When the mile-and-a-half-long Stadium Freeway North was constructed in Milwaukee in the early 1960s, it split neighborhoods in two, putting a high-speed roadway amid residential streets, rendering acres of land unusable and creating complicated and often dangerous intersections near the entrances to vital business districts.
With the Wisconsin Department of Transportation preparing to study the aging Highway 175 freeway spur, some say converting the highway into a boulevard or even a neighborhood-level street could be a boon to the surrounding neighborhoods and business districts.
Chris Hau, principal project manager at Milwaukee-based Quorum Architects Inc., sees the highway spur as an obstacle both for residents and businesses. With an office located off West Highland Boulevard in the Concordia neighborhood and a home in Washington Heights, Hau works on one side of Highway 175 and lives on the other.
As president of the Uptown Crossing BID, Hau would particularly like to see a change to the cumbersome intersection formed by the Highway 175 offramp and West Lisbon Avenue, which is hard to traverse and fails to adequately welcome both pedestrians and motorists to the businesses that line the blocks of Lisbon Avenue.
The Uptown Crossing BID began looking at what a reimagined intersection could look like about 10 years ago. A few years later, those discussions led to the BID asking University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Urban Planning students and Enberg Anderson Architects, to produce plans for redesigning what is now a grassy knoll separating the off and on ramps to 175 into a mixed-use development.
“From the BID’s perspective, whatever that highway spur becomes needs to be an actual place instead of the on/off racetrack we currently have,” Hau said.
He added that a redesigned intersection and roadway would be ripe for redevelopment, especially given the high traffic counts the neighborhood has seen and recent business growth that has taken place in the past four or five years. Hau pointed to companies like Bittercube, which moved its entire business to Lisbon Avenue in 2018.
If Highway 175 were turned into a boulevard or a neighborhood-level street the only thing stopping development from happening there would be a lack of creativity, said developer Ryan Pattee, principal of Milwaukee-based Pattee Group.
With Highway 175 dug down into the earth, Pattee said he could envision a boulevard with tiered developments on either side, or even a neighborhood-level street as narrow as North Prospect Avenue on the city’s East Side, should that be feasible.
“I love that idea of breaking down barriers and having a new development there and not just a road,” Pattee said. “If you look at Clearwater Beach, Florida, and kind of how they build their hotels down there, that is what I kind of envision right there, just a bunch of long terraces where it just keeps stepping back as it goes up. … You could also build another neighborhood (where the highway is). You could build a mini neighborhood that connects the two other neighborhoods.”
Lindsey St. Arnold Bell, who lives in Washington Heights and serves as associate director of Near West Side Partners, which operates the Near West Side BID, said turning the freeway into a more typical neighborhood street would mean greater connection for the neighborhoods and businesses on either side of West Vilet Street. It would also provide a better connection to Washington Park for neighborhoods on both sides of Highway 175. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, of Central Park fame, Washington Park’s grassy slopes and peaceful lagoons are surrounded by multi-lane boulevards or highway overpasses, Bell said.
“To have a such a gorgeous green space that is kind of disconnected on every side from the residents that could really utilize it is a bit of a travesty,” she said.
What’s key to making any redevelopment of Highway 175 successful, Bell said, is getting the community involved from the get-go and ensuring they can benefit from any employment opportunities tied to the redevelopment.
“I am not a developer who is going to tell the community: ‘Hey, we are going to build this here.’ I want to know what the community wants,” he said. “Traditionally, real estate has just been a bunch of old white guys doing the same thing over and over again and reaping the profits, but there are different ways to do things where you can have more of a social impact.”