Rebirth and New Use Follow Failure and Abuse

by Vince Bushell

Part 1 of this two-part series focuses on the history of Garden Park. Next month’s installment will address the park’s future.Prairie Garden, Garden Park

The Pulaski building (821 thru 833 E.Locust Street) used to fill the 10,800 square foot lot that is now Garden Park. The “vacant” lot on the corner of Bremen and Locust Streets is the home of a community garden and Gardener’s Market, the Sunday farmers’ market that fills the lot with people, produce, crafts, and music every summer Sunday. What happened to the building and how did it turn into a community park? The Pulaski building originally housed a movie theater and other businesses that served the mostly Polish community when it was built. An IGA food store occupied most of the first floor space in the 1960s. When this store closed the Gordon Park Food Co-op took over the space in 1974 and ran the store until 1987 when the Co-op ran into management and debt problems that forced the it to close. The closing of the Gordon Park Co-op was a blow to the community. Losing the Co-op began a downward spiral for the building and the community that ended in the demolition of the building. The Pulaski BuildingM&I bank held a mortgage on the building, but as the retail situation deteriorated they opted out and forgave the mortgage. One can surmise that M&I thought foreclosure on the building was not going to be a profitable move. The earliest tax record I could find (1989) indicates the owner of the building to be the Riverwest Community Development Corporation (RCDC), whose address was in the Pulaski Building at the time. The city property taxes on the building in 1989 were $4,334. The building became vacant and the tax bill dropped to $1,457 in 1993, indicating a significant drop in value for the property. In 1991 the property owner is listed as BDG 1 Limited Partnership. BDG 1 was a development partnership with Bowles Development Group. RCDC tried for several years to develop rehabilitation plans for the building and had formed an association with Bowles to implement the plans. City grant money was available for the planning stages of this project. It is sad to note that an early plan ended with angry community meetings. Some accused residents who were opposed to low-income housing in the building of having racist attitudes. The July, 1992 East Side News, the newspaper published by East Side Housing Action Coalition (ESHAC), reported that the latest, and it turned out to be the last, proposal for the Pulaski building was on the table, with construction expected to begin in August of 1992. This proposal was for a live-work space housing development targeted toward low-income artists. ESHAC, Riverwest Artists Association, RCDC and the Riverwest Merchants Association were listed along with Bowles as participating groups in the July ’92 East Side News. I was president of ESHAC’s board at the time, and wrote in the same ssue of the paper that this was a good plan worth pursuing. I also wrote that a vacant lot would do nothing to help Locust Street revive. In July of 1992, the building had a value of $100,000 and RCDC had a debt involving back taxes and legal bills of $100,000. The building had a raze order from the city that was temporarily stayed. RCDC supported the plan to save the building from the wrecking ball. RCDC hoped the development would pay back neighborhood bondholders who had invested in RCDC’s plans for rehabilitation. It never happened. The wrecking ball won. The building was torn down in 1994. Today the land is valued by the City at $32,400, up from $16,200 in 2001. Back taxes have risen to $340,854. This number includes the demolition costs and $150,183 in interest. The city has not foreclosed on the land. Of the partners in the plan for the building, only the Riverwest Artist Association still exists. Recently Bowles Development Group has successfully extricated their firm from any ownership of the property. There is no attachable firm, group or individual associated with the land at this time. The downward spiral did not end with the last load of debris from the demolished building being hauled away. It seems the contractor hired to demolish the building by the City was irresponsible, disrespectful, ignorant, or all of the above. City sources have assured me that their policies have changed so what happened next does not happen again. I have been told that the foundation of the Pulaski building is intact under the ground. The hole needed to be filled. Fill was brought in and placed in the hole. Repeated testing of the ground water indicates pollutants in the soil and water beneath the surface of what is now Garden Park. Reports on the contamination indicate that most likely the contaminants came with the fill placed in the foundation of the Pulaski building. The type of contaminants found are remarkably similar to what you might find on a tannery site. It just so happens that a tannery was being demolished at the time the Pulaski building was being torn down. It seems likely that the raze order resulted in contaminated fill being dumped into this corner lot. I have been told the contaminants found on the site are not a danger to individuals on the surface. You would have to ingest some of the contaminated soil daily for a long time to significantly increase risk of disease. One of the main chemicals found on the site that is above the required remediation levels is also found in cigarette smoke. Sitting in a smoky bar and breathing the exhaust fumes from the thousands of cars that go by this site every day, not to mention the possibilty of getting hit by a car while trying to cross the street, are greater risks to health than this lot. But nevertheless it is contaminated and that puts the land on the City’s do-not-acquire list. This sad lot did not stay sad long. In 1995 a group of neighbors were interested in doing a garden project, and some Locust Street merchants were concerned about the clay-filled litter-attracting vacant lot now on the corner of Locust and Bremen Street. After a meeting at Klinger’s Bar, a group formed to garden in what became Garden Park. There is no record of anyone ever asking permission to do this. It just happened. No one seemed to mind or object to the garden. With a free hand to do whatever the neighbors wanted, the lot developed quickly into the garden you now see. Fundraisers were held to buy a tree and concrete for a base for a donated sculpture. Plants came from folks’ yards. Builders Square donated excess plants and shrubs. Milwaukee Community Service Corps planted locust trees and put in chip paths. The City installed some benches. Soil was brought in for flowerbeds and a lawn. The Urban Ecology Center and their Little Wild Yards group donated and planted a native prairie garden. The City Forestry Department planted Chinese elms and oak trees along the streets. Garden Park is totally maintained by volunteer effort to this day. Shortly after the garden was created, the Gardeners’ Market moved to the site. It has grown to fill the lot on Sundays with vendors and music. Lately a Free Box appeared, filled with clothes for the taking. Check back next month to explore the possibilities for the future of Garden Park. The land cannot stay in limbo forever. Can a long-term stewardship plan be developed? Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 8 – September 2002
Prairie Garden, Garden Park