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Revitalizing Milwaukee's Inner Harbor

Mar. 7, 2017
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Milwaukee has experienced nothing short of a waterfront renaissance over the past three decades, from the rediscovery of the Milwaukee River in Downtown and its ingoing residential building boom to the revitalization of the Menomonee Valley that has produced a variety of new development both industrial and recreational. As each of these areas continue to grow, the coming months could prove vital to Milwaukee’s next major phase of waterfront rebirth. 

For more than a century, Milwaukee’s inner harbor, the area between Jones Island and the east end of Walker’s Point, was one of the city’s most essential economic drivers. Shipbuilding yards, tanneries, steel mills and fuel production all flourished in the area and relied on the deeply dredged harbor and its prime access to the lake to ship their products all over the world. While the inner harbor remains a major part of Great Lakes shipping, manufacturing in the area has all but disappeared, leaving behind areas that are both blighted and prime for redevelopment.

Next month, the largest piece of land along the inner harbor will be sold in a bankruptcy auction, opening up an opportunity for a major development project that sets up the harbor as the next boom area in the city. The site is a 46-acre triangular-shaped tract situated west of the Kinnickinnic River between Greenfield Avenue and the Kinnickinnic River bridge and features over 2,000 feet of river frontage. There are, however, a number of challenges in developing this land. For many decades home to the Solvay Coke & Gas Company, it is presently classified as brownfield site, meaning an extensive remediation of the area is necessary. WE Energies, one of five firms responsible for the site’s cleanup due to chain-of-title relationships to the original contaminators of the area, has already entered a $4 million bid on the land.

Lilith Fowler, executive director of Harbor District, Inc. (HDI), a non-profit group that seeks to help guide harbor development, is optimistic that the sale of the Solvay site will lead to significant development. “This would be a huge step forward, just in terms of having [an owner] who is both motivated and capable,” Fowler said. “Our hope is no matter who [buys the site], we’re working really closely with them.” 

The timeline for any potential cleanup project at the site remains up in the air. Reached for comment, a WE Energies representative declined to speculate on any possible plans or timelines for the site. Fowler said that the expedience of a cleanup could be based on many things, primarily financial urgency. “If they have an economic driver for that cleanup to happen quickly,” she said, “that’s how it happens quickly.”

Another issue with the Solvay site is the matter of access. The land is, by purpose, isolated from the areas that surround it, something that neighbors during its industrial peak would have considered a courtesy. Indeed, a major issue with the inner harbor as a whole is its reclusive location to the east of the KK River Trail and the railroad tracks. One of the great challenges to spurring development in the harbor area is to break down both the real and mental barriers that surround it.

“The idea has always been that the harbor is disconnected from the city, psychologically if not physically,” James Wasley, professor of Architecture at UW-Milwaukee said. Wasley led a project at UWM that created some of the first plans to re-imagine the harbor and its place within the city. Wasley said that, for the typical Milwaukeean, visiting the area makes you “feel like you’ve gone down to the edge of the world. When you get down to the edge of the harbor you can see City Hall. So, you are in the heart of things, but in a very isolated tract of land.” 

Fowler also recognizes this disconnect as a major obstacle. “It’s hard to get people excited about redevelopment in an area they’ve never been to,” she said. An HDI project will begin in the coming months and is designed specifically to help draw people into the area. In January, HDI announced the winning design for the “Take Me To The Water” project, which will establish a new public plaza at the end of Greenfield Avenue, adjacent to the UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences.

Phase one of the project will be completed this year, and HDI is currently working to secure funds for the second, more substantive phase, which will incorporate the frontage of the UWM facility. This will complement the nearly completed Ecological Waterscape Plan, spearheaded by Wasley. The plan involves a series of fountains, pools and sculptural features fed by storm water and discharge from the research facilities at the Freshwater Sciences building and is designed to provide a “gateway” from development along Greenfield Avenue in Walker’s Point to where the plaza will eventually meet the water.

Creating this access point, and an attractive pathway to it, is vital to building momentum and public engagement with inner harbor development, said Fowler. The plaza will be one of only two places where the public can “touch the water” along the harbor’s nine miles of waterfront property. Fowler hopes to see the other point—the county boat launch at the foot of East Bruce Street—made over in the coming years into a “friendlier, more functional boat ramp.” They’re also eying smaller-scale development on the Kinnickinnic River that could include small boat landings. She also says that HDI will “absolutely” be working on extending the Riverwalk along the south bank of the Milwaukee River and into the inner harbor. 

Both Fowler and Wasley stress the importance of including job-creating and job-sustaining projects in harbor development. Wasley cites the Freshwater School as a potential draw for water-focused high-tech industry. “[The school is] the reason why we’ve done everything down there,” said Wasley. “The hope is that if that really takes off, that one site is not going to contain all of the potential high-tech water industries.”

Fowler also sees the existing Port of Milwaukee facilities as essential to the area’s future. Just to the south of the Freshwater School is a Port-owned 14-acre plot formerly used a bulk coal storage yard. The site is currently available to lease and the Port is involved in “ongoing discussions” with interested parties such as HDI to utilize the space in a way that best benefits the Port and its neighborhood. The shipping trade in the harbor continues to be a significant part of the local economy. The Port welcomed 274 shipping vessels in 2016 and saw a 200% increase by volume in state agricultural products shipping overseas, according to Port spokesman Jeff Fleming. “As we speak,” Fleming said, “there are several potential new users in active discussions with the Port that could dramatically expand certain cargo categories.”

Tim Hoelter, president of Milwaukee’s Board of Harbor Commissioners, also sits on the board of HDI. Hoelter said that both parties recognize the value that the other will provide to the inner harbor and the larger Milwaukee community in the coming years and decades. “The Port’s mission is to enhance the overall economic and social environment of the City and region,” Hoelter said via email. “The Harbor District initiative expressly recognizes the importance of maintaining the Port’s role in a working waterfront and, as an integral member, the Port intends to continue that role while helping the District achieve its revitalization objectives.” 

The inner harbor presents Milwaukee with a unique opportunity to utilize its waterways with multi-use private development, high-tech investment and the continuation of the century-and-a-half-old tradition of Great Lakes shipping. “In a decade,” said Fowler, “I think this is where we show the rest of the world what it looks like to be a water city, to be a freshwater capital.” 

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