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Potential Housing Development on the Johnson Controls Site

by Peter Schmidtke

Third district Alderman Michael D’Amato and other city officials met in January with representatives of Johnson Controls, Inc. to discuss possible development of 12-15 residential lots on the cleaner portion of the company’s three-acre brownfield at 3238 N. Bremen St. (See this month’s story about the pollution/cleanup status of this property.) City and state public health and environmental managers met later that same month and concluded that more investigation would be necessary to rule out the potential for intrusion of industrial contaminants into existing or future homes in the area. “There will be opportunities to build,” D’Amato said in an interview after the meeting. “We will be able to take the portion of the land that is clean, and we should be able to go ahead and parcel off the lots.” D’Amato said he is hoping to see marketing of the lots begin in 2003 after the state approves development plans, pending further contamination testing. D’Amato said that the 150-by-120-foot patch in the southwest corner would probably always remain undeveloped due to the level of chlorinated solvents in the groundwater below. D’Amato also said the western portion of the site along Bremen Street would most likely not be ready for development within the next five years. Both D’Amato and Dennis Reis, Johnson Controls’ consulting attorney, said the plan will be to put an alley through the middle of the property and develop the eastern half along Weil St. D’Amato said a strip of the property between Bremen and Weil may also be available for development. “Our objective is to determine how much of the site we can reasonably allow development on in the 2004 horizon,” Reis said. “There will be development only if we know the contaminants are isolated.” Reis said further treatment of groundwater and/or soil may also be necessary. “And if someone buys a house there, they have to be able to sell it,” he emphasized. “Your house is obviously a major investment in your life.” Assistant Director of the Milwaukee Redevelopment Authority Greg Shelko said the overriding reason he called the meeting with Johnson Controls was to begin a process that will return the property to productive use. “It seems to me to be a matter of environmental justice — to remove the industrial legacy from the neighborhood.” Shelko said many houses and businesses have been developed on former brownfield industrial sites in Milwaukee that have been cleaned up, including Jewel Osco on 35th and North, AutoZone at 24th and North, and the “J” block in the Third Ward. What’s in Store “The future of the property, as far as I’m concerned is very simple,” D’Amato said. “To build more of Riverwest, with buildings of the same style and fashion of those around them.” “The way it would most likely proceed would be to sell off lots, have a menu of styles of buildings that would be compatible with the neighborhood, allow the purchaser to choose a design and a builder, and then go ahead and build it privately,” D’Amato said. Longtime resident Lucy Krajna, who lives a block away from the site, would like her daughter to purchase one of the lots when they become available. Krajna said she has confidence that the city and the DNR will not allow development on the site until it is safe. “I’m almost tempted to pile a bunch of my furniture on a cart and wheel it across the street to save a lot,” she laughed. “We have heard from about 25 people who have said, ‘When and if that lot is developed, please let us know, we would love to buy a lot,'” D’Amato said. The need for future buyers to exercise precautions was articulated by Michael O’Hear, a Marquette University Law School professor. When asked about future liability for homeowners on or near old industrial sites, O’Hear said, “Homeowners could potentially end up paying for any lingering cleanup costs, but usually what happens is that in the sale contract either the buyer or the seller will agree to assume ultimate responsibility for the cleanup costs, if the government were to sue.” Both Reis and Shelko pointed out that buyers can minimize their risk by purchasing environmental insurance. Reis said that current and future buyers can also obtain a certificate of completion or “clean letter” from the state, which will “protect people down the road from liability.” Although Shelko said he does not think the city itself will develop the site, he said people who wish to express their interest in purchasing a lot in the future can call his department at 286-5735. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 3 – March 2003
by Peter Schmidtke