It’s hard to deny that Milwaukee is a city on the rise. Historians can decide what has contributed to this upward trajectory and politicians can squabble over how to continue it, but every day I continue to witness a drag on the growth of the city that is at best ignored and at worst encouraged by our community. I speak of surface parking lots, perhaps the most sinister of all parking lots.
In my (very unscientific) census of just the Third Ward area of Milwaukee, I found there to be roughly 65.6 acres of land used for surface parking in a space of about 182 acres. That’s around 36% of one of the most sought-after areas in Milwaukee dedicated to holding up our idle machines.
Other websites have estimated the immediate downtown area to use about 11.5% of the land for surface parking.
The problem shows no sign of abating. From tearing down what I deemed the ugliest building in Milwaukee to build a lot for Northwestern Mutual, to removing a dangerous parking garage only to replace it with a less-useful surface space, Milwaukee still has this sick fascination with street-level automobile staging.
I drive my car every day in the city, and Milwaukee would die if everyone who uses a car to get downtown suddenly stopped tomorrow. But our politicians should not be able to say that our future looks brighter with the continuation of inefficient and relatively (from a tax base and human-engagement stance) useless paving of city blocks.
What can be done? For a government and city that compromises with each other, plenty (such a place exists?).
1) Outlaw the construction of new surface parking in the downtown area. Successful cities have population density, and surface lots dilute that density.
2) Immediately invest in additional and easier public transportation, be that the fabled streetcar system or the more realistic (and existing) bike share program and bus system. Most importantly, these lines need to be extended farther to the suburbs where most drivers come from.
3) Any new construction that feels they require parking spaces should be encouraged to build underground or in-building parking garages. There are a number of successful projects in the city already to look at, most notably Cathedral Place.
Surface parking lots are a silent killer, a cancer eating away the lifeblood that has been slowly pulsing back through Milwaukee’s veins. They need to be cut out or they will continue to be a drag on our downtown.