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Mike Gousha and former mayor John Norquist had a fun and informative chat "On the Issues" Wednesday at Marquette Law School.
Mike Gousha and former mayor John Norquist had a fun and informative chat "On the Issues" Wednesday at Marquette Law School.

Norquist with the filter off

On Wednesday, Marquette Law School hosted an On The Issues event with Mike Gousha and former Milwaukee mayor and active urbanist John O. Norquist that made for fun and informative lunchtime entertainment.

Norquist, who served as mayor from 1988 until 2003, after having served terms in both the Wisconsin State Assembly and Senate, is currently president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism in Chicago, where he now lives.

He is a booster for the removal of urban highways, for mixed-use development and walkable neighborhoods.

While Norquist was mayor of Milwaukee, he sparked a Downtown housing boom, got the RiverWalk built and tore down the Park East freeway.

What made his session with Gousha so fun was that Norquist has officially turned off the filter and he often addressed advice and comments – sometimes witty, sometimes cutting and sometimes both – to the current and former politicians that were in the packed room.

"I see a lot of familiar faces here," he quipped at the start, setting the tone. "And they all look older," he added, drawing laughs.

I also learned a few things, like the fact that the RiverWalk was designed with an eye on the plan that Alfred Clas had drawn up for a riverwalk in 1904.

Here are some highlights from Norquist's comment, sometimes paraphrased:

On the value of cities:

  • "People have a more positive view of cities. From both sides of the political spectrum you had this negative attitude about cities. The crescendo was after the Rodney King incident in Los Angeles."
  • "Look around the world now – Paris, London, Hong Kong, wherever – the cities are where the value is. The 12 acres of Downtown Detroit are the 12 most valuable acres in the entire state of Michigan."

On density, mixed-use development and urban highways:

  • "You have retail over here, one-family homes over here, apartments over there – these separations happened because of government interference, not because of consumer preference."
  • "Congestion is like cholesterol. You have good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. If you have no cholesterol, you’re dead."
  • "Detroit built every freeway anyone ever had an idea to build and Detroit has solved its congestion problem."
  • "Milwaukee built the Stadium North freeway in 1949 and never would have built another if not for the 90 percent funding from the federal government and 10 percent from the state. They built that freeway and it devastated the neighborhoods, it concentrated traffic. It didn’t work.
  • "Lack of development in the Park East corridor (west of the river) is because of encumbrances on County-owned land. Development on the land around it has been gangbusters (cites Beerline, The Moderne and other developments)."
  • "When I see that main street in Port Washington with the beautiful St. Mary’s Church at the end, I think that should be legal. That (kind of development) should be allowed."

On gentrification:

  • "Gentrification is not a problem. It’s an issue in the Mission District in San Francisco. It’s an issue in Harlem in New York. In Boston, maybe it’s an issue. It’s not a problem in Cleveland, in St. Louis. It’s not a problem in Milwaukee."

On tearing down vacant houses and buildings:

  • "You can devote so much money to tearing things down that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."

On transportation:

  • "They need to get rid of the no left turn signs on Wisconsin Avenue. It needs to be a prosperous street, not a freeway ramp."
  • "Milwaukee could use a real transportation system. (Points to examples in Utah, Houston, Dallas, Vancouver, Portland.) Milwaukee has a higher population density than almost all those cities. Milwaukee is an ideal place for public transportation (expansion)."


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