Milwaukee’s Park East Freeway

In the 1960s, highway designers planned to surround the Milwaukee central business district with an expressway. Despite public protest, more than half of the highway loop was built, including a 0.8-mile stretch in 1969 that separated the north side from the rest of downtown, known as the Park East Freeway. Enough opposition emerged to stop the Park East from continuing east to the waterfront of Lake Michigan--but damage was already done. The Park East displaced multiple blocks of development, ultimately occupying 16 acres. In 1999, the Park East Freeway carried an estimated 54,000 vehicles on an average weekday. It limited access to downtown, with exits at only three points, and interrupted the street grid--funneling north-south street traffic to three main intersections.

Freeway Removal

In the 1990s, a new Riverwalk system stretching along the Milwaukee River through the entire downtown renewed interest in the riverfront and sparked a downtown housing boom. But the area around the Park East Freeway remained underutilized with surface parking lots and aging industrial parcels. Leaders began to recognize it as a barrier to redevelopment efforts. Mayor Norquist began a campaign for the complete demolition and removal of the Park East and its replacement with a landscaped boulevard. In 2002, demolition began and the removal of the spur and reconstruction was accomplished with $45 million through a variety of federal, state, and city sources.

The Boulevard

The freeway was replaced with McKinley Boulevard and the previous urban grid was restored. The City of Milwaukee led the creation of redevelopment plans for the area. Under the direction of City Planner Peter Park, the city drafted a form-based code for the renewal area to encourage development to reinforce the original form and character of the area.

Economic Development

Given the fairly recent opening of the boulevard -- the redevelopment interest is proving the value of converting this area into a walkable urban space. Fortune-500 Manpower Corporation has moved its headquarters a block from the former highway and mixed-use developments are popping up along the boulevard as well as in the surrounding blocks. Between 2001 and 2006, the average assessed land values per acre in the footprint of the Park East Freeway grew by over 180% and average assessed land values in the Park East Tax Increment District grew by 45% between 2001 and 2006. This growth is much higher than the citywide increase of 25% experienced during the same time period.


Park East Expressway Circa 1990, source: City of Milwaukee Planning Department

Before and after plans for the Park East footprint, source: City of Milwaukee Planning Department

Milwaukee's new Flat Iron building, in the Park East redevelopment zone, source: City of Milwaukee Planning Department