Commentary: Let there be light

Last updated on November 10th, 2020 at 05:18 pm

Decorative lights have finally been added to the Hoan Bridge, after a seven-year ordeal.

It began in 2013 when the Wisconsin Department of Transportation was planning a $278 million rehabilitation project for the bridge. The project was to include decorative lighting at a cost of $500,000 to $1 million.

However, Republican legislators blasted plans for the lights, saying it was a huge waste of taxpayer money for an unnecessary and purely aesthetic upgrade. The funding for the lights was cut from the project. The rehabilitation of the bridge was completed in late 2015, without the lights.

In 2018, Ian Abston and Michael Hostad launched a private fundraising campaign to put decorative lights on the Hoan Bridge. Again, there were critics. Even though the project was 100% privately funded, some said it was a mistake to donate money to put lights on a bridge when there are so many bigger problems in Milwaukee deserving of financial support.

Nevertheless, Abston and Hostad persevered, even through times when fundraising was slow. The first phase of the $4.6 million Light the Hoan project was completed recently with more than 2,000 computer-controlled LED light bulbs installed and lit on Milwaukee’s most iconic bridge. The lights can change colors and “move” in different patterns.

So, is it a good thing that millions of dollars were spent to put lights on the Hoan? Yes, it is. Kudos to Abston and Hostad.

What’s the value of aesthetic beauty to a city? It’s hard, if not impossible, to quantify. Great cities have a lot of things that make them special: people, businesses, parks, culture, sports, restaurants … and much more, including sights that delight us: great architecture, natural beauty, public art.

There certainly are more important things than the aesthetic beauty of a city. But cool things to see in a city also help attract people to live, work and play there. The visual appearance of a city helps to form people’s opinions of it. A beautiful city has a better image than an ugly city, and is going to have an easier time attracting people to spend time and money there as residents or as visitors.

So, in a small but important way, the lights on the Hoan Bridge make Milwaukee better.

Likewise, the lights added last year to the giant dome atop the Basilica of St. Josaphat on Milwaukee’s south side also made Milwaukee a more interesting and more attractive place and brought new attention to that beautiful church.

Or consider the Quadracci Pavillion at the Milwaukee Art Museum, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and completed in 2001 at a cost of about $100 million. The art museum didn’t need to add a spectacularly designed addition to house beautiful works of art, but the beauty of the architecture itself drew more attention to the museum and has become perhaps Milwaukee’s most iconic building. There’s a lot of value in that.

Let’s seize future opportunities to make Milwaukee a more beautiful place.

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Andrew Weiland
Andrew Weiland 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, Weiland is a lifelong resident of the state. He lives in Muskego with his wife, Seng, and son, Zachary. He is an avid sports fan and enjoys coaching his son’s youth baseball and basketball teams.

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