Grassroots Protection – Our MIlwaukee River

By Nik Kovac, Third District Alderman

One hundred years ago our Milwaukee River was a recreation destination – complete with swimming beaches, water slides, ice hockey in the winter, and summer cruises upstream to beer gardens and amusement parks. Fifty years ago the same river was an economic engine for the region, a commodity producer for the world, and a dammed up cesspool devoid of fish and swimmers.

Now, in 2010, our river upstream from the former North Avenue dam is becoming something else entirely. Those of us who live along its wooded bluffs don’t need to be told what’s happening there. But we should keep telling others about it, because the best way to protect an urban ecological resource is to make sure enough citizens know about it and value it.

Before I was your alderman, I was a member of the Milwaukee River Work Group, a coalition of nonprofit environmental stewardship groups and neighborhood associations. MRWG continues to set new benchmarks for proactive, grassroots community planning. As the lead sponsor on legislation that that will protect the water quality, forest, habitat, recreational access, and scenic character of the Milwaukee River Greenway, I have been repeatedly impressed with MRWG’s ability to engage stakeholders, express the community voice, and influence politicians.~

What Is Happening Along The River Upstream Of Caesar’s Park?

If you stand in the middle of the pedestrian bridge that crosses the Milwaukee River just south of the North Avenue bridge and look to the south, you’ll see the Humboldt Bridge replacement construction project (finishing up this June!) and the condos on Water and Commerce Streets with their riverwalks extending all the way to the downtown offices and Third Ward warehouse conversions. Look east and you’ll see a park. Look west and you’ll see the site of a future park.~Look north and see rapid waters funneling from a wide, deep source, surrounded by even wider and deeper woods and trails, shielding from view – especially north of the North Avenue bridge – any signs of a city. This false sense of remoteness – false because dense neighborhoods and thriving commercial corridors are just a stone’s throw away – has lately been enticing joggers, fisherpeople, dog walkers, mountain bikers, bird watchers, and school groups to escape the city while staying right in the middle of it.

Why Is This So Unique?~Other cities have rivers. In fact, every city has a river. ~People have been settling near flowing water from the beginning of time. Many cities like Milwaukee, including St. Louis, Pittsburg and Minneapolis, are located at the confluence of several rivers. ~Many of these cities are creating managed trails and even landscape buffers along the urban banks, similar to what Milwaukee has done with our 20-year-old Riverwalk Overlay District, which extends from the river’s mouth up to the pedestrian bridge near North Avenue.

But not many cities – actually none that I am aware of – have the ecological raw material that we do, right where our Riverwalk formally ends. Suddenly a concrete path between buildings becomes a walk in the woods. 

The only urban river valley that I’ve seen come close is the Rock Creek Parkway in Washington, DC, but its scenic and contemplative effects have been largely compromised by a major road down its spine. The Cuyahoga Valley in Ohio is magnificent, but is between Cleveland and Akron, not in the middle of either.

What Is City Government Doing To Protect This Irreplaceable Greenway For Future Generations?

After years of community outreach and negotiations with property owners and the Department of City Development, the Common Council is now poised this summer to convert the temporary study overlay into permanent zoning and design guidelines. Here are the broad strokes of the current draft, which will be released for stakeholder and community review later this month:

• No building bigger than a duplex within the primary environmental corridor (PEC) in the entire overlay district, north from the pedestrian bridge to the city limits in Estabrook and Lincoln Parks

• North of North Avenue, no building bigger than a duplex within a buffer zone 25 feet beyond the top of bluff (TOB) line. Limited building between 25 and 50 feet.

• North of North Avenue, 45-foot height restrictions up to 100 feet from TOB, and 60-foot up to 150 feet (except on commercial corridors, where the 60-foot restriction does not apply).

• Design guidelines that encourage green practices and careful treatment of the river side of buildings

•  No cutting down of native non-invasive trees without a permit anywhere within the PEC

• Stricter stormwater requirements for any new construction near the PEC.

What More Can Citizens Do To Be Responsible Stewards Of This Public Greenway?

First and foremost, please take a close look at the new draft of the overlay ordinance, which is now available on my web page – Please send comments to my office, to the co-sponsors Alderwoman Coggs and Alderman Hamilton, to the Mayor, and to the Milwaukee River Work Group. We are hoping to pass the final version in May.

But don’t think that those new overlay laws, with their zoning and design guidelines, stormwater regulations and tree protection ordinances are the end of the story. Really it’s just a first step in this proactive community process. 

The new master plan for the entire greenway currently being written by Milwaukee River Work Group (MRWG) will cross city boundaries into Shorewood and Glendale, and will do more than just protect the greenway. It will help manage its interior, coordinate its uses, and improve public access.

Thanks to the efforts of the Milwaukee River Work Group, the Urban Ecology Center, the River Revitalization Foundation, Milwaukee Riverkeepers and the Rotary Club (which is investing $400,000 in an arboretum within the overlay district), the business, residential, recreational, and environmental communities of Milwaukee are taking the lead on protecting and improving this important public asset. 

And that’s how it should be. The people are leading the government. It has been a privilege for me to be a part of this process, and I hope that we are all still proud of its results 100 years from now.

Mark Your Calendars! 

City Plan Commission (overlay file): Monday, May 3 – PUBLIC HEARING

Public Works (storm water and forestry files): Wednesday, May 12

Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development (overlay file): Tuesday, May 18

Common Council (final approval of all files): Tuesday, May 25

 Once the draft ordinance file is ready in April, it will be posted on Ald. Kovac’s webpage at

Once approved by the Common Council, files are submitted to the Mayor for signature and are “official” one day after passage and publication by the City Clerk.