 5th and N. 6th streets, all between W. Michigan Street and W. Kilbourn Avenue. 

From Friday through Aug. 21, the Kilbourn Tunnel on- and off-ramps for I-43 also will be closed, but the rest of the downtown freeway system will remain open.

On other downtown streets near the convention center, all sorts of commercial trucks will be banned, along with most buses, garbage trucks, recreational vehicles and motor homes, from 4 p.m. to midnight each day from Sunday through Aug. 20. Paratransit vehicles for riders with disabilities, such as Milwaukee County’s Transit Plus system, will be the only kind of buses allowed at all hours on those streets.

Those restrictions will affect nine Milwaukee County Transit System routes, bus system spokeswoman Kristina Hoffman said Thursday. Routes 14 (Humboldt-16th-Forest Home), 19 (3rd Street/King Drive), 30 (UWM-Sherman Blvd.), 80 (6th Street), GoldLine (UWM-Wisconsin Ave.-Bluemound Rd.) and BlueLine (National Ave.-Fond du Lac Ave.) will be detoured; Routes 12 (12th-Teutonia), 31 (12th-Highland) and 57 (Water-Walnut). 

By contrast, The Hop, the city’s streetcar line, is extending service until midnight, from Monday through Aug. 20, instead of its usual pandemic-driven shutdown time of 9 p.m., says Brian DeNeve, spokesman for the city Department of Public Works.

Air space above the convention center also will be restricted, prohibiting both manned aircraft and drones, from 6 to 11 p.m. each night from Monday through Aug. 20. However, no restrictions will be in place for vessels on local rivers and Lake Michigan.

The most intense security, including metal detector screenings and a long list of banned items, will apply only to people entering the Wisconsin Center. In addition to the usual airport-style prohibitions, the contraband list includes balloons, selfie sticks and poles for mounting signs. Signs themselves are OK, as long as they are no larger than 20 feet by 3 feet and no more than a quarter-inch thick. 

Before the convention was cut back, Milwaukee’s security zone was likely to have more in common with the most recent Republican National Convention in Cleveland than with the last DNC in Philadelphia.

Just as the Milwaukee DNC was originally destined for Fiserv Forum, both of the 2016 conventions were held at basketball arenas. But the urban geography of their host cities was quite different.

Philadelphia has grouped all of its sports facilities together in the Philadelphia Sports Complex on the city’s south end, much as if Fiserv Forum and Lambeau Field had been built near Miller Park in the Menomonee Valley. The 2016 DNC was based at Wells Fargo Center, home of the NBA’s 76ers and the NHL’s Flyers.

As a result, the only businesses inside the security zone were the bars and restaurants at the Xfinity Live Center, Philadelphia’s equivalent of the Deer District. The convention’s closest neighbors were Citizens Bank Park, home of MLB’s Phillies, and Lincoln Financial Field, home of the NFL’s Eagles, while protesters were allowed to gather at nearby FDR Park. 

Traffic restrictions were in place for the surrounding South Philadelphia residential neighborhoods, but not downtown.

Therefore, although Philadelphia DNC Chairman Ed Rendell had warned Milwaukee that businesses inside the security perimeter would be “pretty much screwed,” few if any businesses in his city suffered such a fate.

In Cleveland, by contrast, all the sports and convention facilities are downtown, but they’re not all adjacent to each other. That meant Cleveland’s RNC security zone was broken up into three pieces. The largest one included the main convention venue, the Cavaliers’ Quicken Loans Arena (now RocketMortgage Field House), plus the Indians’ Progressive Field and a number of nearby businesses.

Four blocks north, a second zone was set up for the Huntington Convention Center. Two blocks north of that, welcoming events required a third zone on the shores of Lake Erie, including the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Great Lakes Science Center and the Browns’ FirstEnergy Stadium.

As a result, traffic and parking restrictions were imposed on a large swath of downtown Cleveland throughout the convention week.

Milwaukee has escaped most of the traffic hassles, but nearly all of the economic benefits, as its convention has shrunk.

When this city first landed the DNC, supporters enthusiastically predicted 50,000 visitors; a regional economic impact of about $200 million; 15,000 hotel room nights in lodgings from Madison to Sheboygan to northern Illinois; and 1,500 to 2,000 parties and other spinoff events.

But those predictions were repeatedly scaled back in the face of the growing coronavirus pandemic. Citing health concerns, organizers first rescheduled the convention from July to August, then shifted to a mainly virtual format and told delegates to stay away. 

Some in the hospitality industry, particularly hotels, still held out hope for some kind of economic boost. Even those hopes dimmed, however, when organizers announced that Biden and other speakers wouldn’t travel to Milwaukee. On top of that, the few people still coming to the convention reportedly have been told not to visit local bars and restaurants.

In their disappointment, several top local political figures are joining Pabst Theatre Group CEO Gary Witt in calling for the convention to come back in 2024. But even if supporters could again raise the tens of millions of dollars needed to stage a national political convention, observers question whether such massive quadrennial gatherings have outlived their usefulness

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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 profiles of U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Milwaukee Ald. Bob Donovan, as well as a feature about the perennial power struggles of Milwaukee County officials. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.