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Conversion of Park East Freeway Sparks Economic Revitalization

Apr 28, 2013
Dec 14, 2017

Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Elevated Freeway → Boulevard and Urban Grid

Since the Park East was removed, new urban neighborhoods have been built, a Fortune 500 company has relocated, and the city’s tax rolls have risen. These outcomes were made possible by opening up 26 acres to prime redevelopment and removing a visual and environmental blight.

Despite public protest, starting in the 1960’s freeways were built around more than half of Milwaukee’s central business district. However, enough opposition emerged to stop one freeway, the Park East, from reaching completion. A 0.8-mile elevated section that was built ran from 12th Street to N Jefferson Street and separated Milwaukee’s north side from the rest of its redeveloping downtown. The freeway was planned to extend east to the Lake Michigan and then run south along the shore.

The site preparation and construction of the Park East led to the razing of multiple blocks of development, ultimately consuming 16 acres. By 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. Because it interrupted the street grid, traffic problems plagued the three main intersections to which most north-south traffic was funneled.


Rightsizing Summary 

  • In 2002, the Park East was replaced with the six-lane landscaped McKinley Avenue at a cost of $45 million funded through a combination of Intermodal Surface Transportation Act highway funds and Tax Increment Financing. 
  • In total, 26 acres of land spread out along 28 city blocks was opened up for development.


  • Between 2001 and 2006, the average assessed land values per acre in the footprint of the Park East Freeway grew by over 180%. 
  • The average assessed land values in the Park East Tax Increment District grew by 45% between 2001 and 2006. 
  • Fortune-500 Manpower Corporation has moved its headquarters a block from the former highway. 
  • Three distinct new neighborhoods were created: McKinley Avenue District, Lower Water Street District, and Upper Water Street District. 
  • The previous urban grid was restored.


  • The County Board of Commissioners, the lead agency, approved removal by a large margin.
  • City council agreed to removal by unanimous vote.
  • The City of Milwaukee, under teardown advocate and then Mayor John Norquist, assumed the leadership role in the teardown and redevelopment effort.
  • Under the direction of Milwaukee City Planner Peter Park, the city drafted a form-based code for the renewal area to encourage development to reinforce the area’s original form and character.


CNU Highways to Boulevards Profile: Milwaukee’s Park East Freeway

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