Real Estate: I-94 project will change corridor’s real estate landscape

The $1.9 billion reconstruction and widening of I-94 between the Mitchell Interchange and the Illinois state line will create some new real estate development opportunities along the freeway because the rebuilt interchanges will take up less space, freeing up land that may eventually be sold by the Department of Transportation to developers.

At the same time some businesses located along the I-94 corridor, including the iconic Mars Cheese Castle in Kenosha County, are being forced to re-locate to make way for the newer and wider freeway. The DOT is acquiring 700 properties, some on a temporary basis, along the I-94 corridor for the project. About 10 businesses along the freeway are being relocated including Mars Cheese Castle and several gas stations. Mario Ventura Jr., the owner of the Mars Cheese Castle, plans to build a new building for the store near the existing building. Some homes will also be removed by the DOT, which pays fair market value for the properties and provides relocation services for commercial and residential property owners.

So far, most of the attention given to the I-94 project, which began construction recently, has focused on the plans to widen the freeway from 6 to 8 lanes.

Some, including several city of Milwaukee officials, have raised objections to the widening. The critics say the money for the widening should instead be spent to improve crumbling local streets. In addition, critics say the expansion is not needed and the DOT should spend more money on mass transit instead of freeway expansion.

However, other officials, including several in Racine and Kenosha counties, say they support the I-94 expansion because the road is a vital transportation corridor connecting the region to Chicago and much of the rest of the United States. Expanding the freeway will allow it to handle more traffic in the future and will help attract more businesses and development to the region, supporters say.

The other aspect of the I-94 project that has been controversial is the decision by the DOT to eliminate access to the South 27th Street off ramp to vehicles traveling north through the Mitchell Interchange. To get to 27th Street, those motorists will instead have to exit at Layton Avenue and go west on Layton to 27th Street. The owners of several businesses on 27th Street objected, but the DOT has refused to alter its plans saying the change is necessary to improve safety in the Mitchell Interchange without removing homes.

Forcing northbound traffic to use Layton Avenue to get to 27th Street will only add 2 minutes to the trip, according to studies, said Ryan Luck, construction chief for southeastern Wisconsin freeways for the DOT. The DOT would have had to demolish 26 homes and apartment units to rebuild the Mitchell Interchange safely with full access to South 27th Street, he said.

Southbound traffic coming from the downtown area and eastbound traffic coming from the west will still be able to exit right at South 27th Street after the project is complete.

Meanwhile, other aspects of the I-94 project have received little attention, but could have a major impact on development opportunities for real estate along the freeway. Eliminating northbound access through the Mitchell Interchange to South 27th Street will likely result in more traffic through the Layton Avenue interchange. More traffic on Layton could attract more development to the street.

The Layton Avenue interchange is one of several interchanges that will be re-built as part of the I-94 project. Several of the re-built interchanges will be narrowed, which would open up a large amount of land near the interchanges for new development. The narrowed interchanges that will have large amounts of vacant land next to them once they are re-built will include the interchanges at Layton Avenue, College Avenue, Rawson Avenue and Ryan Road, all in Milwaukee County.

Freeway interchanges are typically hot spots for development, so some developers will probably be eager to purchase available parcels near the re-built interchanges.

The DOT has not yet made any plans to sell surplus land around the interchanges, said Claudia Peterson, DOT technical services manager for the southeastern region.

“We don’t have any plans at this point in time,” she said. “We wait for the project to finish before we decide what to do with surplus land.”

However, after the interchanges are rebuilt the DOT will do an evaluation to decide if the land should be sold, she said. There is a good chance that land around the I-94 interchanges in Milwaukee County will be sold after they are rebuilt in a narrower configuration, Peterson said.

“We want to market and sell as much surplus land as possible,” she said.

Land around the Layton Avenue interchange could be attractive to developers, especially a large property southwest of the interchange and south of a Howard Johnson hotel that could become available after the DOT eliminates the large loop ramp there.

The entire I-94 project is expected to be complete in 2016, but some of the interchanges will be rebuilt before that. Still the process to put the land on the market will likely take awhile. The DOT is still working with city and Milwaukee County officials on its plans to sell surplus land created by the reconstruction of the Marquette Interchange. However, there is no rush to sell the surplus land around the Marquette Interchange because the economy, and the real estate market, is so bad right now, Peterson said.

The I-94 project will also create a new interchange by extending Elm Road in Franklin, east across South 27th Street into Oak Creek. The new interchange will connect the extended Elm Road with I-94. This creates a new road and a new freeway interchange on land that is currently undeveloped.

The interchange with I-94 and South 27th Street at the Racine-Milwaukee county line will be eliminated. That is only a half interchange and Federal Highway Administration no longer allows half interchanges, said Adrian Lopez, major projects manager for the DOT.

There was some discussion about adding a freeway interchange at Drexel Avenue. However, the DOT requires local governments to pay for 50 percent of the cost of a new interchange. Franklin and Oak Creek discussed splitting the costs, but no agreement was reached so there are no plans for a Drexel Avenue interchange, said Luck. An interchange there would have improved access to the vacant former Delphi plant property at Drexel Avenue and Howell Avenue, and may have helped attract development to that site.

The I-94 project will also reconfigure frontage roads and on and off ramps in Racine and Kenosha counties. The DOT wants to do this to eliminate ramps and roads crisscrossing,” Lopez said, which will improve safety. But it will also change what property has access to roads.

The reconstruction of the 7 Mile Road interchange will create new frontage roads, including one that loops around the 7 Mile Fair property.

The new frontage roads at County Highway G and County Highway K in Racine County, and County Highway KR, County Highway E, Highway 142 and County Highway C in Kenosha County are spread further away from the freeway interchanges. A new frontage road segment will be added southwest of the Highway 158 interchange in Kenosha County.

The Highway 50 interchange in Kenosha County will be re-worked. The ramps to and from the south will continue to intersect with Highway 50 while the ramps to and from the north will intersect with 71st Street. The ramps will be connected by short collector roads along each side of I-94 between Highway 50 and 71st Street. I-94 will be reconstructed to pass over 71st Street. The east frontage road north of Highway 50 will be rerouted to what is currently a private road in front of the Woodman’s store. That roadway will be rebuilt and will become the new east frontage road. In addition, a new road, 123rd Avenue, will be built west of I-94 both north and south of Highway 50.

To learn more about the I-94 reconstruction and expansion project and to see how the freeway, interchanges and frontage roads will be redesigned go to: www.plan94.org/improvements-alt.jsp.

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