Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson on Monday signed legislation for Connec+ing MKE: Downtown Plan 2040, the latest iteration of the city’s vision for downtown. The plan focuses on projects such redeveloping the former Milwaukee Public Museum, redeveloping the Marcus Center parking garage and possibly altering the fate of the Interstate 794 interchange.
The downtown plan was developed by the Milwaukee Department of City Development (DCD) and Milwaukee Downtown Business Improvement District (BID #21) over two years and creates a vision where every resident, in every neighborhood, is welcomed to the city’s center, DCD officials said. The Common Council unanimously approved the plan on July 31.
Johnson, who previously said he wanted to grow Milwaukee to 1 million residents, explained the downtown plan will shape what downtown will look like in the decades ahead.
“The time is now to plan for Milwaukee’s growth and future. The Downtown Area Plan includes priorities, strategies and approaches that will help determine what the city center of Milwaukee will look like in the decades ahead. Thank you to DCD and BID #21 for their strong leadership in this planning effort. I am also grateful for every resident who made their voices heard during this process to ensure Connec+ing MKE is a plan by Milwaukee, for Milwaukee’s future,” the mayor added.
The city collected feedback from more than 2,500 people from every Milwaukee zip code when developing its downtown plan, said Lafayette Crump, commissioner of DCD. He credited the previous Downtown Area Plan, published in 2010, for a major renaissance in Milwaukee, but added there was more work to do.
“Looking at how far we’ve come is inspiring, but we know there’s more work to do in creating our shared vision for the future of Downtown Milwaukee,” Crump added.
The downtown plan includes a list of six of what the city calls “big ideas” to grow downtown’s population, officials said. Those ideas are investing in parks and gathering spaces, expanding and enhancing transit, reconnecting places divided by a highway, improving streets to support all users and redesigning streets as public places, officials added.
Here are some projects that will have the largest effect on downtown.
Redeveloping public museum and state office building at MacArthur Square
The plan calls for the existing Milwaukee Public Museum site to be redeveloped with high-density, mixed-use development, according to the plan. The museum will move from its Wells Street home to a new construction at North 6th and West Vliet streets. What the former museum site will be redeveloped into exactly is still a “work in progress,” Aaron Hertzberg, a Milwaukee County director of administrative services, said.
City officials also want to extend the street grid north of Wells Street to connect to MacArthur Square, the semi-deserted plaza behind the Milwaukee County Courthouse. The extended grid will help support more infill development on surface parking lots in the area, and the reuse or redevelopment of a state-owned office building at North 6th and Wells streets.
New management organization for public spaces
The city wants to create a “place space management organization” and identify funding for managing parks and gathering spaces, which is a critical part of growing downtown, the plan said. This leg of the plan will be implemented at Red Arrow Park, Pere Marquette Park, Cathedral Square and Zeidler Union Square, the plan added.
Like Milwaukee, other American cities are having financial trouble with parks systems and are looking for new funding and management structures to support public spaces, the plan added. Most successful urban parks remain active with free and inclusive activities after initial upfront investments, the plan added.
The city recently broke ground on Vel R. Phillips Plaza, a $15.7 million project contracted with Waukesha-based Zenith Tech. In 2015, Milwaukee-based GRAEF won a competition for their Lakefront Gateway Plaza Design proposal, which would be located across the street from the ongoing Couture project.
Milwaukee County Parks, which operates parks inside the city, reported increased expenditures and upward pressure on personnel costs in 2023, a park system report said. Goods and services are also subjected to inflation, contributing to the park system’s financial situation.
Stretching the streetcar to new neighborhoods
The plan advises the city to work aggressively to find funding and support for future streetcar extensions, which has been accomplished through public and private partnerships. Crews placed a total of 1,000 feet of railroad track along Michigan Avenue and Clybourn Street, connecting to a future intermodal station inside the ongoing Couture development.
Still, Milwaukee officials want more Hop connections in the East Side, Westown, Bronzeville and Walker’s Point neighborhoods.
In spring of 2023, the Wisconsin Legislature passed a law allowing Milwaukee to raise a sales tax. However, the bill includes a provision that the city cannot use its revenue to maintain or extend The Hop. Mayor Johnson has credited the streetcar for boosting economic development.
Redeveloping the Marcus Performing Arts Center garage
The plan calls for a high-density, mixed-use development for a 2.5-acre site at 1001 N. Water St., currently home to a 700-space parking garage. A new building will add density to the district and inspire development on the parking lots along Water Street and the Riverwalk, plans added.
In March, DCD officials and the Marcus Performing Arts Center said they were planning requests for proposals. The city eyed the space in its 2010 downtown plan as well.
Developer Mark Irgens had proposed a development and law firm Michael Best had considered becoming anchor tenants, but plans for both eventually fell through.
Changes to the Interstate 794 Lake Interchange
The downtown plan is explicit about exploring the eventual removal of the I-794 Lake Interchange and putting at-grade grids of streets and development in place. The plan calls the interchange a “barrier” between East Town, the Lakefront and the Third Ward.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) released a study with possible options to remove nearly a mile of the interchange between the Milwaukee River and the Hoan Bridge, prompting debate between developers, business groups and residents in these areas. According to WisDOT, a freeway removal could free up nearly 18 acres of development space.
WisDOT will continue to host public engagement sessions about alternatives for the freeway throughout the year. Officials hope to settle on a selected alternative next summer and pick final designs between 2025 and 2026. Construction could start in 2027, but WisDOT officials said funding will need to be approved by the Wisconsin Legislature.
Additional plan highlights include redesigning North 6th Street as a transit-first corridor with enhanced bicyclist accommodations and narrowing the vehicle lanes on North Water Street to add improvements for transit, pedestrians and cyclists.
Beth Weirick, CEO of Milwaukee Downtown, BID #21, said the projects in Connec+ing MKE are a roadmap for more growth and investment in the central business district.
“We look forward to implementing the community’s vision and enhancing downtown as a great place to live, work, play, learn and do business – all connected by walkable streets, enhanced transit options, greater connectivity with surrounding neighborhoods and active and inclusive gathering spaces and plazas,” Weirick added.
The previous downtown area plan was adopted in 2010 and included recommendations for adding to the fixed-rail streetcar system, revitalizing Wisconsin Avenue, enhancing the Station Plaza and Milwaukee Intermodal Station, DCD officials said. There has been more than $4.5 billion invested in completed private and public projects since 2010 and more than $3.1 billion in current construction or proposed to start soon, officials added.