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Project Profile: Park East Freeway Removal Project, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Park East freeway underconstruction
Milwaukee Freeway being torn down.
Source: Credit to the City of Milwaukee Department of City Development, Wisconsin
Project Name Park East Freeway Removal
Location Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Project Sponsor / Borrower City of Milwaukee
Program Areas Project FinanceValue Capture
Value Capture Techniques Asset Recycling, Right-of-Way Use Agreements, & Tax Increment Financing
Mode Bridge (Elevated Highway Spur)

The Parkway East Freeway in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was a remnant of a 1960s plan to encircle the city’s downtown region. The spur was built in 1971 from 12th Street to Jefferson Street. It was meant to be the first part of a route from I-43 to just past North Avenue to the east. A western portion was to connect I-43 with Highway 175.

After only a one mile stretch of the freeway was completed that provided three access points to downtown, the project was stopped in the 1970s due to local opposition. The spur extended from 1-43 to North Milwaukee Street. The spur was underused and inhibited nearby development. It disconnected African American, German, Jewish, and white residents who lived along I-43, affecting 17,300 homes and as many as 1,000 businesses.

In 1999, the state, county, and city approved the removal of the spur. Removal began in 2002 with use of federal ISTEA money and local tax increment financing. The redevelopment plan created for the area by the City of Milwaukee included a 28-acre tax-increment financing district to help fund public infrastructure improvements, along with a zoning code for future development on the site. The code used new urbanist principles to create a block-by-block form-based code that established requirements for building heights, setbacks, streetscapes, and the relationships between buildings and the streetscape. The code also required that developers of parcels located along the Milwaukee River extend the Milwaukee Riverwalk, a linear park system created and maintained through a public-private partnership between riverfront property owners and the city of Milwaukee that provides public access to the riverfront. The detailed zoning code helped provide clarity to future developers about the types of developments the city would accept in this section of downtown.

To ensure development was equitable and residents shared in the benefits, the Good Jobs and Livable Neighborhoods Coalition leveraged a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), a legally-binding covenant made between developers or government bodies and community groups that require development on specified lands to meet thresholds for living wage standards, local hiring policies, affordable housing, and sustainable development practices. The Park East Redevelopment Compact (PERC) requires county-owned land to be sold competitively. Tax increment financing will fund new roads, sidewalks, and other necessary physical amenities. The PERC also includes affordable housing units, expanded transit options, and green building elements. In addition, the PERC has provisions to ensure equitable hiring practices for construction.

In 2003, the freeway was removed and replaced with McKinley Boulevard, an at-grade, six-lane boulevard, and the urban street grid was restored. The new boulevard opened up 26 acres of property for redevelopment. The land adjacent to the freeway was ultimately redeveloped as a combination of commercial, retail, townhouse, and apartment uses. Three distinct new neighborhoods were created, including: McKinley Avenue District, Lower Water Street District, and Upper Water Street District.

In 2011, a joint marketing effort led to an innovative rolling RFP process, which has led to redevelopment of the entire corridor. The Park East is the site of the new Milwaukee Bucks sports and entertainment district, the Modern high-rise tower, and mixed-use housing redevelopments along Water Street.

Cost $45 million
Funding Sources
  • $25 million, Federal funding (Federal ISTEA Highway Fund)
  • $1.2 million, State
  • Local Tax Incremental Financing through the City of Milwaukee to clean up the land and re-establish a street grid (upgrading local roads and facilities).
Project Delivery / Contract Method Design-Bid-Build
Private Partner
  • HNTB Corporation
  • Planning & Design Institute, Inc.
Project Advisors / Consultants N/A
Lenders N/A
Duration / Status The original Park East Freeway was stopped in the 1970s. In the mid-1990s local advocates led removal efforts, resulting in the highway demolition process beginning in 2002 and ending in 2003. In 2011, a joint marketing effort led to an innovative rolling RFP process, which has led to redevelopment of the entire corridor.
Financial Status / Financial Performance Park East has delivered a huge bang for the buck. With $45 million
  • 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.
  • Demolition of the Park East Freeway marked one of the first times a freeway was removed without an earthquake or infrastructure failure.
  • Remove an elevated freeway for the benefit of the surrounding neighborhoods and to create new valuable land for development. The land was once the Park East Freeway, a mile-long spur that was built as part of a larger plan to encircle the Downtown business district with expressways.
  • The average assessed land values per acre in the footprint of the Park East Freeway grew by over 180% between 2001-2006.
  • The average assessed land values in the Park East Tax Increment District grew by 45%. This growth is much higher than the citywide increase of 25% experienced during the same time period.
  • Attracted Fortune-500 Manpower Corporation to locate its headquarters a block from the former highway. Also mixed-use developments are popping up along the boulevard as well as in the surrounding blocks.
  • Since the removal of the freeway in 2003 the Park East Corridor has seen over $1,060,000,000 of private investment in development projects, with the potential for an additional investment of $250 million on the few remaining undeveloped parcels
  • Saved the city between 25 -55 million dollars demolishing the freeway instead of rebuilding. Also, connectivity to downtown and surrounding neighborhoods improved.
  • Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) guides development in Milwaukee’s Park East Corridor to ensure that development practices are equitable, and residents share in the benefits of a 64-acre redevelopment in the heart of downtown.
Related Links / Articles
Contacts Lori Lutzka
Manager, Development Projects at City of Milwaukee
(414) 286-5846
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