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Coalition's proposal would reshape face of downtown Milwaukee, renderings show

A look at downtown Milwaukee with I-794 replaced by about $1.5 billion in new development
794 proposal
Posted at 10:24 AM, Oct 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-19 20:07:28-04

MILWAUKEE — Imagine if the Interstate 794 bridges no longer existed in Milwaukee. How would we utilize that space to benefit everyone who enjoys the city?

A coalition of local planners and residents is trying to share their vision for that space. Renderings released by the coalition show a world without the imposing freeway bridges, and in their place exist more trees, pedestrian walkways, mixed-use housing and outdoor places to eat and drink.

“Walkability would be a big aspect of it. It could be one of the few places in the city and state where you could live without a car," Taylor Korslin, a Milwaukee resident and architect who created some of the renderings, said.

Compare Milwaukee now and the plan's rendering:

The discussion comes as the Wisconsin Department of Transportation looks into revamping the area, specifically the aging structures that connect I-794’s east-west bridges to the Lake Interchange.

One of those proponents for change, called "Rethink I-794", wants to remove the bridges from 6th to Lincoln Memorial. Clybourn meanwhile would be converted into a two-way boulevard.

Another one of the groups called "1000 Friends of Wisconsin" says that the plan would open up just over 30 acres of publically owned land and could generate $1.5 billion in new property value.

Gregg May with "1000 Friends of Wisconsin" is running the campaign for Rethink 794.

May said a better future for Milwaukee begins with removing the interstate from 6th Street all the way to the Lakefront Interchange. He said that would open up more than 32 acres of development worth $1.5 billion.

If they decide to fix the current bridges, it would cost about $300 million. But the state of Wisconsin is also starting a study that considers alternatives to the freeway-dominating norm - like that coalition of locals.

Watch proponent's webinar on Wednesday:

With the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) looking at other alternatives, May and Takach hope the city and DOT will commit to doing a boulevard study and reconnecting Milwaukee again.

What existed before the freeways were built?

In the late 1940s, North Plankinton was a safe space for those in the LGBTQ community. In fact, it was the first known gay neighborhood.

Historians say the construction of Interstate 794 eliminated homes and businesses and disconnected downtown from the Third Ward.

Michail Takach is a curator with the Wisconsin LGBT History Project. He shared images with us that show an area on Plankinton and St. Paul that was very active and housed the city's only gay bars in the late 40s.

"An entire generation of men, women, and gender non-conforming people found refugee," Takach said.

He said that changed as construction began on 794 and the gay community was pushed out.

"That elevated ramp between downtown and Third Ward is just a concrete barrier," Takach said.

Check out the renderings below:

794 proposal
The existing photo is taken near the intersection of Milwaukee Street and Clybourn Street looking towards the Milwaukee River.
794 proposal
Milwaukee Public Market. "Without the barrier of the highway structure, downtown and the Third Ward could be better connected through public spaces and pedestrian friendly mixed-use developments. The rendering envisions the Public Market parking lot transformed into a pedestrian alley with public space, outdoor seating, and mixed-use developments," according to the proposal.
3 - Rethink 794 view from Clybourn before.jpg
Seen from the Milwaukee River
3 - Rethink 794 view from Clybourn after.jpg
4 - Rethink 794 view from Lake Michigan before.jpg
Seen from Lake Michigan. "The rendering envisions possible development afforded by replacing the raised interstate with a boulevard along Clybourn Street," according to the proposal.
4 - Rethink 794 view from Lake Michigan after.jpg
794 proposal
The approximate study area for the Rethink 794 campaign, running from North 6th Street through East Chicago Street.

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