HIGHWAYS TO BOULEVARDS BLOG: Interview with Peter Park

This post is a part of CNU’s new Highways to Boulevards Blog series, which features interview summaries and insights from some of the best minds at the frontline of our Highways to Boulevards Initiative. 

CNU recently sat down with Peter Park, Milwaukee’s former and Denver’s current planning director, about his experiences removing the Park East Freeway and spurring economic growth in downtown Milwaukee. A summary of the project can be found here.

The removal of the Park East Freeway can trace its roots back to Milwaukee’s 1999 Downtown Plan.  During our conversation, Mr. Park stressed the importance of having a plan—not just a “project”—as Milwaukee’s Downtown Plan laid the fundamental groundwork for the eventual removal of the freeway.  The Downtown Plan set forth a vision of Milwaukee’s downtown land and illustrated how the removal of a freeway could transform Downtown Milwaukee into a more vibrant place.

 City of Milwaukee Planning DepartmentAn integral part of the formation of the downtown plan was a series of charrettes to engage the public and seek their input on the plan. In terms of planning, Mr. Park drew a distinction between “plans” and “projects”.  Projects tend to be things for which there is immediate funding and impetus to complete, while plans are visions for what could be even if they don’t have funding.

In the context of the Park East Freeway, the idea and plan for removal was around for a few years before funding was sought and achieved. This allowed for stakeholders to have a legitimate voice in the process—the plan could be modified significantly over the span of a few years. When funding is already allocated for project, the scope for change is narrowed because the clock is ticking on the project’s commencement and completion.

The planning process can also help diffuse potential opposition by lowering the “temperature” (it’s just an idea being discussed, not something that’s necessarily going to happen immediately). Combined with a vision for the site, this allowed local business to look beyond their immediate concerns (How are my customers going to get here without the freeway?) and acknowledge the long-term benefits (a key to any plan).

While the Downtown Plan help generate support in the City of Milwaukee—the Plan was strongly support by then mayor John Norquist (and current CEO of CNU)—State and County approval was necessary to remove the freeway and provide funding. Governor Thompson was initially opposed to the freeway removal; however, his mind was eventually changed.

Mr. Park attributed the success in gaining the necessary local- and state-level support to two concepts: visioning and planning. Park and his team were not advocating for the removal of the freeway. Instead, they were advocating for a vision of the city that was set on the human scale and more economically vibrant. By presenting an optimistic vision for the city, they were able to engage people who may have been initially skeptical, encouraging them to envision what the city could be and what could take the place of the aging freeway.

Ultimately, the two keys to the successful removal of the Park East Freeway can by summarized as having a positive vision of what could be and planning (and all that entails) well in advance to make it a reality. As Mr. Park said, “It’s amazing where political will and public support can take you.” It seems, much farther than than any freeway.

This interview and summary were conducted by CNU intern Tim Huff, Master's candidate in the UIC MUPP Program.

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