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.
“You don't need these big roads jammed into where you have a lot of people,” Norquist lectured. He then detailed how Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel stopped a plan by traffic engineers, one approved by his predecessor, that would have ended pedestrian crossings along the busy Lakeshore Drive.
“It is so cool that the pedestrians can cross a street with 200,000 vehicles a day — it's too bad the vehicles have to wait,” Norquist said to a loud cheer. “It's a beautiful day — just wait. What's your rush? It's the city. If you don't like it, you can go out to the suburbs and eat at Olive Garden instead.”
At this moment the crowd went nuts.
When Norquist added: “The city doesn't bow to you,” one might have assumed many in the crowd were on the verge of a religious conversion.
The debate over the design of the downtown boulevard likely will continue for weeks if not months. Driving away from this revival, I was surprised to see the old Farmers Public Market in a new context — at night, with its facade accentuated by the warm, glowing lights from the room where Norquist spoke.
A series of store fronts, most of them boarded up, lined the streets leading back into downtown. The sidewalks were crumbling, and there were no streetlights to make one feel as if this short distance back into downtown could be traveled in anything but the safety of one's car with the doors locked. This is an area where street engineers have not focused their attention in a very long time.
“If you own real estate in the corridor, work in the corridor, live in the corridor — what's going to add value?” Norquist asked toward the end of his speech. “And if it doesn't do that, it's not worth doing.”