By Sean Ryan
Critical to transportation as it might be, the Madison to Milwaukee high-speed rail line will offer only a small boost in peripheral development near the Milwaukee Intermodal Station.
The big payoff, in terms of residential and commercial construction near the Milwaukee station, would come from a high-speed link to Chicago, said Mike Gardner, owner and manager of the Gardner Group LLC, Milwaukee. Gardner, owner of the P.H. Dye House building in Milwaukee’s Third Ward, said about half of the building’s condominium units are sold and 60 percent of the building’s office space has tenants.
Although the planned high-speed rail service to Madison certainly won’t hurt business in the Third Ward, it’s minimal compared with a link to Chicago, said Gardner, president of the Historic Third Ward Association.
“If you get high-speed rail going through Milwaukee and Chicago, you may end up driving some additional residential into the Third Ward,” he said, “because you could have people who live in Milwaukee and literally commute down to Chicago.”
Milwaukee’s housing prices are lower, Gardner said, making it a reasonable bedroom community for Chicago if the transportation is there. But housing prices in Milwaukee and Madison are too similar to have the same effect, he said.
“I think you may be able to put up some of that dynamic,” Gardner said. “But I think the bigger dynamic comes from Chicago.”
Chicago residents riding the Amtrak train already are generating more opportunities for retailers in Milwaukee, especially since the city and state completed a $15.8 million renovation of the train station, said Ronald San Felippo, who owns buildings near the station. Traffic increases in the Milwaukee Public Market down the street from the station after the Hiawatha train from Chicago arrives, said San Felippo, chairman of the business improvement district that includes Milwaukee’s Third Ward.
“I see that Madison isn’t going to hurt,” he said, “but it’s just one more component of what’s already beginning to work pretty well.”
Alderman Robert Bauman agreed the Madison link is a small step in a longer journey. But he said establishing the rail line to Madison sets up a beachhead to completely build out a rail line that would stretch from Chicago to Minneapolis.
The fully built-out railroad could set Milwaukee’s Intermodal Station abuzz with people, he said, and the activity could spill over and result in the redevelopment of the neighboring U.S. Post Office building, which is scheduled to close after the post office builds in Oak Creek.
“It’s a gateway to your city,” Bauman said of the train station. “It’s a portal for folks coming from basically all across the country and around the world.”
Gardner said rail service will generate more interest around Milwaukee’s station, but there must be more than just high-speed trains.
“I don’t see anybody locating to Milwaukee solely because of the high-speed rail,” he said. “There will have to be a lot of different reasons.”