With Traditional Opponents United Behind Milwaukee Lakefront Plan, New Opposition Emerges

Milwaukee’s vision for a renewed downtown lakefront cleared a major hurdle last month, when Mayor Tom Barrett and Governor Scott Walker – two staunch political opponents – announced a joint $34 million plan to move the existing highway ramps near East Clybourn Street and Lincoln Memorial Drive. Removal of the ramps, which currently occupy three acres of prime real estate between the Historic Third Ward, the lakefront, and the city’s downtown, would pave the way for new highrise development along Lake Michigan.

City and state officials expect the project to spur development in the heart of Milwaukee while integrating the Third Ward, by way of reconfigured surface streets, with the lakefront and downtown. Plans already exist for two highrises on adjoining sites, including a glassy 44-floor tower that would replace the Downtown Transit Center and become the city’s third-tallest building. For urban Milwaukeeans more accustomed to Governor Walker’s pro-highway agenda, a return to the street grid and the prospect of post-Recession development comes as welcome news.

But new opposition has threatened to derail these plans. Preserve Our Parks, an advocacy group, vows to fight the city in court to maintain a free and open lakefront. It believes that the lakefront plan is illegal under the public trust doctrine, which prevents the sale of former lakebed land to commercial entities. According to the group, the exit ramps and the Downtown Transit Center sit on such land. An examination of 19th century maps appears to support this contention.

Preserve Our Parks has found allies among members of the public skeptical that the three acres will go towards productive use.  In 2002, the unused Park East freeway was demolished for $25 million, leaving a swath of vacant land in the Haymarket neighborhood that remains undeveloped to this day. Critics of the city’s plan worry that a similar eyesore will emerge along the lake. Others simply call the plan bloated and wasteful.

Concerns that a $34 million demolition will yield undeveloped land are valid ones in a post-Recession climate. And Milwaukee’s open lakefront is undoubtedly a treasure worthy of strenuous preservation. But the land at issue still sits west of Lincoln Memorial Drive, which separates downtown from the public parks along the lake. A building at the site would not tower over the shore or impede public access to Summerfest, Lakeshore State Park, Discovery World, or any other civic amenity. Rather, it would allow for density and development in the heart of Miwaukee’s urban core.

Any demolition carries the possibility of future vacancy. Yet as Milwaukee looks to grow upwards and eastwards, the corner of Clybourn and Lincoln Memorial is the right place to start.

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