A Place for Nature in the City

by Laura Richard

“For the past eight years, a small group of dedicated volunteers representing a diverse array of folk from the community (business people, land owners, non profit leaders, government officials, teachers and neighbors) have been working together toward the common goal of forever preserving and protecting the 5.5 mile natural corridor that borders the Milwaukee River,” stated Urban Ecology Center (UEC) Executive Director Ken Leinbach.

He is referring to the Milwaukee River corridor between North Avenue and Silver Spring Drive. Currently more than three-quarters of this portion of the river is public property, however, it is the other one-quarter that is causing concern.

A few East Side businesses are nestled along the bluffs of the river and could be affected by the proposed plan.

“I am generally supportive of the efforts for revitalization, but understand that there must be a balance. My main concern is that private property is not taken away. For example, the Hometown lot on North Avenue will most likely be developed in the next two years, and that area is an important gateway into the East Side. I don’t want this initiative to minimize the potential for that development,” stated East Side BID #20 Executive Director Jim Plaisted. Along with the East Side businesses, there are 11 Riverwest residential properties with private ownership of the land along the river that could be affected by the initiative if the owners chose to develop on the slope of their property. There may be height restrictions on new construction near the river that could affect additional adjacent properties if the group’s plans are adopted by the city as code for future development.

Bob Monnat, Chief Operating Officer of the Mandel Group, which has holdings along the river, echoed Plaisted’s sentiments. “We share the goal of preserving the river corridor,” Monnat emphasized.

“We are quality driven,” he continued. “Our final proposal for a site along the river might be visible from the water, however what you’re going to see is not only going to be of outstanding design quality but also sensitively positioned relative to bluffline and vegetation preservation.”

Once upon a time, in the early part of last century, people built their “summer homes” along the river. Where Gordon Park now stands, there were loads of people laughing and jumping into the river, swimming in summer and ice skating in winter.

As years passed and pollution increased, the river became less welcoming for many Milwaukeeans. However, progress has been made.

“Where just 15 years ago there were only two or three species of fish which could survive the toxic water, now over 33 different species thrive,” commented UEC’s Leinbach.

Volunteer Ann Brummitt, who is involved with the river preservation project, remarked that she “moved to Milwaukee to be close to the water and feels that the river is very underutilized.”

Her vision is that in the future, people who are enjoying canoeing on the river don’t look up and see a “wall of condos, such as what has happened on Commerce Street.”

The group has scheduled a public meeting to share their ideas.

Find Out More Public Meeting:
A Vision for the Milwaukee River
Thursday, April 26, 7 – 8:30 pm
Urban Ecology Center
Riverside Park, 1500 E. Park Place

Riverwest Currents online edition – April, 2007