When Highway Designers Met Chicago (and Milwaukee)
The skyline is big and imposing in Chicago, so you might think the freeway interchanges would be too. But no. Though you'll find wide stretches, express lanes and plenty of traffic when you drive the Ike, the Kennedy or Dan Ryan through Chicago, the interchanges in and around downtown are mostly minor monsters. Instead of casting frightening shadows on the city landscape, they're often submerged or partially-submerged. The footprints are relatively small. And with the exception of the noxious Ohio Street connector, the ramps are shorter and do less disruptive snaking into city neighborhoods than you're likely to see elsewhere. I'd welcome confirmation (or not) from someone steeped in Chicago history, but in viewing freeways around the City of Chicago I see evidence of a typical story — "state DOT rolls overmatched city" — being rewritten. When the irresistible force of the state DOT met the immovable object of Daley machine (either one), the state heard the orders to "quit messing with our tax base" and had its engineers scale back its "grandest" highway visions.
In Milwaukee, a city served for years by "Sewer Socialists" not machine politicians has rarely held the cards necessary to prevail in such back-room negotiations. Aside from the deal that was struck to bring down the Park East Freeway stub in 1999 — when the state needed the full agreement of the city to access $241 million in contested Federal funds — the city's main hope for stopping or limiting damaging freeway projects has been to take the struggles public. The results have been mixed and largely winner-take-all. Back in the 1970s, freeway opponents succeeding in stopping a proposed downtown loop (and extensions elsewhere in the city) before it made the city's jewel-like lake shore as ruinous as Cleveland's, but after the Park East success, city forces failed in their efforts to rein in the expansion of the already colossal Marquette Interchange and its many tentacles. A costly loss, it turns out.
To get an idea of how freeway design varies in the two cities just 85 miles apart, start with these Google satellite images. Both show interchanges that perform the same function — connecting two major highways near downtown— both are shown at the same scale. Yet the Chicago interchange uses up about half as much land as the Milwaukee interchange, the aforementioned Marquette Interchange. Much as the "friendly confines" of Wrigley Field fit snugly between Clark and Addison streets and Sheffield and Waveland avenues, the Kennedy-Eisenhower interchange restricts itself to a box formed by the thoroughfares Halsted, Van Buren, Desplaines and Harrison. Although the interchange certainly depresses real estate values around it, its design at least recognizes the value of important surface streets and the city grid itself. To do this, highway designers must employ tighter, narrower loops and shorter ramps, which must be used at lower speeds.
The Marquette Interchange in Milwaukee, by contast, opens up to accommodate more gradually sweeping ramps and bridges, prioritizing freeway speed ahead of concern for what happens on city streets and neighborhoods below. Seen at right, it treats the city grid as dispensable. Not surprisingly, whereas the Eisenhower-Kennedy interchange is treated as just another piece of infrastructure in Chicago, the Marquette looms over Milwaukee and is described by freeway supporters in mythic terms as shouldering a mighty load of metropolitan and state traffic (which turns out to be the not-so-impressive 4% of area trips on any given weekday). And Google is still showing the pre-rebuild interchange. Wait till the satellites (not to mention astronauts viewing with naked eyes?) get a view of the expanded Marquette.
In the meantime, here is how the Marquette now looks from the ground, St. Paul Avenue to be specific.
Where there was once city fabric like this...
...the traces of streets, blocks and property tax base have been completely erased, creating a condition the state DOT calls "roadside."
Look a little closer at ground level and you'll see how the contrasting approaches to in-city freeway design play themselves out in predictable ways. In fact, let's play a little game. I'll show two images of on-off ramps and you tell me which city each ramp calls home.
Let's try this again.
OK, is it as obvious to you as it is to me? At left, the ramps connecting the Kennedy Expressway with Adams Street in Chicago are short and narrow. As they approach Adams, they start looking and behaving more and more like regular city intersections, with tight corners that require cars to slow to a crawl before turning and aren't hard for pedestrians to cross. Although these short ramps are technically considered "functionally deficient" infrastructure because of their inability to move traffic at interstate speeds, the Illinois DOT simply reduces posted speed on this stretch of the Kennedy to 45 miles per hour so that merging can occur. The freeway flow is relaxed and drivers get a moment to enjoy the skyline views. The ramps in Milwaukee, meanwhile, are wide and sweeping and include design cues that suggest traffic should flow from the freeway and merge into city traffic, if the street signals are green or yellow. They're just another sign of how the re-designers of the Marquette have strived to "upgrade" the Marquette to "interstate highway standards" even those standards are optimized for rural areas where land is ample and cheap. As John Norquist says, the freeway inserts incompatible rural forms into the city to the city's detriment. Removing these forms unlocks tremendous value, which Milwaukee has seen after removing the Park East and seeing Fortune-500 Manpower locate its headquarters a block from the former freeway and Mandel Group break ground on the multi-phase North End on a freeway adjacent parcel.
Which brings up our last comparisons. Within a less than a block of the Kennedy, life in Chicago begins returning to normal and urban investment looks robust. In Milwaukee, the Marquette construction resulted in several buildings being removed and many ramps left buffers, berms and other undefined spaces more typical of exurban areas. Remaining buildings are more isolated from areas of intact urban fabric and redevelopment activity is more spotty, although it picks up in the Historic Thirds Wards where the priceless urban character would be even more valuable if I-794 had been turned into a boulevard.
Write your comments in the box below and share on your Facebook!