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Another Year, Another Story, Reservoir Becomes A Park

by Adam J. Lovinus

Earth movers sit in the bottom of the old reservoir in early January of this year. By now all the superstructure of the old reservoir at North Avenue between Bremen Street and Booth Street should be down. Top right is the cover of the first Riverwest Currents in February of 2002, featuring an old photo of the reservoir with open water from the 1960s. The decision-making process on the future of this land began five years ago. Above right is the rendering of the how the finished and landscaped park should look by nrext summer.

Perhaps the best scenic overlook of the Milwaukee skyline is located where East North Avenue bends around the hill, from that small patch of open green space south of the road. The stunning panorama is a neighborhood favorite: a perfect little spot to do some thinking or throw a Frisbee around. The big hill behind this overlook is Milwaukee’s geographical peak. Atop the summit is a different panorama – an evolving picture of Riverwest past, present and future.

Climbing the hill involves trespassing. Signs indicate this hill belongs to Milwaukee Water Works, and there’s a tall fence around most of the perimeter. Another Year, Another Story, Reservoir Becomes A Park At Kilbourn Park, near where Bremen meets Meinecke, there’s a dirt path that leads up to the hill. Halfway up the path, it becomes clear this is not a hill – it’s the lip of a giant crater. Power shovels dig up chunks of busted limestone and tangled rebar tumbleweeds. There is a huge concrete rim that looms like an ancient ruin.

This is the Reservoir. Built in 1873, it was a Gilded Age superstructure – a hilltop water holding tank that stretched 300 feet across and plunged 25 feet deep. It held 21 million gallons of water in a heptagon of thick limestone.

Milwaukee’s first public works project, the Reservoir was part of a multi-structural water delivery system that included the North Avenue water tower and the Lafayette Hill pumping station. Water from the Reservoir flowed downhill to the bustling industries that lined what is present-day Commerce Street and provided plumbing and fire protection for the German and Polish families in old Riverwest.

Though need for a large water source in Riverwest disappeared with the tanning and brewing industries, Milwaukee Water Works kept it operational. When it was announced in January, 2002 that the Reservoir needed $9 million in repairs, MWW opted to consider reducing or retiring the facility, suspecting that the predominantly residential modern neighborhood did not need an industrial-size water system.

MWW Superintendent Carrie Lewis informed the Riverwest Neighborhood Association about possibilities of decommissioning the Reservoir and using the repair allotment to redevelop the land into a green space. This began the process of neighborhood planning meetings and discussions about what the neighborhood wanted the Reservoir to become.

The very first issue of The Riverwest Currents was published a short time later. The front-page story was about the leaky tank and a long list of suggestions proposed by residents who wanted ponds, tracks, paths, pavilions, a snowboarding chute, a baseball diamond, a tot lot and more.

Before any redevelopment could occur, MWW would need to ensure that the system had the capacity to operate without the Reservoir. Lewis announced that the test would take about a year, and redevelopment could begin as soon as 2003.

2003 came and went. No word from Water Works. 2004 passed – still nothing.

The MWW announcement came January of 2005: the system did not need the Reservoir. For the Riverwest Currents’ fourth birthday, the front-page featured the long-awaited master plan for Reservoir Park renovations.

The plan honored many of the neighborhood’s suggestions, as Lewis promised two years prior.

Highlights of the Water Works plan for the Reservoir, released in January 2005, included:

• Most of hill will remain intact; the peak will be flattened slightly into a high plateau where the main plaza structure is to be built.

• Paved access to the plateau will run up the north side of the hill.

• A bowl will be cut from the center, east and west sides for sledding, cut at a grade that can someday facilitate an amphitheatre.

• A pedestrian connection from Kilbourn Park south of the hill will run across East North Avenue to the scenic overlook of the city south of the hill.

• The chalet near Fratney St. will be restored into a paved plaza area with plumbing, electricity, benches and bike racks.

• Original paths and staircases will be restored.

• Most existing shade trees and natural vegetation will be preserved.

• A baseball diamond and half-court basketball area will be added.

This issue marks the fifth birthday of the Riverwest Currents, so it’s only appropriate to include information about progress on the Reservoir reconstruction – the annual updates are become something of a tradition.

Water Works opened contract bidding for the project August 31, 2006. The contract was awarded to Wanasek Corp. for $2.1 million. Work started October 16, 2006, with crews wrecking the giant tank and pulling up vegetation overgrowth and a few trees.

As of January 17, 2007 Wanasek Corp. reported that excavation was 90 percent complete. Construction of new park amenities will begin after the excavation. The contract is due to be finished September 2007 and the park will open after another round of testing for landscape stability. A Wanasek spokesperson said the project is on schedule.

There will be no North Avenue footbridge connecting the Reservoir hill with Kilbourn Park. Instead, the street has been reconstructed with a lesser curve, and a crosswalk has been installed.

The tot lot has been built, but will not open until the entire park is ready.

So for now, Reservoir Park is a construction site. Perhaps by the time the Currents turns six years old, Riverwesters will have a brand new park to play in. The neighborhood has been patient. As of now it looks like its patience will be rewarded – next year, Riverwest, next year.

Riverwest Currents online edition – February, 2007