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The Milwaukee River

Paradise in Our Own Back Yard

May. 7, 2008
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There’s no need to haul canoes, hiking shoes or mountain bikes Up North. Milwaukeeans have paradise in our own back yard. The Milwaukee River valley—home to factories and condos, as well as endangered but vibrant plants, animals and birds—has the potential to become the city’s Central Park. Much like New York City’s famed landmark, the Milwaukee River corridor is a natural oasis in the midst of a highly urban community. While standing on the river’s shores, it’s easy to forget the pressure and traffic of modern Milwaukee.

A 797-acre ribbon of green and blue running from North Avenue to Silver Spring Drive is in the process of being preserved by a group of concerned citizens who are seeking formal protection from the city of Milwaukee, Glendale and Shorewood.

Dubbed the Milwaukee River Work Group (MRWG), it’s a loose but committed coalition of neighborhood leaders and residents, affected businesses, as well as dog walkers, mountain bikers, birders and anyone else who wants to protect the river from potentially damaging development.

Photo by Eddee Daniel

“This is a real gem,” said Cheryl Nenn, riverkeeper for Friends of Milwaukee’s Rivers. “Cities are spending gazillions of dollars to recreate what we have naturally. Protecting this as a recreational resource for the people of Milwaukee and beyond is so important to our quality of life. People can come out here and feel that they can escape the craziness of the city.”

A Gift from the Past
The members of the work group see their efforts as vitally important not just for this generation but for the generations to come. Like Charles B. Whitnall, the visionary public servant who developed the county park system, the Milwaukee River Work Group is seeking to ensure that the public has access to an unspoiled, safe natural space.

While about 70% of the land abutting the river is county parkland, and sizable portions are held by the city of Milwaukee and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District (MMSD), significant portions are owned by private homeowners and developers.

“It represents a gift from the past through the foresight of the early city leaders who put aside a lot of space along the river corridor that we’re reconnecting to,” said Vince Bushell, who has been involved in revitalizing the Milwaukee River for years. “We have the chance to set up a system of preserving, protecting and using that we can pass on to other generations.”

Photo by Carolyn Washburne

Perhaps best of all, formal protection of the river corridor doesn’t have to cost taxpayers a dime. Instead, a city-approved overlay district will set guidelines for future development on the river. Then, a formal river trust would work to improve access to the corridor, clean up trails, set aside appropriate spaces for everyone from handicapped visitors to mountain bikers and, perhaps most important, ensure that residents will be involved in the future of the river. That river trust would be tasked with raising funds for its projects.

To accomplish its goals, the group needs to secure easements throughout the corridor from the landowners to allow the public to walk on their land. “It’s really important that we secure these easements up and down the corridor so that we have a continuous trail,” said Ann Brummitt, the MRWG’s coordinator. “I also think it’s important that people know that when they’re wandering around down here that technically it isn’t public land.”

The MRWG is currently analyzing how the varied areas of the river corridor can best be used by visitors while respecting the natural environment. “Not that we’re the river police,” said Kimberly Gleffe, executive director of the River Revitalization Foundation. “But there are some endangered species along the river that need to be protected, so, of course, we’re not going to put a trail through those areas. But we would still highly encourage many different uses and have public access as long as it’s not detrimental to native species or migratory routes.”

Photo by Vince Bushell

A True Grassroots Effort
The Milwaukee River Work Group grew out of worries that recent episodes of clear-cutting of trees on the riverbanks, along with ever-mounting development pressures, would stunt the revitalization of the natural habitat within the river corridor.

“We were becoming frustrated at the reactive approach taken when, for example, a landowner had clear-cut on his land,” said Ken Leinbach, executive director of the Urban Ecology Center, located on the river’s edge. “We felt it was critical to have a proactive approach to protecting the river.”

The river protectors also felt that the river could make a comeback, thanks to the removal of the dam at North Avenue, which greatly improved water quality, and the efforts to clean up the Estabrook Park and Lincoln Park areas. At the same time, developers see an opportunity as well. Throughout Downtown and the Third Ward, con- dos and other large-scale buildings have cropped up along the river and charge a premium for residents who have a view of the river or private boat slips in the water. But further upstream from Downtown, controversial UW-Milwaukee dorms cropped up on the west bank of the river at North Avenue, and directly opposite is the Hometown site, owned by the Mandel Group, which hopes to develop that patch of land. (See “The Hometown Site” for details.)

Photo by Marc Ponto

According to Leinbach, setting guidelines for future development is best handled at the city level, since Milwaukee County is the only county in Wisconsin that is exempted from state law regarding river corridor protection. “We realized that zoning was the most enforceable,” Leinbach said.

Last summer, the work group—led by members of the Urban Ecology Center, the Friends of Milwaukee’s Rivers and the River Revitalization Foundation—presented its plans to the city. They won an interim overlay district designation from North Avenue to Silver Spring Drive, which puts a hold of sorts on large-scale development plans.

“It feels like a victory,” Leinbach said. The MRWG was also given two years to come up with more detailed plans for the valley. Among the most contentious points is the concept of the viewshed, which would allow those in the river corridor to have a more or less unobstructed view of the corridor, since new buildings would be set back from the riverbank and screened by the treeline on the bluffs. (For details, see “What Is a Viewshed?”) Current buildings and single-family residences would not be affected by the zoning regulations.

A year into the process, the work group has held public meetings with neighbors and businesses, and meets twice a month to discuss detailed issues. In April, the group worked through the establishment of mutli-use trails on the riverbanks that can accommodate all river visitors peacefully. Currently, there’s a sort of anarchy on the trails, as bikers, hikers, dog-walkers and those seeking peace and quiet share the land. But the work group is seeking to formalize the trails to prevent erosion, protect sensitive areas such as Cambridge Woods and provide safe passage and appropriate signage through the corridor.

The group hopes that increasing the number of visitors will provide a sense of shared ownership of the river, which will translate into a shared mission to protect it. “In Wisconsin, we have a huge percentage of people who go up to the North Woods for soul food,” said Leinbach of the Urban Ecology Center. “But here in the city we have a spot that can feed the soul.”

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.


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