Milwaukee Common Council Again Delays Action On Streetcar Extensions

Jul 24, 2019

Plans to expand some Milwaukee streetcar routes have been delayed again. A Common Council Committee decided Tuesday to put the plans on hold while it gathers more public input. Mayor Tom Barrett had pushed for the expansions, especially one that would extend the streetcar to Wisconsin Avenue in time for the Democratic National Convention (DNC) next summer.

The Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee unanimously approved delaying action on the streetcar extensions. It previously put plans on hold in May. One expansion would extend the streetcar to the convention center at the corner of Wisconsin and Vel Phillips Avenues — where many of the DNC activities will occur next July. Others would extend the streetcar into Walker’s Point on the near south side and up to the Bronzeville neighborhood, north of downtown. 

Before the committee began discussing the expansion, it first unanimously approved a plan that would create an anti-displacement fund if people who live in those neighborhoods are forced out of their homes if property values increase along the new streetcar routes. Sam Leichtling with the Department of City Development says the plan would require developers to abide by what he called a neighborhood preference policy.

“What would happen is that in future developments that are receiving city assistance, whether it’s tax increment financing, housing trust fund funding, CDBG … if they have more than 20 units of affordable housing, that developer would have to commit to prioritize 20% of the affordable units within that building for existing residents of neighborhood,” he says.

A handful of people in the audience spoke out against the plan, including Theresa Garrison. She lives near the site of the extension to the Bronzeville neighborhood. Garrison says she’s pretty sure she would be forced out of her home, even with the implementation of the anti-displacement plan.

“If we get the streetcar going in my neighborhood, then my taxes will go up more," she says. "So, what about me? It brings me to tears, my parents got married in that house, my mother died in that house, and I want to know, where am I going?”

After the committee approved the anti-displacement plan, it turned to the proposed streetcar expansions. That’s when Council President Ashanti Hamilton, who is not a member of the committee, asked the panel to put the extensions on hold. He cautioned the committee not to rush and called for more public input.

“Trying to force-feed this into a project that would be done by the DNC, I think is a foolhardy effort. Let’s try to do it the right way. If you want to do it, do it the right way. Let’s do it in a way where you listen to the people who are going to be affected, you give them a seat at the table,” he says.

Alderwoman Milele Coggs, whose district covers the Bronzeville neighborhood where the streetcar would extend, voted in favor of delaying the project. But she cautioned the committee not to wait too long. Coggs, who backs the streetcar, says money that the city is raising to pay for the extension is set to expire in three-five years.

“DNC aside and today’s hold aside, I just want to remind my colleagues that if you would actually support it going north to Bronzeville, the opportunity to have it financed through the tax incremental district is low now,” she says.

Mayor Tom Barrett had been pushing for the extensions, saying he was hoping the Common Council would approve them by the end of the month. With the zoning committee putting the item on hold Tuesday, it’s unlikely that will happen.