The Missing Link

Riverwest’s long-awaited bike trail, which would run south from Gordon Park along the old railroad right-of-way, may be in jeopardy if action isn’t taken soon to launch the project. That’s the fear of the River Revitalization Foundation (RRF), an organization dedicated to preserving Rivers and river valleys. RRF has bought most of the land for the trail with $350,000 in grants. It has also raised an additional $400,000 to build the trail, most which comes from a $320,000 Transportation Enhancement (TE) grant, a state-administered federal grant alotted during the 2003 budget cycle. However, Kimberly Gleffe, executive director of the organization, is concerned that RRF might lose the TE grant money, since funding for that grant is closed and the program it comes from has been cut out of the budget. Gleffe is concerned that if the money doesn’t get used soon, it could disappear. RRF is awaiting an easement allowing construction of the trail on a piece of land about a block long that is owned by Readco, LLC, a development company that bought the property long slated for the bike path in early 2001. The land is along the railroad right-of-way on the riverbank between Wright and Meinecke streets. “This land has been planned for a trail by the city and the neighborhood for 15 years,” said Gleffe, ticking off a long list of meetings that have occured over the years on the issue. Todd Davies, vice president of Direct Development and spokesperson for Readco on the project, said he wasn’t sure whether Readco had been aware of the plan calling for public control and use of the railroad corridor when it purchased the land. The city recently stepped in to help galvanize action on the land. A resolution passed in June, sponsored by 3rd District Ald. Mike D’Amato, granted Readco the option to purchase the ward yards adjacent to its property. In exchange, Readco would grant an easement on its current property. Readco has six months from the passage of the resolution to make good on its requirements. But the easement is still on hold. Davies said that Readco needs a guaranty from the county that a land swap will take place before it will grant the easement. He says he has discussed the land swap with County Parks Director Sue Black. “The problem is that it takes a lot longer than people want it to take,” Davies said. “We’re not sure how fast the county can move on this… and nobody has really said to me at what date funding disappears.” Davies did not seemed concerned that the city ordinance seems to make any potential development hinge on Readco’s granting of an easement. “We’re making progress, just not as quickly as everyone would want it to go. There are many bureaucracies involved,” he said. Davies could not explain why Readco bought and is making plans to develop a property that was specifically earmarked for a bike trail. “I’m relatively new on the scene,” he said. “Either they didn’t do any checking into plans for the area – which is not very smart – or they’re trying to profit despite declared public use for the land,” said one person close to the planning process. History City recommendations that the riverfront be publicly owned date back to at least 1989, when the Department of City Development (DCD) published a planning guide for the middle and upper portions of the Milwaukee River. A 1996 county plan for the revitalization of Gordon Park includes the eventual construction of a bike trail along the abandoned Beer Line rail corridor southbound to North Avenue. The bike trail was also including in a 1999 neighborhood strategic plan. By early 2000, a coalition formed to protect the River Valley above the North Avenue Dam and promote trail development on both banks of the River. Partners included the Urban Ecology Center in Riverside Park, The Rivers and Trails Program–National Park Service, Milwaukee County Parks, and RRF. RRF won Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Stewardship funds and a Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District Greenseams grant to buy the property from CMC Heartland Corp. By May of 2002, most of the land was owned by RRF. The Missing Link Meanwhile, by 2001 the river corridor was beginning to look inviting to developers. Readco bought approximately two blocks of railroad right-of-way before RRF purchased any land. Easment negotiations have been occurring ever since. Without an easement, the trail would incur great expense in construction costs and damage the environment, Gleffe says. “A proposal to do a land swap for adjacent county land was put in motion but Readco took no action,” Gleffe said. “These missed opportunities by Readco to move on an agreement with the County, as well as the City for the adjacent ward yard property off of North Avenue, has resulted in delays for the completion of a community trail.”
by Sonya Jongsma Knauss