If you’ve ever been on East Brady Street on a warm summer night on Milwaukee’s East Side, you might have experienced the precarious, often-dangerous mix of impatient motorists and ebullient bar and restaurant goers.
Following a September hit-and-run accident that claimed the life of 32-year-old pedestrian Arne Bast, the Brady Street Business Improvement District announced it would study pedestrianizing the street and closing it to vehicular traffic.
As the Brady Street BID considers whether or not it wants to see the street, or a part of the street, closed to vehicles, some business owners and city officials say more needs to be done to make all of the city’s commercial districts safer for and more inviting to pedestrians. Advocates for making Milwaukee more pedestrian friendly say that approach would not only make the city safer, but also more vibrant and would help attract more businesses and development.
This doesn’t have to mean barring traffic on all or even a portion of roads that serve those commercial districts, they say, but it does mean putting pedestrians at the center of a reimagined streetscape.[caption id="attachment_558777" align="alignnone" width="1280"] Pedestrians and pets roam the street during the annual Brady Street Pet Parade in early October. Credit: Josh Wankowski[/caption]
Open to change
Unlocking her bike from a Brady Street parking meter on a recent Tuesday, 19-year-old Giselle Candelaria said it would be nice to feel as free biking around Brady Street as she did on partially pedestrianized State Street while living in downtown Madison.
Originally from the south side, the Milwaukee native recently moved back home, settling around Brady Street, and said pedestrianization of the street might bring something new and interesting to the neighborhood.
“Living on State Street, it was really nice to just be able to bike around and not worry about cars,” Calendaria said. “I feel pedestrianizing Brady Street would modernize things.”
Cutting through the heart of the city’s eclectic and historic Lower East Side, Brady Street is no State Street – a downtown Madison artery sandwiched between a bustling state capitol and a flagship university with more than 70,000 students and staff – but the Milwaukee thoroughfare is the heartbeat of a neighborhood it has helped to shape over the past 160 years.
Running roughly ten blocks, or just over a half a mile, from North Farwell Avenue to North Van Buren Street, Brady Street draws thousands of people to its many bars, restaurants and independently owned retail shops.
While the Brady Street BID’s leadership and members of its board of directors declined to comment about the study or even provide their overall thoughts, more than half a dozen Brady Street business owners and employees interviewed by BizTimes Milwaukee said they were open to some kind of pedestrianization of the street, especially if it only involved certain blocks or certain times of the week.
At least two business owners, Tiara McGee of Black Ink Milwaukee tattoo shop at 1117 E. Brady St., and Brian Kirk, co-owner of Lilliput Records on North Farwell Avenue (but still located within the BID), would back closing the busiest parts of Brady Street to traffic on weekend nights.
“We get a lot of walk-ins, so I don’t think it would be that big of an impact. Parking would be hard, but parking is already hard to find,” McGee said.
A man who works at one of Brady Street’s most popular watering holes said he thinks shutting down the street to traffic on weekend nights would go a long way in preventing collisions between vehicles and pedestrians.
“I do see crazy drivers a lot, and people, when they get drunk, walking across the street, are not very vigilant, so it is just asking for problems to occur,” said the employee, who asked to remain anonymous.[caption id="attachment_558780" align="alignnone" width="1280"] The sun sets on a recent Friday evening on East Brady Street. Credit: Maredithe Meyer[/caption]
Reduced parking, increased visibility
Other options to improve safety could also be considered.
Eliminating parking on one or both sides of Brady Street – especially as a way to make Brady Street’s narrow sidewalks wider – could give pedestrians more room to maneuver, while also increasing their ability to see traffic coming and going as they prepare to cross the street.
Drivers coming down the street would also be able to see pedestrians better, said Gard Pecor, senior market analyst at CoStar Group and a local urbanist.
“Especially with the size of cars these days, if you are … leaving Jo-Cats, and you can’t see over the Ford F-150 (parked) next to you, by the time you peek your head out to look, your head is already in traffic,” Pecor said.
He also noted that there really isn’t that much parking on the street to begin with.
“From Walgreens to (North) Humboldt (Avenue) there’s only about 68 parking spots total on both sides of the street combined,” Pecor said, adding that Milwaukeeans have very unrealistic parking expectations in general.
Taija Brown, owner of Economy Clothing Co., 1338 E. Brady St., noted that parking is already scarce on the street, so losing a few more spaces to pedestrianization wouldn’t have a big impact on her business.
“There are only so many spots and usually people are parking away from the street anyway, so I don’t think parking really matters in this case,” Brown said.[caption id="attachment_558782" align="alignnone" width="1280"] A pedestrian walks past Nomad World Pub as cars and public transportation buzz by.[/caption]
What about retail?
Some business leaders, including longtime Milwaukee commercial real estate broker Bruce Westling, managing director at Newmark’s Milwaukee office, worry that barring traffic on Brady Street in any major way could hurt its retail shops, turning the street into a place where only bars and restaurants could survive.
“Brady Street is on people’s traffic patterns. When you’re dropping down into downtown from the Upper East Side or Whitefish Bay area, you come down Farwell to hang a right on Brady Street to drop down to Water Street,” Westling said. “People tend to drive that way. So, if you take that away, their eyes aren’t on the retail (as they drive by). They aren’t looking at the new vintage shop, or the florist that just went in. They are not seeing them, so they are out of mind, and they will create new habits.”
Michael Glorioso, general manager at Glorioso’s Italian Market, which has called Brady Street home for more than 75 years, feels similarly.
“I am not in favor of the idea, as it is not practical for a grocery store to operate and survive on Brady Street without (vehicle) access throughout the day every day,” Glorioso said in an email. “I think that the street needs to remain open as a major east-west thoroughfare 24/7.”
Brown at Economy Clothing, on the other hand, thinks pedestrianization would help the street draw more daytime businesses and shoppers.
“I started in March, and all of my business has been from passersby. I haven’t done any advertising, so I’m hoping, with a street closure, it will bring a little more consistency, especially in the day time, just because Brady is currently branded as kind of a bar street,” she said.
Tim Drury, manager of Art Smart’s Dart Mart, helped open the shop at the corner of Humboldt Avenue and Brady Street in 1985. He said he doesn’t think closing all or part of Brady Street to traffic would hurt business at the store, which sells darts and disc golf supplies as well as a variety of novelties.
“I think people drive too fast on Brady. There’s been a rash of hit-and-runs lately. Anything to control traffic would be a good thing as far as I’m concerned,” Drury said.[caption id="attachment_558784" align="alignnone" width="1280"] A rendering of the proposed pedestrian mall on East Ivanhoe Place on Milwaukee's East Side. Credit: City of Milwaukee’s Gathering Places Feasibility Study[/caption]
A real problem
When it comes to eliminating traffic fatalities on Brady, closing the street to traffic at night might be the quickest way to get there, said Robert Schneider, a professor and chair of the Department of Urban Planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
“Three quarters of all pedestrian fatalities in the U.S. occur at night, in darkness,” Schneider said. “Thinking about a place where there is a lot of pedestrian activity at night – Brady Street, for example – is a place where if you were to pedestrianize it you could reduce that risk at night.”
According to a recent city report, 17 pedestrians were hit and killed in Milwaukee in 2021. Another 72 were seriously injured that year due to being struck by motor vehicles. A cyclist was also killed last year in a car crash, and 10 cyclists were seriously injured. In 2020, crashes took the lives of three cyclists.
“Pedestrian safety and overall traffic safety probably aren’t mentioned in a lot of other cities as the motivation for pedestrianizing a location, but there was a pedestrian killed on Brady Street (in a hit-and-run) this year, and we really do have a traffic safety problem in Milwaukee,” Schneider said.
Incoming Ald. Jonathan Brostoff, who will represent Brady Street on the Common Council after he is sworn in on Nov. 16, said that while he’s waiting to see the results of the BID study, achieving true, long-term safety on Brady Street, and across the city, is a key goal. \[caption id="attachment_558778" align="alignnone" width="1280"] Outdoor seating extends onto the street outside of Malone's on Brady.[/caption]
Plenty of options
While temporary closures of the busiest parts of Brady Street – say from North Humboldt Avenue east to North Farwell Street – is an obvious option, Schneider, urbanists and city officials are quick to note that there are other ways to redesign the street to make it safer for everyone.
Options include installing curb extensions or bump-outs at the end of street corners to prevent reckless drivers from doing what’s become known as the “Milwaukee Slide,” which could be defined as using the parking or bike lane to pass cars ahead of them, or whipping around a corner so quickly that they don’t have time to even see, let alone stop, for pedestrians and other drivers.
Across town in the Bay View neighborhood, the city recently used American Rescue Act Plan funds to help pour pinned-on curb extensions along a section of East Oklahoma Avenue, in an effort to slow traffic. The investment was part of the city’s overall aim at curbing reckless driving.
“(Streets like Oklahoma Avenue) happen to be state and county trunk highways that bisect through Milwaukee, but they shouldn’t function in Milwaukee the same way that they do in less densely populated areas,” said Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson.
Closer to Brady Street, the city plans to use tax increment financing district funds to pay for a transformation of North Van Buren Street, from East Wisconsin Avenue to Brady Street, which could include implementation of protected bike lanes, curb extensions, pedestrian refuge islands, intersection modifications and transit enhancements.
Other possible fixes for Brady Street include raised crosswalks, Schneider said.
“Think of a speed bump on a residential street, but instead of using that speed bump just to purely slow traffic, put the speed bump where the crosswalk is and have it serve two purposes: One, indicating that the pedestrian has priority, and two, slowing down cars because they have to go over a hump,” he explained.
Commissioner Lafayette Crump, who heads the Department of City Development, and Commissioner Jerrel Kruschke, who leads its Department of Public Works, also point to the many street redesign projects aimed at curbing reckless driving, especially those that are a part of its Complete Streets program.
“With the city’s Complete Streets program, the goal is to make a driver feel uncomfortable driving down the road,” Kruschke said. “It’s not to make them get into a crash, but it’s to make them slow down enough so that if a child kicks a ball into the middle of the roadway, they’re not driving 40 miles per hour. They’re going 10 miles an hour, so there is enough time to react.”
In addition to several million dollars in ARPA funds earmarked to address reckless driving, the city is using $10.8 million of TID funding for public infrastructure projects to address reckless driving, provide safe routes to school, create streetscape amenities, and add ADA compliance features and bike lanes, with the vast majority of the projects being in communities of color, Crump said.
“Safer neighborhoods promote development, and development can in turn promote safer neighborhoods,” he added.
Johnson also noted efforts to target reckless drivers themselves, including towing the vehicles of known reckless drivers, partnering with the Wisconsin State Patrol to increase traffic safety patrols and suing reckless drivers who routinely menace city streets.
Part of the change that needs to happen in Milwaukee and other cities – where planners in the latter half of the 20th century redesigned streetscapes in deference to cars – is to remember what the public portion of streets were originally meant to do: Bring residents and visitors together, said Schneider.
“We have so many streets here in Milwaukee that did have that original historic character, but then as motorization really picked up, planners and engineers started saying, ‘Well, we need to move the cars through here fast,’” Schneider said. “I don’t think those planners necessarily realized the impact that would have on the neighborhoods themselves, and that some of them would lose that cohesiveness in their business districts. What we are trying to do now is to get that cohesiveness back through design.”
For Crump and Johnson, redesigning the city’s streetscape to make it safer and more inviting for pedestrians is a key goal.
“One of our priorities at (DCD) is to foster walkable urban neighborhoods that spur economic development, promote vitality and increase safety,” Crump said. “Whether it’s pedestrianizing a specific street or trying to create other places where people can gather and people can feel safe, I think everything has to be on the table.”
While both Crump and Johnson say they would support a move to pedestrianize a portion of Brady Street if the BID study determines that is a viable option, Crump said the administration’s goal for creating a more pedestrian-friendly city will most certainly be evident in the soon-to-be-released update to the Downtown Area Plan.
“That downtown plan is probably going to make recommendations for a fairly radical transformation of key downtown streets, including creating new shared streets, which are designed to slow traffic speeds and encourage pedestrian activity,” Crump noted.
While the plan might not call for the full pedestrianization of any streets downtown, there will be recommendations for “improvements that are going to repurpose what perhaps are unneeded portions of streets and right of ways,” Crump said.
Exactly what the new area plan envisions for downtown remains to be seen, but one possible example of an unneeded portion of a street – at least as far as vehicular traffic goes – is the block of East Ivanhoe Place that lies between North Farwell and North Prospect avenues on the East Side.
That’s according to developer Tim Gokhman, managing director of New Land Enterprises. Its Crossroads Collective food hall is located on the block. Gokhman has advocated for the entire block to be pedestrianized, or even just a half-block portion east of Farwell between the food hall and Hooligan’s tavern.
The move would create a public plaza between the two businesses and connect Black Cat Alley. The proposal recently gained backing from the East Side Business Improvement District, said Gokhman, who added that he is encouraged to finally see some movement within the city toward making the project happen.
“There is clearly a desire for gathering spaces,” Gokhman said. “We have a lot of parks, definitely, but cities like Denver, Des Moines and even Detroit have found ways to create these really great gathering spaces. People want public spaces like these in an urban setting.”
Local urbanists have also touted Broadway in the Historic Third Ward as a Milwaukee street that could be pedestrianized. Other than cars slowly jockeying for a coveted angled parking spot, the stretch of roadway sees little traffic. West St. Paul Avenue near the Public Market would also be a good candidate, Schneider said
“I always think about St. Paul, where the streetcar stop is right in front of the public market. That short section of street seems like it could really be a great pedestrian space,” he said.
Off of Brady Street, a block of Warren Avenue has been transformed from a minimally used street into a beer garden known as Brady Beach. The brainchild of Nomad World Pub owner Mike Eitel, the outdoor seating area grew in popularity and prominence during COVID-19 as diners were looking to eat and drink outside, and the city was pushing its Active Streets program. The effort helped restaurants and bars provide more outdoor seating by allowing them to use a greater portion of the right of way.
“It’s just reduced a lot of reckless driving,” Eitel said of the Brady Beach project, especially since it gave unruly motorists one less way to access the street. “If we can create more of those little pockets, I think the impact will be incredibly noticeable.”
Eitel added that he would be a supporter of whatever solutions the Brady Street study uncovers.
Urbanists, officials and Schneider also pointed to commercial districts in places outside of the popular Third Ward and East Side neighborhoods that would make for great pedestrian plazas.
Schneider said he had his students look at possibilities for creating a pedestrian plaza for the one block of West Forest Home Avenue that sits between South 13th Street and West Historic Mitchell Street. A six-block stretch of Mitchell Street was turned into a pedestrian mall between 1975 and 1995, but that effort – aimed at competing with shopping malls – ended up hurting retail business on the street and, like many U.S. pedestrian malls created during the 1970s and 80s, was later removed and the street was reopened to traffic.
Turning a block or two of North 36th Street off of Villard Avenue on the North Side into a pedestrian mall could also work, Schneider said, noting that this idea, as well as the Forest Home Avenue idea, have already been highlighted in the Gathering Places Feasibility study that Johnson spearheaded this March while still an alderman.
That study also mentions North Arlington Place – a one-block street off of Brady Street – as having potential for becoming a pedestrian plaza.
While these plans may still just be ideas on paper, Crump describes them as a lodestar.
“Some of these things have happened organically in some cities, but we don’t want to just hope for the best,” he said. “That is why we are very intentional about our plan.”
“We’ve all had experiences in other cities, where people say, ‘Oh, go here,’ and we ask, ‘Well, what is there to do? And they say, ‘Oh, just hang out. It’s beautiful.’ Maybe there are vendors, or food trucks. But it’s not an area where you have to spend money just to enjoy yourself. In a city that belongs to all of us, we have to have places where people feel comfortable doing just that.”
Over time, as gathering places or pedestrian plazas become more prominent, Schneider believes people will be more likely to see city streets as community-oriented public spaces and not immediately default to thinking about how any changes might impact motorists.
“These are our public spaces,” he said. “We can ultimately choose how we want them to be.”