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Redevelopment of the Menomonee River Valley

by Stephen Kelly, regional editor

River Points connect visitors to the Menomonee River: an open space resource that has been inaccessible due to past industrial uses. The Hank Aaron State Bike Trail will run from Doyne Park to the lakefront, offering a commuter route and recreational opportunities.

John Deere
Cost of Wisconsin
Ferris Industries Playworld
Teak Warehouse Valmont
BCI Burke Company The Cedar Store

John Gurda’s short historic overview of the Menomonee Valley describes it as four miles long and a half-mile wide swath formed by meltwater during the retreat of the last continental glacier, “a sprawling expanse of open water punctuated by beds of wild rice and dense mats of cattails, rushes, and reeds.”

The Menomonee River was a water route from Lake Michigan to the interior for Native Americans and the wild rice a stable food source.

Wikipedia claims Menomonee (Indian tribe) means “good seed,” a reference to the wild rice. The Milwaukee River, 75 miles long, runs from Fond du Lac County, Wis., then south to downtown Milwaukee where it empties into Lake Michigan. The Menomonee River, Cedar Creek and the Kinnickinnic River are the three main tributaries of the Milwaukee River.

ABOVE & BELOW: The Menomonee River watershed covers a 134 square-mile elongated drainage area in four Wisconsin counties, with four townships, six villages, and seven cities within the watershed. The river originates at a large wetland area in the northeast corner of the Village of Germantown, is nearly 28 miles in length and has eight tributary streams. The aerial view at left reveals cleared industrial land and what it might look like with new industry, buildings, park land,opens spaces and regional trail connections. The western and central areas of the Menomonee River Valley are zoned for light industrial, though would allow for some services industry (restaurants, cleaners, etc.). The eastern end of the Valley, just minutes from downtown Milwaukee, has mostly river or canal frontage. The zoning will be mixed-use, some offices/commercial space, perhaps some light manufacturing and some residences.

Milwaukee’s Menomonee River Valley used to be the city’s industrial and transportation hub, employing 50,000 workers, but Milwaukee has been losing population since 1990. It is a familiar story: the more affluent population decamping for nicer homes and neighborhoods on the outskirts, leaving a densely populated core of Hispanic and African American neighborhoods—in this case, immediately surrounding the Menomonee River Valley. Most of the industry has moved, too. The valley now employs less than 8,000 full-time workers. The environment has also suffered: a contaminated riverway is inaccessible to those left behind and many brownfield properties lay dormant.

Enter the Menomonee Valley Partners, Inc. (MVP), a nonprofit group created in 1999 to guide redevelopment.

The rail yards in the Menomonee River Valley (circa 1935), aka Milwaukee Road, included a manufacturing and switching facility from 1878 to 1985. The yard expanded to 200 acres by the 1920s, with 3,000 people employed there by the late 1930s and 20,000 rail cars on site between 1941 and 1950. Jim Scribbins, a railroad historian, specifies that during its record year in 1947, crews handled 1,211 rail cars a day. Soils here do contain several petroleum-based contaminants, mostly diesel-fuel in the subsurface of the soil, pockets of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and heavy metals. Steve Hiniker, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, Madison, has been quoted saying the valley is “not as toxic or environmentally impaired as people think."

A Vision for the Central and Eastern Valley

“A Vision for the Menomonee Valley” (Vision) is an outgrowth of the MVP and extension of several pre-existing plans, including the “Market Study, Engineering and Land Use Plan for the Menomonee Valley” (city of Milwaukee, 1998), “A Vision for Smart Growth” (Sixteenth Street Community Health Center, 2000) and the winning entry in the Menomonee River Valley National Design Competition (Wenk Associates, Inc., 2002), sponsored in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and hosted by the Sixteenth Street Community Health Center.

“It is essential that we make the most of each square foot through careful planning. We believe that achieving high quality development, living wage jobs, environmental improvements, and community amenities in the Valley is not only possible, it is essential.”—Menomonee Valley Partners

The four-mile long 750-acre study area addressed in the Vision lies at the very end of a 130 square mile watershed draining into Lake Michigan. It’s a design plan to revitalize the area while balancing economic development and environmental integrity. The Vision presents a framework for realizing the valley’s potential. The Sixteenth Street Community Health Center, a nonprofit health care provider to Milwaukee’s south side Hispanic community, knows there’s a strong link between redevelopment of the valley and the well being of the community. The Vision underscores an understanding of how the planning professions play a vital role in low and moderate income populations to create opportunities:

The Vision seeks to improve the quality of life for many of the 215,000 residents living within two miles of Menomonee Valley, create opportunities for families, provide 5,000 new jobs and provide a clean environment, quality affordable housing, safe neighborhoods and healthy lifestyles.

The rendering reveals a “2-year storm” event (such a storm has a 50 percent chance of occurring in any given year). Habitats are in better condition along the northern-most half of the Menomonee River watershed but deteriorate as the river winds into more urban areas. In the past, stream beds and banks were straightened, deepened and lined with concrete, which eliminates habitats. The concrete is being removed and many flood management projects under way, including stormwater runoff rules and conservation of open land.

The rendering reveals a “5-year storm” event (20 percent chance of occurring in any given year). Watershed management for the river includes maintaining stable, natural banks; a natural vegetative cover; tree canopy for stream shading; a streambed not heavily covered over with silt and muck; riffle areas and pools for fish refuge; and wide vegetated buffers along the waterway to filter out polluted stormwater runoff.

The park will regionally convey and detain the 100-year storm event (one percent of this occurring in a given year). The stormwater management includes a bio-retention basin to clean pollutants from storm runoff. The area incorporates wet meadow plantings; bluff landforms; buffers of meadows, woodlands and lawn areas; river terraces; a fore bay and spillway; culvert headwall and a Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District facility.

Wenk Associates, Inc.

In the summer of 2003, MVP and the city of Milwaukee contracted with Wenk Associates, Inc., Solomon/WRT and HNTB to plan the future Central and Eastern Valley land use. Wenk Associates of Denver, Co., was selected through a multi-phase national design competition to create a master plan for revitalizing the valley. Wenk recognized from the beginning the importance of bringing communities together in developing this vision, especially obtaining resources and building support for the plan. Wenk’s work has been driven by a partnership spearheaded by MVP, the unified voice of Milwaukee’s public, private and nonprofit sectors, advocating for sustainable and equitable redevelopment of the Menomonee Valley’s brownfield properties.

The plan for the 130-acre watershed provides for additional developable areas while expanding the flood capacity of the valley and creating a new system of parks, open spaces, and regional trail connections. The site has petroleum and arsenic contamination. Soils will be capped to assure public safety and to support stormwater management goals and the reintroduction of the native wetlands.

In 1998 the Menomonee River overflowed its banks, flooding homes and businesses in Wauwatosa and Milwaukee. Nearby Hart Park, not part of this featured project, has a history of severe flooding during major storms. The Hart Park flood management program includes removal of 79 homes from the floodplain, lowering the floodplain between Hart Park and North 63rd St., constructing a 3-6 ft. high levee and floodwall and drainage improvements.

Role of the Landscape Architect Firm

For the upstream project area the landscape architect led a team that included a civil engineer, an ecologist and an urban designer. The landscape architect’s role as lead designer included: a conceptual layout of vehicular and pedestrian circulation (a pedestrian-friendly arterial street required to access the valley); and design of landforms (creating parks, open spaces and regional trail connections). There will be 70 acres of functional natural area in the heart of Milwaukee. There will be a public river edge to bring neighborhood residents closer to their natural urban environment. The network of open spaces and development areas recreate and reconnect the Menomonee Valley to the city’s urban fabric and bring diverse communities together in a central meeting space.

For the downstream project area the landscape architect, in collaboration with an urban designer, was invited to develop infill development concepts for selected sites, construction cost estimating and guide concepts for a surface stormwater system (expand the flood capacity of the valley) to meet the demands of proposed development. The civil engineer supported these efforts by modeling stormwater flows, evaluating road design, reviewing geotechnical data and providing technical review. The ecological consultant provided information on the nature and extent of plant communities and contaminants found at the site, which the landscape architect used to give form to redevelopment, restoration and remediation concepts.

Regional trail connections are part of the project. This trail going under the bridge leads to the Canal Street extension; following the trail to the bridge connects the Hank Aaron Trail along the south side of the Menomonee River. Two segments of the Hank Aaron State Trail are open. The asphalt trail, featuring several scenic overlooks of the river and city, will cover about seven miles, starting at Lake Michigan, running along the Menomonee River, and linking to the Milwaukee County Oak Leaf Trail at its West End in Doyne Park.

On the Waterfront

The Menomonee River Valley is similar to many industrial waterfronts in America, including areas of Boston, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Denver and Seattle. Some of these areas struggle with redevelopment of brownfields. The Vision integrates central city community needs. Wenk integrates nature and economic developmental strategies that cities with flood-prone brownfields can adopt. In the Menomonee River Valley, as elsewhere around the country, development and the environmental concerns clash. Wenk believes they can reinforce one another to create a new, walkable post-industrial communities on neglected land. Restored ecosystems cleanse the increased runoff and pollutants of redevelopment.

The Community Green will be built around the remnant chimneys and offer athletic fields, court games, arts/cultural events, festivals and informal park activities.

Bring Back Business and Reconnecting

Wenk developed a plan to bring businesses back to the Menomonee River Valley and reconnect valley communities, knitting new development to open spaces focused on a restored, accessible river. The open spaces mitigate stormwater while fostering recreation and outdoor activities. Industrial and residential development, predating many regional park systems, crowded out open spaces and gave us the dense urban development of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today’s economic development mates to strong economy bases to sustain communities, while making room for clean central city open spaces.

Financial and Resource Efficiencies

Infrastructure and development costs have been minimized by combining stormwater and floodwater management with park programming and open space development and by avoiding costly subsurface stormwater conveyance structures or large open treatment basins. Additional efficiencies are generated by coordinating the major arterial roadway reconstruction and trail extension projects. It is estimated that the Vision will achieve a 20 percent reduction in infrastructure costs from a previous city estimate for several portions of the study area.

ABOVE & BELOW: Chimney Park will run along either side of the 35th Street Viaduct on the northern half of the site. The park plan calls for athletic fields and court games underneath the cover of the viaduct. The park also will offer turf areas organized around stormwater management ponds and meadows. A central feature of the area are two tall smokestacks, the remnants of the site’s long history as one of the nation’s largest rail yards. Around the chimneys, a community gathering space will function as the central hub for the local workers to take lunchbreaks and for company picnics. A multi-purpose building will provide meeting spaces and basic facilities for park visitors.

Funding Sources

The Vision has received significant financial support from local, state and federal funding. Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District have been major funders for Wenk’s development work. The Wisconsin Coastal Management Program and the Great Lakes Basin Partnership contributed at the regional level, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provided 2002 and 2003 federal earmarks for project costs associated with developing the Vision.

Recent Developments

Ground was broken for Menomonee Valley Community Park, Monday, October 24, 2005. Seventh and 8th graders from Notre Dame Middle School planted over 100 red oak trees, native plants and grasses in the area between the stormwater wetlands and the Menomonee River, aka “swamp forest.”

Landscape architect Nancy Aten conducted classroom sections with the girls before the planting began. Bill Wenk of Wenk Associates answered the girls’ questions about building the park and planting the first trees for the park and the many aspects of transforming the abandoned 140-acre site.

Palermo Villa, the second-fastest growing frozen pizza brand in America, broke ground the same day on its new food prep facility at the Menomonee Valley West End Industrial Center. Governor Jim Doyle and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett were on hand. The governor awarded Palermo Villa $22 million in new market tax credits for the 150,000 sq. ft. facility. Palermo has about 270 full-time employees and plans to consolidate its Milwaukee and Illinois operation here and create at least 80 new Milwaukee jobs within its first year.

The Harley-Davidson Motor Co. plans to build a museum and office development at 6th & Canal streets, scheduled for completion by 2008.

Laura Bray, executive director of MVP, anticipates 1.5 million sq. ft. of new light-industrial construction in the Valley over the next 10 years.

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December 14, 2019, 7:54 am PDT

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