Milwaukee cleans up the Menomonee Valley but keeps it working.
Menomonee means wild rice, and that is the original story of this river. Flowing just 33 miles across southeastern Wisconsin, it joins with two other smallish rivers (the Milwaukee and the Kinnickinnic) just before Lake Michigan to create a freshwater estuary—a back bay to the great lake. The estuary and valley were hunting, fishing, and rice harvesting grounds. Then European settlers came and saw this could also be a good spot for shipping, fixing, and building things.
The Valley, as it is often called, is a four-mile by one-half-mile swath of Menomonee River lowland that industrialized rapidly in the late 1800s. It became home to the great Milwaukee Road’s machine and repair shops—140 acres of railyards and mechanic sheds. In the first half of the 20th century, a middle-class resident of the neighborhoods north and south of the Valley could walk to a job that paid a living wage. Crossing the pedestrian bridges to the railyard, he would likely barely notice the stagnant, channelized, trash-strewn watercourse below.
In the 1980s, following a storyline familiar among midsized cities in the Midwest, the industries began to leave—and leave their messes behind. The Valley became a 1,200-acre scar on the city. “It was buildings that were falling down. It was environmental contamination. It was 60,000 cars driving by on the freeway looking at this property,” says Dave Misky, who has been leading the Valley’s renaissance for the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Milwaukee (RACM). “It was the doorway to Milwaukee, but not something you want to be known for.”
Misky gave me this Valley history while we sat in the comfy living room of the Urban Ecology Center, an environmental and social advocacy nonprofit perched on the southern edge of the Valley. A lot has changed in the past two decades. From the ecology center, a serpentine trail slips under a railroad track into Three Bridges Park, a 24-acre landscape of undulating prairie on the south side of the river. Pedestrian bridges (three, of course) cross the Menomonee River to a new industrial redevelopment arranged around another roughly 56 acres of green space that treats all the development’s stormwater. A state bicycle trail runs the length of the Valley, connecting Milwaukee’s western suburbs to its downtown. Last October I watched wader-clad fly anglers scout the river for the upcoming salmon run, likely to start after the next rain. I could clearly see the riverbed through the clear water. Trees, shrubs, and grasses softened the banks and overhung the water, creating pockets of shade.
It was idyllic to say the least, but the most surprising thing about this transformation is the fact that the Valley is still industrial. “We felt it was more appropriate to continue to use it as manufacturing, where you had family-supporting wages and a tax base that was sustainable,” Misky says. With Major League Baseball’s Miller Park on the western end and downtown on the eastern end, the temptation to turn the Valley into an entertainment, shopping, and loft-living enclave was high, but Misky’s agency wanted to think really long term. “Retail ebbs and flows, but if you build a sustainable business park, those buildings could be there forever.”
The story of the Valley’s transformation starts with a trail. The state of Wisconsin owned 40 acres on the far western end of the Valley on which state legislators wanted an urban state park. A 40-acre state park would be far too small, said a study by the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), so the agency turned its attention to creating a greenway corridor. Therese Gripentrog, a DNR landscape architect, started working on a state trail master plan in 1990 by going door-to-door among the few remaining Valley businesses. Most were concerned about bringing people into the Valley and having them see how bad it was. So the DNR convened an advisory committee including the public sector, businesses, and the railroad. “That started to change the mind-set of the business community,” says Melissa Cook, the manager of the trail, now named the Hank Aaron State Trail in honor of the famous baseball player. “We asked, ‘How can a manufacturing business coexist with a recreational amenity?’”
The city began requiring a 25-foot easement along both sides of the river, into which the trail could be slipped. In 1998, one third of a mile of trail was built near the Miller Park stadium, along with another one-mile segment farther east. Other segments have followed subsequent redevelopment and roadway projects, so now it is possible to ride from downtown, through the Valley, and out into the western suburbs.
Gripentrog and Cook see the trail as important in its own right, but also as a critical piece of the overall Valley puzzle. “That 40-acre parcel that never would have made a great state park was changed into something that a lot more people can use,” Gripentrog says. “It created this synergy for doing a lot more work down there.”
Spurred by early implementation of the Hank Aaron State Trail in 1998, RACM created a plan that identified a series of “catalytic projects” that would advance fundamental change in the Valley. The first and most prominent was the industrial redevelopment of what was called the Milwaukee Road site. RACM acquired the property in 2003, built roads and utilities into the site, and performed environmental cleanup. About 700,000 cubic yards of earth from an adjacent freeway project was piled on the site to raise it above the floodplain and cap the pollution. Old Milwaukee Road debris was scraped off and moved south across the river to the future site of Three Bridges Park, then capped. RACM designated about 80 total acres of green space—24 for Three Bridges and the remainder in the middle of the industrial area, to provide open space for workers and treat the development’s stormwater.
The business park is home to 10 businesses in new buildings. Rishi Tea is here, sourcing tea from across the globe, blending it, and shipping it out nationwide. Ingeteam is here making wind turbine generators, the Spanish company having undergone a nationwide search for a place in sync with its green credentials. And just east of the new business park, Rexnord, a manufacturer of bearing, coupler, and aerospace equipment, is still here, as it has been for more than 100 years, a beneficiary of $1 million in flood protection berms and walls organized by RACM. Because of the community stormwater park—designed by Wenk Associates of Denver, which won a competition in 2002—the tenants would see a reduction in the utility fees they pay to the city. RACM, though, charges an association fee equivalent to the reduction to maintain the park.
When I visited the park last October, at least three businesses had gigantic “Now Hiring” signs. A group of Ingeteam workers ate lunch in the park, among naturalized plantings on the edge of a swale beloved by birds, with a view of the river beyond. Misky says that the business park has added 1,400 jobs and that just one two-acre parcel remains.
Other projects have included improved access into the Valley and redevelopment of a salt factory and public works facility on the eastern end of the Valley. The old public works site is now home to the Harley-Davidson Museum, an orange and gray industrial-style structure the design of which manages to nod both to the Valley and downtown. It sits on a point of land surrounded by water: the main channel of the Menomonee on the north and a canal on the south. The waterfront is all public and features walking paths and lush naturalistic plantings. The site, designed by oslund.and.assoc. of Minneapolis, is kind even to those not visiting the museum. It also manages to accommodate huge crowds that descend on this internal combustion pilgrimage site during rallies, ride-ins, and special events.
The Harley-Davidson Museum is directly accessible by car or bike from Sixth Street, which was—in a reversal of decades of standard practice in traffic engineering—lowered into the Valley. For more than 60 years, all the streets that crossed the Valley did so on high viaducts. The Valley was down below, inaccessible except for workers and delivery trucks and trains. RACM’s plan called for more access. So Sixth Street now touches down at Canal Street (the Valley’s main east–west thoroughfare) between two gleaming white cable-stayed bridges. Sixth is a main route into downtown, and it feels natural now to move from the heart of Milwaukee up into the Valley.
But Canal Street used to go only partway up the Valley, so in 2006 the city extended the route all the way to Miller Park. It now connects into the new business park and up to major roadways at the west end of the Valley. The Hank Aaron State Trail was constructed along with it.
Since RACM and its partners completed these key catalytic projects—a complete transportation network, redevelopments to anchor the east and west ends, and a signature recreational amenity—other projects have begun to follow the plan’s lead. The Potawatomi Hotel and Casino put a half-billion dollars into a slick new venue on Canal Street. Marquette University, which is on the north edge of the Valley, built sports training fields right on the river. The city installed a bioretention facility to treat Canal Street runoff. A slaughterhouse was repurposed as a six-tenant manufacturing facility that is home to a digital printing company and a solar panel component manufacturer. The We Energies Valley Power Plant, a behemoth just west of Sixth Street that provides steam heat service to downtown Milwaukee, converted from coal to natural gas. The Sigma Group, which has been involved as an environmental and civil engineering consultant in the Valley’s redevelopment since the beginning, built a new building on a former coal storage site and moved 70 professional employees into the city from the suburbs.
On the south side of the river near the Urban Ecology Center, however, 30 acres of Milwaukee Road debris was still waiting to become Three Bridges Park. “I came down here and said, ‘You have got to be kidding me. We’re going to do what?’” says Bob Schmidt, who works for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) and was the project manager for Three Bridges. WisDOT got involved mainly for funding reasons, and had a fairly steep learning curve on the project, Schmidt admits. “It was very different. We build highways. We don’t build this.”
What “this” has become is a rolling landscape of grasses and copses of young trees perched above the river. The design is the work of several firms. Wenk Associates’ winning competition entry for the stormwater park included Three Bridges, and the firm continued through early detailed design. The multidisciplinary firm Benesch, which has offices in Sigma Group’s Canal Street building, prepared the final design plans. Milwaukee-based Marek Landscaping worked on the restoration design and stormwater system.
The land at Three Bridges rises and falls, with rounded mounds cut through by gentle ravines that drop toward the river. Some of these catch water, creating small wetlands or open ponds. The Hank Aaron State Trail forms a paved spine through the park, and gravel walkways plunge into the grasses and down to the river, creating natural walking loops. Pedestrian and bicycle bridges connect across the river while several large road bridges fly overhead. Industry is often in view as a backdrop to the prairie.
Implementing the park involved five separate entities, and all five will remain involved in the park’s management. The City of Milwaukee owns the bridges and the tunnel that connects the park to the ecology center and the neighborhoods to the south. The DNR owns the Hank Aaron State Trail. The Menomonee Valley Partners, a nonprofit focused on implementing the Menomonee Valley plan, has a funded endowment for the park. WisDOT built the project, and the Urban Ecology Center will manage the vegetation, through its trained environmental professionals, volunteers, and school groups. The park was built with a combination of Transportation Enhancement funds, Congestion Mitigation funds, congressional earmarks, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and some local sources. The DNR acted as the local sponsor for the federal dollars and contributed the 20 percent match that the federal government requires, but that agency asked WisDOT to manage the project, in large part because of the latter’s familiarity with federal funding management.
Schmidt’s hardest job was translating standard WisDOT specifications into practices that would work for a restoration area. Contractors had to be careful with grading—underneath the soil cap were thousands of cubic yards of asbestos-containing materials—but were asked to not be too formal. And to not compact the soil so much. And to coordinate construction around some unusual requirements, such as allowing ecologists to round up all the snakes prior to mass grading, so they could be kept and then released after restoration. The park officially opened in 2013.
Last October, cover crop still dominated much of the site. There had been some erosion issues early on, and much of the landscape was reseeded. There are pockets of diversity, however, especially at the fringes of the wetlands and near the ecology center tunnel, where the center staff have been more actively tending the plants for four years. WisDOT plans another project this spring to manage erosion more aggressively and improve the native vegetation.
Urban natural areas, however, often fail without stewardship, which is why involvement from the ecology center is important. The center was founded about 25 years ago and was persuaded by Menomonee Valley Partners to open a new branch in the Valley in 2012. The ecology center converted a defunct bar into a green building that is essentially a portal to the park for the neighborhood. The building sits alongside the serpentine trail into Three Bridges.
One major initiative the ecology center runs is the Neighborhood Environmental Education Project, which focuses on a two-mile radius around the park—an area that is home to 11 schools, including Escuela Verde, a project-learning charter school that sits right on the other side of the park access trail. The idea is to expose kids to nature close to home. “You’re not putting them on a bus and taking them way out to the country and saying, ‘So, this is nature,’” says the ecology center’s senior land steward, Kim Forbeck. “You’re taking kids into their own green spaces in their own neighborhoods, so they’re learning about nature in their own backyard rather than nature as this weird thing way far away.” The ecology center has rooms full of gear for experiencing the landscape: snowshoes, fishing rods and waders, even hiking boots for the children and adults who don’t own them.
The ecology center has also installed 42 community garden plots in the park, strategically placed on a south-facing slope, and built several gathering shelters, which have rain-collecting roofs to water the garden. Once the WisDOT construction and management contracts are closed out, the ecology center will maintain the entire site—hopefully, says the organization, with occasional burns.
The Menonomee Valley’s multiagency, public, and private advocates have accomplished a lot in the past 17 years. Corey Zetts, the executive director of Menonomee Valley Partners, says the Valley has added 5,200 total jobs since 1999. But they are not quite done. In June, the city adopted a new plan called Menomonee Valley 2.0. It calls for a food and beverage business cluster in the eastern Valley; a design showroom district on the northern fringe; a rehabilitated industrial district centered on the Menomonee canals, including significant ecological restoration of those industrial backwaters; a better gateway from I-94; and improved connections into the Valley from local streets. This new version proposes to leverage similar partnerships for a similar outcome as the original.
Especially important to Menonomee Valley Partners is maintaining the job-focused goals of the Valley plan, which recommends 1.5 jobs per 1,000 square feet of development. This measure is there to prevent the area from being overrun by low-employment “industrial” uses such as self-storage facilities and warehouses. At its core, the plan says that people should be able to make a living in the Valley, just like before.
Adam Regn Arvidson, FASLA, is the director of strategic planning for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and is currently at work on a book about endangered species in the upper Midwest. He is a regular contributor to LAM.