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Reservoir No Longer Needed?

By Sonya Jongsma Knauss and Vince Bushell Looking East from Reservoir Hill Down North Ave.“We remain firm in our commitment to include community input” — Carrie Lewis, superintendent of the Milwaukee Department of Water Works, about the shape of the reservoir hill of Kilbourn Park What’s at stake:

  • The future shape of the landmark hill: will the hill maintain its present height and viewpoint?
  • The path that North Avenue will take: will the curve be modified or straightened?
  • The connection between the trails and paths along Commerce Street and the top of the hill near North Avenue: will it be bike-accessible?
  • The future caretaker of Kilbourn Park, to the north and south of North Avenue: who will it be?
  • The process: how much input will Riverwest residents have?
  • The caretaker’s priorities: will care be determined by cost of maintenance, functionality in relation to other assets they hold, etc?

If you had $9 million to play with, how would you restructure the reservoir portion of Kilbourn Park? That’s the gist of the question Milwaukee Water Works superintendent Carrie Lewis put to residents at the Riverwest Neighborhood Association (RNA) meeting January 15. She was quick to emphasize that Water Works may not have control of the land long, doesn’t intend to spend the full $9 million, and still needs to complete a one-year trial to make sure the reservoir is no longer needed. But the “what if…” hanging in the air filled many residents with excitement. While some Riverwest residents may not know it, the big hill north of North Avenue between Bremen and Booth streets houses the first reservoir built in the Great Lakes region. The reservoir has helped meet the neighborhood’s water needs for over a century. Suggestions for the area known as Reservoir Park ranged from a museum for the first Great Lakes-area reservoir, to a scenic waterfall area, to a “gravity playground” where children could use the hill in their play. “This is a great opportunity for neighborhood residents and for COA,” said Tom Schneider, Community Outing Association (COA) executive director. He hopes the park will be accessible to the growing number of children his organization cares for in its child care and after school programs. Schneider approves the Water Works’ decision to ask for resident input on what should be done with the park. “Reopening all of Reservoir Park can create a newly accessible neighborhood green space, a spectacular city view. . . a place that is attractive and accessible,” he said. Lewis’s announcement at the meeting came as a surprise, since residents had met a year ago with Water Works to discuss plans for replacing the large, leaking reservoir with a new, smaller one. Landscape architect David Schreiber of Madison, working with Water Works, had taken residents’ suggestions and put together an attractive plan for the restructured park. With that plan in mind, $9 million was budgeted for this year’s construction project. But then Water Works “went back to square one,” as Lewis put it, and examined whether a reservoir was needed at all. They decided it most likely wasn’t. “There has been a tremendous decrease in water use in the neighborhood,” Lewis said, attributing much of the decrease to the loss of heavy water-use industries such as breweries and tanneries. “And it’s still decreasing.” Water Works planners decided that with a few plumbing changes at its North Point Pumping Station it could probably meet the Riverwest neighborhood’s current water needs. Water Works will make the plumbing changes to the North Point station in March, put in a pressure-reducing valve at the Riverwest Reservoir during April-May, and then “test drive” the new system for a year to make sure it works in cold and heat before making any changes to the land. Work on the park could begin in the summer of 2003. In an update Lewis handed out at the RNA meeting, the department’s feels that “the Water Works will not require any water storage or pumping facilities in Kilbourn Park in the future. . . (we remain) firm in our commitment to include community input as we proceed with this project.” When asked whether the park restructuring would affect taxes or water prices, Lewis pointed out that Water Works is its own taxing body, so the changes will have no bearing on property taxes. She noted that Water Works had already applied for a slight rate increase. And she said that since the money has already been budgeted for the park, she would like to use some of it, preferably less than half, to do something for the neighborhood with the land before the reservoir is decommissioned. Lewis said if the reservoir is not needed, it will have to be either stabilized or removed. If the reservoir is completely removed, the hill could be flattened. But no one at the RNA meeting wanted to see the hill flattened — after all, nearly two-thirds of attendees at the meeting have enjoyed the best view in the city from its peak. Despite the fact that a chain-link, barbwire fence prevents public access to the top, which once held tennis courts and a running track, the hill continues to be attractive to those looking for a great view of downtown Milwaukee. The general consensus was that the height, or at least some height, should be preserved. And then ideas started flowing. Ken Leinbach, director of the Urban Ecology Center just east of the river, said the “gravity playground” idea he brought up at the meeting was just an off-the-cuff idea, but he thinks with creative minds working on it, the idea could work. “My thought was that sliding down hills is lots of fun, rolling down hills is lots of fun, rolling balls down hills is a lot of fun,” Leinbach said. “Most parks are flat. . . why not take advantage of the hill?” He says the idea came from his own upbringing — growing up on a farm, he would take sheets of metal and slide down the hill into a pile of hay. “There are an infinite array of things you could do with that idea,” he says — all, of course, with a greater degree of safety than the metal sheet example. Leinbach says that, from an environmental education perspective, the park is a real gem. “With its size and the amount of money that’s available, you could create the variety that you need.” The park already has forests, and it could easily boast a field/prairie community and a man-made pond as well. The pond could be stocked with fish in the warm months, and could be used for ice skating in the winter months. He and others strongly feel that a bridge is an important feature for the park. Although the site’s Historic Landmark designation apparently prohibits the building of a bridge, Leinbach feels that should be appealed. “It would be crazy to have a great park that’s inaccessible because kids can’t get across the street,” he said, referring to North Avenue, which curves around the boundary of the park and separates the COA from the reservoir side of Kilbourn Park. Others agree. Julilly Kohler, president (?)of the Brady Street Business Improvement District (BID), was concerned about keeping a good link between Riverwest and the lower east side. “Economic development depends on each neighborhood developing its own identity, and the connections between neighborhoods. . . need to be easy, interesting, and inviting,” she said. “We need to balance the built with the unbuilt (landscape).” Attendees at the meeting also came up with uses for the old limestone blocks that will presumably be dug out of the old reservoir. Some suggested using the stones in a bridge over North Avenue or recycling them by using them in an artistic way in the park. Leinbach had a proposal as well– “we could use some of them for the new Urban Ecology Center when we build it,” he says. “That way we’d be able to re-use something good and preserve a little bit of the history.” One pressing question, which could render all other discussion pointless, was who would control the park once it is decommissioned as a reservoir and how much they would be willing to listen to neighborhood input. “All I can promise you is that I will listen as hard as I can,” Lewis said. She indicated that at any time the Water Works could lose control of the property. Kilbourn Park, south of North Avenue Ownership was a concern for residents at the meeting because the city of Milwaukee has been talking with Milwaukee County Parks about adopting the portion of Kilbourn Park south of North Avenue. Some residents feel that if the county also becomes a player in how the land on the north side is developed, it may be more difficult for the Riverwest neighborhood to have a say in how the land is used. For now, the Department of City Development is in charge of the portion of Kilbourn Park south of North Avenue. The city has held several public information meetings about the Kilbourn Park area with Milwaukee County Park representatives in attendance. “They’re park operators and we’re not,” said city spokesman Mike Wisniewski. “We have had interest from Superintendent Willie Johnson in helping us explore the potential of conveying the park to Milwaukee County.” He indicated that if the city becomes responsible for the northern portion of the park with Reservoir Hill, the city would probably also explore handing control over to the county parks system. This worries some neighborhood activists because they’re concerned that the County may not be interested in preserving the hill because of the difficulty of maintaining a park with such a steep grade. What happens to Kilbourn Park north of North Avenue remains to be seen. But plans are going ahead in the park portion south of North Avenue, which was recently cleared of trees, for regrading the bluff and creating pedestrian trails. Whether these trails would be bike accessible or link with other bike trails leading into the city remains to be seen. Wisniewski says regrading the bluff will take most of the 2002 construction season, and construction on the footpaths will be a small part of the overall work. As far as being bike-accessible, he notes that “there might be a couple of steps, but not many.” After the construction work is finished, the city hopes to turn the park over to the county for maintenance. Currently, Wisniewski says, county parks representatives have not approved a transfer of land ownership, but have asked for more information before making a decision. Wisniewski said before the contractors begin work on the bluff and trails, the city will have a final design presentation to show the public what they intend to do. He was unsure of the date, but said it would be sometime in “late winter.” Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 1 – February 2002