Wauwatosa is open for business, and the businesses on North Avenue officially hung up a big welcome sign for people arriving on bicycle and on foot. With enhanced crosswalks, redesigned curb extensions, pedestrian islands, green bike lanes, bike boxes and pothole free smooth asphalt, the stretch of North Avenue from 60th Street to 76th Street might just be the most bicycle friendly stretch of street anywhere in the Wisconsin, outside of Madison. I live in Milwaukee, one block on the other side of the border, and although I may fill my wallet in Milwaukee, I tend to empty it in Wauwatosa. That didn’t used to be the case when my wife and I used to travel to Bay View, Walkers Point, or Broadway Street downtown to go out. Now we rarely leave our neighborhood.
This project is a great example of how place-making roadway design combined with demand from residents and a progressive business community can work hand-in-hand with government to spur big gains in economic development. The project all started with a few good businesses on North Avenue and nearby residents who wanted to walk and bike there instead of drive. It was probably five years ago when East Tosa resident Ed Haydin, an architect who specializes in community sensitive design and economic development, came to me to get ideas on how Wauwatosa might improve North Avenue for bicycle and pedestrian traffic. Ed is a bike guy, but he was very clear about his goals: “This isn’t a bike project, this is a neighborhood development project. Our goal is to spur new development on North Avenue to improve our neighborhood. I want my property value to go up and have more places to go where I live.”
Those early conversations were followed up with action by Wauwatosa, and in 2011, the Wauwatosa Common Council adopted a Master Plan for the East Tosa commercial corridor. City of Wauwatosa 5th District Alderman Joel Tillison reminded me that beginning with the 2012 municipal budget, a capital improvement fund was established to begin setting aside funds to put towards implementing recommendations in the plan. In conjunction with residents and businesses in the East Tosa neighborhood, the City decided that the first project we would undertake would be a redesign of North Avenue itself. I asked Alderman Tilleson if he had any figures on he amount of investment on North and he had the following comments:
Those recent investments and the plan are important, but we also need to give credit to the first businesses that moved in before the plan was even written. I feel like Il Mito and Juniper 61 were pioneering new restaurants on North. Closest to me, Juniper took over the old Jake’s building that had changed hands a number of times. The owners (who also own Cafe Lulu in Bay View) did a modern remodel, offered a delicious menu, creative cocktails and good service. Around the same time, the Rosebud and Times cinemas changed hands and the new owner began reinvesting with modern projection equipment, new comfortable seating and serving food and alcohol. So Juniper built on the success of Il Mito and Walters, and suddenly East Tosa had a nightlife scene with enough gravity to be considered a destination.
I live in the area, and I have been trying to remember the timeline for all the businesses that have gone in since, but there are so many, it is hard to do! I think this is the order of development: Il Mito, Juniper 61, Mekong Cafe, Cranky Al’s bakery and pizza place, BelAir Cantina, Rocket Baby Bakery, Red Dot, Hue’ going in, Camp going in, and those are just the restaurants. We have other new businesses like fitness centers, guitar stores, etc. I am friends with Scott Johnson and Kristyn St. Denis, two of the owners of BelAir, and they told me business was off the hook when they opened, busier than any of the numerous other restaurants they have owned over the last 20 years or so. Hopefully Camp and Hue (both opening in a week or two) will have the same success.
When the Wauwatosa council was considering approving this project, the public meetings were overwhelmingly packed with supportive crowds that included neighbors as well as many of the area business owners, like Cranky Al’s. “With those bike lanes coming in, it’s going to reduce the traffic flow and bikers are going to be able to bike on the lanes,” said Joey Carioti of Cranky Al’s Bakery. Carioti was so happy to see the green bike lanes go in, he literally invited people to come to get donuts by bicycle with the image to the right.
Erik Busby, the general manager at the Belair Cantina, said their restaurant group encourages employees as well as customers to commute to work by bicycle. “It’s a beautiful city, so to see it on two wheels is real important,” Busby said.
Even though the construction on North Avenue is not complete yet, it will be done soon, I have already noticed an increase in people riding on North Avenue. Before the project most people (me incuded) avoided riding on North, taking parallel side streets as much as possible before cutting over to get to the businesses on North. Now I see people confidently cruising down the smooth new pavement. One of the true testimonies to a bicycle friendly street is whether parents are willing to ride with their kids there, and I have been seeing more tiny wheels and Burley trailers too.
In addition to improvements for people on bicycles and on foot, the project removed the left turn only lanes that created a serpentine travel pattern for motor vehicles. That was an early attempt at slowing traffic on North, and while it did slow motor vehicles, it didn’t work well for other users and most drivers hated it. The new design with bike lanes, pedestrian islands and smaller bump outs appears (anecdotally) to have a similar traffic calming effect without the swerving traffic.
People are so excited about the wonderful new development on North Avenue, that the East Tosa Alliance has become stronger and there is evan a #EastTosaRocks social media campaign now. All things considered, it looks like Wauwatosa did just about everything right on this project.
I’d encourage you to bike over there for a fish fry tonight, but if you want to wait, you can come to the grand re-opening ceremony on October 4th, which will feature a ribbon cutting, bike parade, pedestrian and cycle safety presentation.