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With clock ticking on streetcar extension, Milwaukee committee puts plans on hold

The Hop leaves Cathedral Square in downtown Milwaukee on Friday (above) for its maiden voyage, while Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett welcomes visitors to the kickoff event. The $124 million streetcar project took two years to complete and consists of a 2.5-mile downtown loop. (Photos by Kevin Harnack)

The Hop leaves Cathedral Square in downtown Milwaukee on Friday (above) for its maiden voyage, while Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett welcomes visitors to the kickoff event. (Photo by Kevin Harnack)

A Milwaukee committee voted on Tuesday both to pause plans to extend the city’s streetcar and study proposed routes into north- and south-side neighborhoods, a decision that threatens to strain an already tight construction schedule calling for service to be added near the site of the Democratic National Convention by July 2020.

The city’s Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee voted unanimously to put on hold various proposals related to Mayor Tom Barrett’s $52 million plan both to extend the streetcar in time for the DNC, which is to take place mainly at the Fiserv Forum downtown, and study possible extensions into two city neighborhoods. The decision came as one group of city aldermen called for plans to combat any gentrification that might follow the streetcar’s extension into the north-side Bronzeville neighborhood. And two other aldermen said they want to clarify plans to take the route into Walker’s Point, south of the city’s Third Ward.

Alderman Khaleif Rainey, chairman of the committee, said he hoped to call another meeting on the streetcar plans ahead of a full common council meeting on May 29. Both the proposed streetcar extension and related studies received the approval of the city Redevelopment Authority Board last week but the plans still need the common council’s approval to proceed.

The committee’s delay, however, could undermine the city’s ability to complete a half-mile downtown extension that Barrett wants to see happen before tens of thousands of visitors arrive in Milwaukee for the DNC, said Jeff Polenske, commissioner of Milwaukee’s Department of Public Works.

Barrett’s plan for extending the streetcar’s loop would begin with a 0.4-mile link to Wisconsin Avenue. That $28 million project would take the streetcar north from St. Paul Avenue along Vel R. Phillips Avenue, have it turn through a $5 million public plaza on Wisconsin Avenue — complete with a beer garden — and then jog south on 5th Street to St. Paul. The plan would also put $18.8 million toward engineering studies for extensions leading to the Walker’s Point and Bronzeville neighborhoods. Those projects’ construction costs are expected to run to $160 million, a cost that city officials hope to defray with a federal grant.

But some council members used the project’s tight timeline to push for a rewrite of the Walker’s Point plans and advocate for policies they say would cushion the blow of a new route into Bronzeville.

Alderman Russell Stamper said he wants private investments to pay for the streetcar or its operations and a public-private fund to support central-city development projects. Stamper also said he wants the city to begin providing grants to homeowners in neighborhoods near the streetcar’s proposed new lines into Walker’s Point and Bronzeville.

The city’s Finance and Personnel Committee is scheduled to discuss such a plan during a meeting on Wednesday. The so-called Anti-Displacement Tax Fund would need as much as $6.1 million to help homeowners cope with the property-tax increase that the proposed streetcar extensions are expected to bring about. Current estimates hold that, should the extensions be built, taxes on nearby properties will rise by as much as 4.5 percent over 20 years for the more than 800 homeowners now living in the two neighborhoods.

“We need $6 million for the community to avoid gentrification,” Stamper said. “These three funds we need money for.”

Meanwhile, south-side businesses and officials want to see the streetcar go farther into Walker’s Point.

A letter signed by 15 south-side leaders asks the city to study plans for bringing The Hop farther south on South 1st street and farther west to the corner of 6th Street and National Avenue — which would make the Walker’s Point route 0.8 miles longer. Current plans would set aside $500,000 to study alternatives for a south-side route. The study would examine the route ahead of engineering and construction work. Ald. Bob Bauman introduced an amendment during the meeting to add the Sixth and National extension to the expansion plans, but it was defeated 3-2.

Milwaukee Department of City Development Commissioner Rocky Marcoux took a swipe at critics of the streetcar plan who have questioned why the city isn’t taking the money set aside for the project and instead using it for priorities such as road construction or fire and police protection. Marcoux noted that much of the funding set aside for the streetcar extensions is coming from tax-increment financing districts, and that state law prohibits that sort of money from being put into the city’s general fund, he said.

“We’ve got to separate fact from fiction,” Marcoux said “The reality is, we’ve got to spend the TID dollars the way the state requires us to spend them.”

Although the committee voted to put the streetcar plans on hold, a number of business and community leaders spoke in support of the extension during the meeting on Tuesday. Among them was James Phelps, president of Milwaukee contractor JCP Construction, which has its headquarters in Bronzeville. Phelps said the streetcar extension promises to benefit the neighborhood.

“I don’t see any other options out there that have the opportunity and the potential to help small businesses be able to thrive the way that the streetcar can,” he said.

About Nate Beck

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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