Just a Little Bit: Milwaukee’s Park Freeway

San Francisco is not the only city in the United States to have ever torn down a freeway.  Milwaukee would follow in its footsteps a few years later.  During the mid-20th century, Milwaukee also had its plans for a sprawling expressway network, linking the city with its disparate suburban communities.

The original plan from 1949 looked a little different compared to the system Milwaukeeans know today:



The 1965 plan from the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Committee, which was considerably more ambitious, shows just how much more might I have been done to the area:


One of these crucial highway links in this sprawling system was known as the Park Freeway.  The Park Freeway’s eastern terminus was to start in downtown by splitting off from the Lake Freeway (I-794) near Clybourn and Van Buren Streets, traveling north before turning west and running more-or-less concurrent with Juneau Avenue before making a northwest turn along State Route 145 near the Lake Freeway (I-43).  From there the freeway was to turn west near West North Avenue and 21st Street before reaching its western terminus at what was to be the north end of the Stadium Freeway near North and Lisbon.

Opposition to the Park was almost immediate.  During the mid to late 1960s, community meetings throughout Milwaukee had many residents from the city’s north side neighborhoods speaking out against the construction of the freeway, though a few spoke out in favor.  Also of concern was the environmental impact the freeway would have on Juneau Park downtown, where the merger with the Lake Freeway was planned.  Complicating matters was the fact that the right-of-way for the entire freeway had  been purchased by the city, with many homes and commercial businesses already having been demolished to make way for the new highway.  Residents on the city’s north side complained of being mistreated while they were being evicted from their soon-to-be-razed homes, which included the substandard conditions of the replacement housing they were being offered.


View of the cleared right-of-way on the north side of Milwaukee

Opponents of the freeway successfully utilized the newly-enacted National Environmental  Protection Act to halt construction of the freeway in 1972.  By that time, only 0.8 miles of the freeway had actually been completed, the segment from the I-43 junction east to Jefferson Avenue.  A referendum was put on the ballot in 1974 to “close the loop” of the Park with a northern-extended Lake Freeway, along with several other highway projects in the city.


Although the referendum passed, freeway opponents were successful in stalling construction through a series of political maneuvers, and by 1980 the plan to continue construction of  the Park was more or less dead.  For the next 20 years, the constructed part of the Park East sat in limbo.  The only completed and opened segment of the freeway was underutilized and did little to bring traffic into the downtown area.



One of the most consequential figures in Milwaukee’s political scene took the stage as the city’s mayor in 1988.  John O. Norquist came to power on a strong anti-freeway platform.  Norquist was successful in his efforts not only in halting any additional construction to the city’s freeway system, but was eventually able to have the Park East torn down, which began in 2001:





View of downtown looking west after demolition of the Park East Freeway.


Since demolition was completed in 2002, the  of rebuilding and revitalization of downtown Milwaukee left empty by the tearing down of the Park has been an ongoing process.  Today, many new housing and commercial projects have taken the place where the freeway once stood:


Additional Sources:






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