A casual listen by an uninformed observer at Farmers Public Market last week might have concluded they were stepping into an old-fashioned revival with all the cheers that rose up in the vast room.
A crowd of more than 350 gathered to hear urban evangelist John Norquist, the former Milwaukee mayor, deliver a harsh rebuke to highway engineers.
The cause that drew such a crowd is the ongoing debate over plans to build a highly anticipated downtown boulevard elevated between Western and Walker Avenues. The highway engineers say the design is necessary to accommodate tens of thousands of drivers they expect to use the street as a ramp in and out of downtown off the new Interstate 40.
Those opposed to the plan — the advocacy group Friends for a Better Boulevard — argue the elevation will continue the blighting of the area around the Farmers Market that began when the original elevated highway was constructed in 1966.
Norquist, author of the book “The Wealth of Cities” and president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, is seen as an urban planning evangelist. As mayor of Milwaukee, he championed downtown housing, the revamping of codes and zoning, making streets more walkable, and led in the destruction of a one-mile stretch of an elevated highway.
After a warm-up speech given by Ward 2 Councilman Ed Shadid, himself an opponent of the elevated downtown boulevard, and similar remarks expressed by Ward 6 Councilwoman Meg Salyer, Norquist stepped up to the podium and delivered a history of highway design that he traced back to a self-professed Communist. He then proceeded to present one city case study after another where engineers predicted traffic chaos if their plans weren't followed, only to see the opposite when elected leaders chose to emphasize walkability and urban design over the fast flow of traffic.
Urban areas, Norquist argued, need to have traffic slowed if they are to be developed.