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A Landmark Setting for a World Water Leader?

Michael Cudahy and UWM move ahead with the Pieces of Eight site plans

Aug. 5, 2009
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If Milwaukee is to become a world-renowned leader in water-related industries, then, the thinking goes, the city needs a first-class landmark building that will attract visitors and investors from around the globe.

To turn this vision into reality, business and community leaders, as well as UW-Milwaukee, have set their sights on a 1.67-acre parcel of city-owned Lake Michigan shoreline sandwiched between Discovery World at Pier Wisconsin and the Calatrava addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Most Milwaukeeans know this parcel as the Pieces of Eight site, a destination restaurant with a breathtaking view of Lake Michigan. A company called Specialty Restaurants of Wisconsin, a subsidiary of Specialty Restaurants of America, based in Anaheim, Calif., had held the long-term lease for the site until 2018—or it did, until entrepreneur and philanthropist Michael Cudahy first attempted to buy out the lease for a few months, and then bought Specialty Restaurants of Wisconsin outright.

Now, instead of negotiating with a California-based restaurant chain for the rights to the rest of the life of the lease, UWM can work with Cudahy to finalize its plans for the site, which includes building the headquarters for its soon-to-launch School of Freshwater Sciences, plus space for the public and UWM researchers.

“These are local people, working on local issues,” said Joel Brennan, CEO of Discovery World, the brainchild of Michael Cudahy. (Discovery World is an “interested observer,” Brennan said, but is not directly involved in the Pieces of Eight issue.)

If the UWM plan falls through, Cudahy has indicated that he’d launch a new restaurant there.

Getting Approval

But despite the momentum building toward UWM’s plans for the site, it isn’t a done deal yet. In fact, UWM hasn’t even made a formal presentation to the Board of Harbor Commissioners, which oversees the city-owned lakefront property.

East Side Alderman Robert Bauman, a member of the Harbor Commission, said there’s been “a lot of conversation” but UWM has not presented any details in writing yet. “We kind of get the gist of what they’re proposing,” Bauman said. “But we’d like to see it in writing and then get a formal request.”

UWM spokesman Tom Luljak said the university hopes to make its case in front of the commission this summer. “We are finalizing our presentation,” Luljak said. “It will be comprehensive and we believe it will address all of the questions raised both by the commissioners and by members of the public who have asked whether that is the best place for our headquarters.”

But that’s only the first step. The Harbor Commission will make a decision on the facility and the lease, the Common Council and the mayor will have to sign off on it, and the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) will weigh in on whether it’s a proper use of this land, which, while owned by the city, is placed in the public’s trust and is set aside for public purposes. Lastly, will have to go to the UW Board of Regents, the state Legislature and the governor to get them to sign off on the proposed facility. In addition, while the state approved $240 million for UWM’s citywide campus expansion plans, the university would likely have to raise additional private funds to construct the building.

What’s more, UWM may want to win over the support of the public, some of whom aren’t thrilled about adding another building to the Lake Michigan shoreline.

“The restaurant should never have been put there in the first place,” said John Lunz, president of Preserve Our Parks.

The Plan and the Public Trust Doctrine

The plan isn’t done yet, UWM’s Luljak said last week. But what is known is that the university plans to build a two-story, 50,000-square-foot facility. That facility will be home to the deans and faculty of the new School of Freshwater Sciences, with space set aside for visiting groups and the public, and a few labs for researchers. The “heavy lifting” of water research will continue to be conducted at UWM’s Harbor Campus on Greenfield Avenue, which will be expanded to encompass the new graduate-level program. Plans for the new academic program will go ahead no matter what happens to the Pieces of Eight proposal.

“It’s not just UWM that will benefit from having the Freshwater School there, but it really will become a forum for academic and business and environmental interests from around the world,” Luljak said.

As originally envisioned, the facility on the Pieces of Eight site apparently included the headquarters of the Milwaukee Water Council, a committee of the Milwaukee 7, a business group focused on promoting southeastern Wisconsin to other businesses. But the involvement of the Water Council may complicate UWM’s plans, and representatives of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, the driving force behind the M7, didn’t want to comment on UWM’s plans for this article. But it’s thought that the council’s presence will be minimized in the facility.

The Water Council is a private business organization focused on commercial pursuits. And that mission seems to be contrary to the Public Trust Doctrine, which governs the use of land along Wisconsin’s waterways. In short, the city owns the land— which is filled-in lakebed—but it’s held in the public’s trust and is overseen by the DNR.

Larry Sullivan, chief engineer for the Port of Milwaukee, said lakefront land north of Wisconsin Avenue is devoted to the public’s recreation, and includes county parkland and Bradford and McKinley beaches. Land south of Wisconsin Avenue, however, is designated for harbor navigation, fisheries and other uses the Board of Harbor Commissioners deems appropriate, Sullivan said. That land includes the Pieces of Eight site. The Harbor Commission could decide that the freshwater center fits that purpose—after all, it had approved Discovery World, which is also devoted to educating the public about freshwater resources—and the proposed location is a state university building that would be open to the public.

“The facility doesn’t violate, and in fact we believe it actually supports and upholds the tenets of the Public Trust Doctrine because it uses that space in a fashion that serves the broadest number of people,” UWM’s Luljak said.

UWM had briefed the DNR back in January about its plans. In a February 25 letter from Liesa Lehmann, DNR Waterway Protection Section Chief, the agency seems to give preliminary approval for the project.
But it did have reservations about the Water Council’s presence on the site: “In general, office suites for private, non-governmental or governmental organizations (including DNR) are not public trust uses, and are not appropriate to be located on public lakebed,” Lehmann wrote.

Bauman said the letter did not provide a green light for UWM’s plans. “It is emphatically not a letter of approval,” he said.

John Lunz of Preserve Our Parks said the facility—even without the Water Council’s presence—definitely does not fit the Public Trust criteria. “It doesn’t fill those requirements and it doesn’t need to be there,” Lunz said.

Alternatives to the Site

Luljak said there’s no “Plan B” for the school at the moment.

But alternatives have been pitched. One is to locate all of the freshwater activities at the Harbor Campus on Greenfield Avenue, where the Great Lakes WATER Institute is located. The industrial area is in need of development.

“We believe that while the Greenfield Avenue site can be a great place for us to do our heavy lifting, the best place to showcase both the university and the region’s enormous ability and potential in this area is not on a street that is bordered by a huge coal pile on one side and asphalt storage tanks on the other side,” Luljak said.

“Why not rehab a part of the city that needs rehabbing?” Lunz countered. “Downtown is fine. You don’t need to do any more there.”

Bauman said the Greenfield Avenue location isn’t completely out of the question, even though academics and dignitaries from around the world would visit that site. “Industrial areas have been known to get redeveloped in other cities,” Bauman said.

He also suggested the southern Summerfest parking lot, which runs along the Milwaukee River. The Public Trust Doctrine would not be invoked because it’s not filled-in lakebed land. “It’s a very maritime environment and they have a lot of real estate, and they’d be the biggest show on the block,” Bauman said.

Other alternatives that have been suggested are the current site of the Harbor Commission headquarters, on the south end of the Hoan Bridge in Bay View, the Linwood water treatment plant near the lakefront, and the Downtown Transit Center located across the street from Discovery World.


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