City officials say streetcar would spur downtown development

The proposed downtown Milwaukee streetcar would help attract development to vacant lots and would help fill vacant spaces along the rail line, city officials say.

The city recently unveiled the route for the project, which has been planned for several years. The Milwaukee Connector Study Committee approved the plans, including the new route, which allows the preliminary engineering process for the project to begin.

“The route that’s been selected has a lot of potential ridership. There is a lot of existing residential and commercial density,” said Richard “Rocky” Marcoux, commissioner of the Department of City Development. “If you follow the (route) map, you will see there are also vacant areas, areas that could be developed.”

The downtown Milwaukee streetcar route begins near the Intermodal Station at the corner of North Fourth Street and St. Paul Avenue. From there, the route goes east on St. Paul Avenue into the Historic Third Ward, and then turns north onto Broadway. The route continues on Broadway to Wells Street and heads east on Wells to Van Buren Street. The route then goes north on Van Buren (southbound streetcars there will use Jackson Street instead) up to Ogden Avenue. The route goes east on Ogden to Farwell Avenue.

The streetcar route could have a major impact attracting development to St. Paul Avenue and Broadway, said Alderman Robert Bauman, who represents the downtown area. There are several vacant lots along St. Paul Avenue, plus the mostly vacant Pritzlaff building complex at the southwest corner of Plankinton Avenue and St. Paul. Broadway has several vacant lots between Mason and Wells streets and Michigan and Clybourn streets, plus several buildings with vacant spaces.

“I think this will revolutionize Broadway,” Bauman said. “(And) I think it will really ignite the St. Paul corridor, especially if the Post Office comes into play.”

“There are some surface parking lots that can be put to better use with buildings,” Marcoux said. “The route gives you a good share of initial ridership and also the ability to leverage some development.”

The streetcar route would take riders to the doorstep of the Milwaukee Public Market, Roundy’s Metro Market grocery store, the Cathedral Place office building and several multi-unit residential buildings, including Juneau Village and Yankee Hill.

The route would also take riders within one block of several major office buildings, including the Chase Tower, 100 East Wisconsin, 411 East Wisconsin and the Marshall & Ilsley Corp. headquarters, plus other key locations, including City Hall, the BreakWater Condominiums building and East Pointe Pick ‘n Save.

Several other major downtown locations are located within two blocks of the streetcar route, including the Pfister Hotel, the Milwaukee Center office building, the Pabst Theater, the Intercontinental Hotel, the MGIC Investment Corp. headquarters, the U.S. Bank Center and the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. headquarters.

However, some important downtown areas are not located near the streetcar line, including the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Water Street bar district and the west side of downtown, including the Bradley Center. Also, the route only passes through the northern edge of the Historic Third Ward.

Federal funds will cover about $55 million of the project’s $64 million costs.

Critics say the project will be a waste of money and will attract few riders. They cite the low use of the previous rubber-wheeled trolley cars in the city.

Supporters of the project say numerous downtown residents, workers and visitors would use the streetcar.

The project is intended to be a starter line. City officials are applying for $25 million in additional federal funds for the project to extend the streetcar line north along Fourth Street past the convention center, Hyatt Regency hotel and the Bradley Center, up to Juneau Avenue and then west into the Pabst brewery redevelopment project.

If received, the additional federal funds would also be used to extend the streetcar line northeast along Farwell and Prospect avenues a block past Brady Street.

The Fourth Street extension to Juneau Avenue would provide a key boost to the Park East corridor, which has been mostly vacant for years, Bauman said.

“It could be a true catalyst for redeveloping the Park East,” Bauman said.

Streetcar supporters say one of the most important roles that it will play is connecting the Intermodal Station to the rest of the downtown area. Travelers who arrive at the station on Amtrak trains or buses will be able to use the streetcar to get to, or close to, their final downtown destinations, Bauman said.

“That’s huge. It basically connects the last mile (of the trip),” he said.

Downtown and east side residents also could use the streetcar to get to the Intermodal Station, Marcoux said.

“Someone living on the east side would not have to take their car to go to Chicago,” Marcoux said. “They could just take the streetcar to the Intermodal Station and then take the train.”

City officials hope to have the streetcar operational by 2013.

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Andrew is the editor of BizTimes Milwaukee. He joined BizTimes in 2003, serving as managing editor and real estate reporter for 11 years. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, he is a lifelong resident of the state. He lives in Muskego with his wife, Seng, their son, Zach, and their dog, Hokey. He is an avid sports fan and is a member of the Muskego Athletic Association board of directors.

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