New connections are breaking I-794 barrier between downtown Milwaukee, Historic Third Ward

Tom Daykin Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 

Published 12:00 p.m. CT Jun. 17, 2021 

Stephen Frabitore considered Milwaukee's Historic Third Ward when scouting locations for his restaurant chain's first Wisconsin site. 

But it was difficult finding the right space for Tupelo Honey Southern Kitchen & Bar, said Frabitore, chief executive officer of the Asheville, North Carolina-based company. 

Instead, Tupelo Honey will open July 20 on the ground floor of the new Huron Building, 511 N. Broadway — just north of I-794 from the Third Ward. 

That elevated expressway for decades has been a physical and psychological barrier between downtown and the Third Ward. 

But Tupelo Honey's future location is strengthened by new public space improvements that better connect those two areas, Frabitore told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. 

"It makes us part of the Third Ward," he said. "It's almost like the community extending itself." 

Work on those improvements started largely in 2020 and were finished in recent weeks. 

They include wider, more attractive sidewalks in the 500 block of North Broadway; pickleball courts and event space beneath I-794 in the 400 block of North Water Street, and a revamped Pompeii Square east of North Jackson Street between I-794's off-ramp to North Van Buren Street and East St. Paul Avenue. 

Small improvements make a difference

Such relatively small public improvements are sometimes overlooked in connection with larger construction projects, said developer Joshua Jeffers, president and CEO of J. Jeffers & Co. 

But they can play an important role in what Jeffers calls "the art of placemaking." 

Jeffers' firm in October completed downtown's newest office building: the 11-story, 163,000- square-foot Huron Building. 

It is anchored by the Husch Blackwell law firm, which is leasing 77,000 square feet on the top three floors. Tupelo Honey is leasing 5,000 square feet on the first floor. 

The North Broadway improvements were paid for with $3.8 million in property tax revenue generated by the Huron Building and other newer neighboring developments. 

The upgrades include street paving, traffic signal improvements, new street lights and utility work. 

Also, the Broadway sidewalks between Michigan and Clybourn streets were widened, with planters added. 

It's made the block much more attractive and welcoming to pedestrians, Jeffers said. "You're walking down the street one day and you notice, 'This is different,'" he said. That work included extending the sidewalk to encompass part of Clybourn Street. That narrowed the street for people walking between downtown and the Third Ward. "It's had the effect of slowing down traffic a bit," Jeffers said. "Make it less daunting." 

That crosswalk, on Broadway's west side, is favored by pedestrians in part because Broadway's east side at Clybourn Street is next to an I-794 on-ramp. 

The property tax revenue from the Huron Building and other developments also paid for additional accent lighting and public art beneath I-794. 

Those improvements, including painted freeway columns, are near the Milwaukee Public Market, at the Third Ward's main northern entrance. 

More inviting at night

They make the area more inviting — especially for people walking at night beneath I-794, said Jim Plaisted, Historic Third Ward Association executive director. 

Meanwhile, an empty space beneath the freeway just west of the public market has been improved. 

The paved site, between Water Street and the Milwaukee River,  is owned by the state Department of Transportation, which in 2019 agreed to provide control of the space to the Historic Third Ward Business Improvement District. 

Known as Riverwalk Commons, its railings, flower beds and retaining walls were created as part of DOT's I-794 reconstruction project. 

The business improvement district recently opened pickleball courts at Riverwalk Commons. The sport has been described as a combination of badminton, tennis and table tennis.  

The business district, funded by Third Ward commercial property assessments, is working to host live music performances and other events at Riverwalk Commons, said Paul Schwartz, public market executive director. 

Those plans, first disclosed in February 2020, were delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, Riverwalk Commons has started hosting outdoor yoga and Pilates classes. 

The site "is well positioned to be a very popular public space amenity for the greater downtown and Third Ward community," Schwartz said. 

Finally, a $100,000 upgrade for Pompeii Square has just been finished. 

That cash, again from Huron Building property tax revenue, paid for landscaping, new lighting, new seats and the relocation of utility equipment to make Pompeii Square more welcoming, said Matt Dorner, Milwaukee Downtown Business Improvement District economic development director. 

That long-overlooked public square is between segments of I-794. It is a monument to the former Blessed Virgin of Pompeii Catholic Church, and was revamped with help from the Pompeii Men's Club, Dorner said. 

The church, built in 1904, was a focus of life in the Third Ward when that neighborhood was home to many Italian-Americans. It was demolished in 1967 to make way for the freeway.

Meanwhile, another nearby public space improvement is in the works: a downtown dog park proposed for a parcel the DOT owns beneath I-794 between the Milwaukee River and North Plankinton Avenue.  

It will be funded with property tax revenue generated by private riverfront developments, as well as a fundraising campaign to be launched this year, Dorner said. 

Space under freeways increasingly used 

More cities are finding ways to better use land beneath elevated highways, said Peter Park, Milwaukee's former city planning director who's now a Denver-based planning consultant. 

They include Toronto, where The Bentway ice skating trail opened in 2018 beneath the Gardiner Expressway; Los Angeles, which will feature a public park beneath its new Sixth Street Viaduct, and Boston, where  Charlesgate Park is being improved beneath the Bowker Overpass. 

Those projects, as well as the Milwaukee improvements, are good ideas, Park said. But, he said, it would be better to not build elevated freeways in those areas, he said. Or, Park said, remove them, which Milwaukee did with the underused Park East Freeway. 

That space is now used for apartments, the Milwaukee Bucks practice facility, Fiserv Forum's parking structure and other projects — including a future Marriott Autograph Hotel. 

For Frabitore, the better connections between downtown and the Third Ward were a big factor in his decision to invest in a new Milwaukee restaurant.  

Tupelo Honey couldn't find the right location in the Third Ward, but the Huron Building provided a good opportunity, he said. 

The restaurant is near other new developments, including Kinn Mke Guesthouse, a boutique hotel opening in November at 600 N. Broadway, and Central Standard Craft Distillery, opening in August at 320 E. Clybourn St. 

"We were very excited to see the potential for connections to the Third Ward," Frabitore said. "It was an easier decision seeing what could be." 

Tom Daykin can be emailed at and followed on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.