Developers see potential for land under the bridge

Should Milwaukee’s Hoan Bridge, a major north-south thoroughfare for the community, be replaced with a street-level boulevard that would attract millions of dollars in new real estate development along the lakefront? Or is it unrealistic to think that developers would find demand for land so close to the stench of Jones Island and the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District plant?

Those are key questions facing Milwaukee’s public and private sectors as they ponder the future of the Hoan Bridge.

About 40,000 vehicles use the Hoan Bridge each day, but it was designed for far heavier traffic loads.

“Today we have more infrastructure than we need there,” said Matt Hintze, principal with HNTB, a national design firm hired by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to examine the bridge’s future use.

The Hoan Bridge was designed to be part of a lakefront interstate highway that would have stretched into Illinois. Construction of the bridge was completed in 1974, but residents of the south shore and east side objected to construction of a freeway through their neighborhoods. As a result, the Hoan Bridge was isolated and became known locally as the “bridge to nowhere” until 1977, when off and on ramps were finally added to connect the bridge to the city’s surface streets.

In the 1990s, the Lake Parkway was built, improving access across the bridge to downtown Milwaukee from General Mitchell International Airport on the south side.

The HNTB study examined an alternative for repairing the Hoan Bridge.

Today, the DOT is in the beginning stages of considering what to do with the bridge in the future, holding early-stage talks with Milwaukee officials.

A lengthy and difficult political battle over the Hoan’s status is certain if the state eventually seeks to replace it.

Because of the potential to spur redevelopment in existing areas and create new areas where development could happen, the idea of replacing the bridge deserves careful study, many in the local commercial real estate industry say.

“I’ve always thought that there is a lot of potential in that area,” said James Barry III, president and chief executive officer of Milwaukee-based real estate brokerage Colliers Barry. “I think that the fact that it’s driven over is a detriment to it. The only way to get there is through circuitous routes.”

Elevated roadways such as the Hoan Bridge typically undervalue the land that is beneath them and prevent significant development, said Blair Williams, a partner with Milwaukee-based WiRED Ventures.

“I think that the Hoan happens to be a bridge over inherently developable land,” he said. “With appropriate planning and plans, it’s not unreasonable to think that you could take it down and arrive at a solution that doesn’t diminish the value from north to south. You could integrate it into the fabric better so you could develop the land.”

While it is difficult for some to imagine high-rise condominiums and other development near Jones Island, Williams pointed out that other areas of Milwaukee have overcome significant image problems in the past.

“The Third Ward used to be a manufacturing area, and it was able to overcome that to create a destination area,” he said. “And the old tanneries and Milwaukee River had some of the worst smells ever – it was a cesspool. If 15 years ago someone had said that Commerce Street will be the first harbinger of modernism in Milwaukee, you would have said they were crazy.”

“When you think about what elevated roadways are – they do the same thing that elevated bypasses do to small-town America,” Williams said. “Think about the downtowns that died when the bypass came in and bypassed the central business district – they bypass Main Street. In today’s economy, we are all going to want to and need to concentrate on Main Street and doing all we can to avoid bypassing value. To create value and opportunities, this is one of those opportunities.”

The northern and eastern portions of the Third Ward stand to benefit the most if the elevated connection between the Hoan Bridge and I-94 is brought down to street level, said Milwaukee Alderman Robert Bauman.

“In my judgment, the greatest potential for real estate increment is at the north end of the (Hoan) bridge if you eliminate the interchange flyovers and create an at-grade signaled intersection at Lincoln Memorial Drive and Clybourn,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about that idea for 15 years as I walk through all those parking lots (there), asking, ‘What idiot tied up all this prime real estate with these freeway ramps?'”

The Third Ward’s master plan calls for the Lake Interchange and its onramps to be brought to street level in the future. Both Bauman and Robert Monnat, chief operating officer with Mandel Group, a Milwaukee real estate development firm, worked on the plan.

Bringing the interchange to street level would do more than just free up valuable commercial real estate, Monnat said.

“The one very immediate noticeable opportunity is to try to consolidate the land area that is otherwise lost to all of these overhead ramps in the northeast corner of the Third Ward, to create an opportunity for more linkages between the Third Ward, the lakefront and the central business district,” he said. “Ramp configuration like that is very land-intensive. Some of the most valuable property downtown is tied up in parking lots.”

More study needed

However, replacing the Hoan Bridge with a street-level boulevard or other roadway could negatively impact traffic flow between downtown and the south side – and must be studied carefully before any decision is made, Monnat said.

“There are a lot of areas in southeastern Milwaukee County that have new value created because of the completion of the Lake Parkway,” he said. “From a commercial real estate and housing perspective, that completed link should be looked at closely to determine if there could be a detrimental impact to values in the south shore impact (if the bridge were taken down).”

Another potential problem is the downtown area already has a glut of land available for development in the Third Ward, especially on its eastern end, which has many vacant or under-used properties already in need of redevelopment, said Robert Joseph, a developer who has done several projects in the area. Milwaukee might be best-served by making sure its available land is developed before creating more open space, he said.

“Charter Wire is coming on line, and there is still over 10 acres near the (Italian Community Center),” he said. “There are still quite a few (properties) that need to be developed before we can say we’re out of space.”

Others are concerned about the impact a changed roadway could have on the Port of Milwaukee.

“There are increasingly stringent Homeland Security requirements and operational issues. You can’t put a road down the middle of a port,” said Ronald San Felippo, president of the Historic Third Ward Association and a member of the Port of Milwaukee’s Harbor Commission. “There is a lot more work and communication (to be done) before a determination is made. If there is potential to do better rather than to keep what we have for the next 40 years, it ought to be looked at.”

The Airport Gateway Business Association, a group of business owners located near General Mitchell International Airport, recently sent a letter to state DOT Secretary Frank Busalacchi, urging the state to study the potential impact to existing businesses and traffic flows if the Hoan Bridge were to be replaced.

The Lake Parkway and the Hoan Bridge provide an alternative to Interstate 94 for business and cargo traffic, the letter states, and the thoroughfare already experiences significant delays from its sole traffic light at Oklahoma Avenue. The raising and lowering of a bascule bridge could cause significant new delays, the letter states.

“In addition to the speed and accessibility factors, Secretary Busalacchi, there is a sales feature to consider,” the letter states. “When entities such as the Milwaukee 7, VISIT Milwaukee and Spirit of Milwaukee are introducing newcomers to the area, they intentionally take people along the I-794 parkway and over the Hoan Bridge. There is no other view like this in the area and it really helps welcome people to Milwaukee.”

The City of Milwaukee recently has started talks with the DOT about redesign options for the Hoan Bridge, said Eileen Force, spokeswoman for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. The city now only wants to see all options studied, including the re-decking of the current bridge.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions, and this is about getting those answered,” Force said. “From a transportation standpoint and infrastructure standpoint, everything needs to be considered. It’s really too early for specifics.”

Bauman foresees the future of the Hoan Bridge as a  politically volatile issue.

“I see a huge political fight (coming about this), and the odds are that nothing will happen and we will lose a huge opportunity,” he said. “Some folks won’t want to sacrifice one second of travel time for the enhancement of the community. When you mess with people’s cars, people run for the hills and the governor will back off.”

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