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Walking North Avenue

Alderman presses for improvements

Aug. 15, 2012

While campaigning this spring, Alderman Joel Tilleson set pedestrian safety as a priority. Specifically, he wanted to see improvements to the stretch of Wauwatosa Avenue between North Avenue and Center Street.

But as a state connecting highway, residents and city officials alike warned him to expect significant obstacles.

"People told me when I first got elected, it would take the entire (four-year) term to get this accomplished," he said.

Instead it took about four months. Tilleson, with help from a few other aldermen and city staff members, met with representatives of the state Department of Transportation to push for changes.

The road has been described as a "raceway" and parents have voiced concern about their children who have to cross Wauwatosa Avenue from the east to attend Longfellow Middle School or from the west to attend Roosevelt Elementary School, he said. In fact, a child walking to Longfellow was struck by an impatient motorist last fall.

The city retained a civil engineering consultant to work up a plan in a short timeframe, Public Works Director Bill Porter said. That plan - which was supported by the Traffic and Safety Committee - calls for restriping Wauwatosa Avenue to provide for one lane of traffic in each direction with dedicated bike lanes on each side of road, better defining lane transitions at the North and Center intersections, and straightening the crosswalk at Wright Street and as result cutting down the distance required to cross the street.

The project won't widen the road or add turns, he said.

With approval from the committee and DOT, the striping work could be done this month prior to the start school, Porter said.

Wauwatosa Avenue also creates a break in the 5th District, cutting off some residents from East Tosa. A safer crossing could go a long way toward bringing people from the west side of the street to the commercial district, Tilleson said.

Walkability is key

That leads to the larger issue Tilleson has been promoting: walkability. At 30, he's the youngest member of the council and fits right in with the fastest growing demographic of people moving into Tosa: 25- to 40-year-olds.

People are looking to reverse the trends of their parents' generation, such as spending a large amount of money and time on large homes in the outer-ring suburbs and commuting to work, Tilleson said.

"We're being thrust into adulthood in a troubled economy," he said. "We're looking at ways to cut mileage and transportation costs and live closer to where we work. The trend is now that the most valuable properties are in walkable neighborhoods. We want the schools for the children, but we want the excitement of living in an urban area."

The smaller properties, proximity to jobs in downtown Milwaukee or Brookfield and a growing commercial district that can be accessed by a short walk or bike ride make East Tosa a smart choice, he said.

The Walk Score website gives East Tosa a score of 87 out of 100 points, meaning it's a highly walkable area. The city of Wauwatosa as a whole received a score of 60.

Ed Haydin, the planning chairman for the East Tosa Alliance, call walkability "the lifeblood of East Tosa."

Sticking to the plan

There's a direct relationship between the success of the commercial district and the surrounding residential neighborhoods, so providing as many methods of access to North Avenue is critical, he said.

Groundwork is being laid through the recently finished master plan and building a consensus with city officials to fund aspects of that plan, Haydin said. The one change that could have the biggest impact on walkability is eliminating the chicanes, those swerves in the traffic lanes that East Tosa has become known for.

That doesn't necessarily mean a large-scale street reconstruction at this point. Rather, some restriping to straighten out lanes and create bicycle and parking lanes and traffic controls could make an impact.

"It's really a fear factor trying to cross North Avenue," resident Mary Snow said. "Cars don't get it; they hardly ever yield for pedestrians."

Snow walks to the deli, gets her nails done, bought light fixtures for her home remodeling project and takes her car to O'Gorman's so she can walk home while it's being repaired. She would only spend more time and money on North Avenue if safety improvements were made, she said.

"It saves on gas and I get my exercise," she said.

Developers intrigued

Walkability and demographics have also attracted developers and business owners to seriously consider East Tosa. They understand a majority of the money that will come into their business will come from the immediate neighborhood, Haydin said.

Jon Anne Willow, an owner of the recently opened North Avenue Grill, has found that to be true.

"I would guess well over half of our customers come from within a mile or less of our doorstep," she said. "Sometimes there are parking spaces available right in front of the grill, but when you go in, the place is full."

Willow, who also lives in East Tosa, walks to local restaurants and shops as well as the dentist, chiropractor and eye doctor.

"For me, it's a big part of what makes East Tosa such a great city neighborhood," she said.

Julie Langbartels often finds herself on North Avenue simply out of convenience. She has three children and they don't want to wait to eat. Having numerous family friendly restaurants close by makes a mom's life easier, she said.

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