Michael Horne
Plenty of Horne

Last Site at Kane Commons Getting Built

Single family home is last piece in complicated, $4 million real estate jigsaw puzzle.

By - Aug 10th, 2016 12:02 pm
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Construction has started on the last home in the Kane Commons development at 1170 E. Kane Place. Photo by Michael Horne.

Construction has started on the last home in the Kane Commons development at 1170 E. Kane Place. Photo by Michael Horne.

The final piece of the complicated $4 million real estate jigsaw puzzle that is Kane Commons is under construction, eight years after the first structures in the 12-unit development were built.

A single family home at 1170 E. Kane Place is being constructed by Orta Construction, Inc. Over the past few weeks, crews working under the direction of Juan P. Orta excavated the tight site using mechanical equipment augmented with a good deal of muscle-powered shovels. Our photo gallery shows the progress of this work.

Kane Commons was proposed in the early 2000s by Julilly Kohler on a complicated site on the Milwaukee River. Two properties — one city-owned — had to be combined to create the development. Two buildings, a four-unit rear house and an old rear single family cottage, were razed in 2008. The city-owned lot was vacant, but had been the original home of what is now the Outpost Natural Foods Co-op. The lots were very deep, as a result of decades of fill being dumped to extend the lots to accommodate rear homes for the poor, which were built in the late 19th century. The neighborhood, originally Polish, had become the center of radical politics in the area, and was within the orbit of the late 1960-early 1970s drug culture, especially the hard stuff.

Kane Commons Takes Shape

The centerpieces of the geothermal, green-roofed development were three large townhomes perched on the river, including a straw bale home, Milwaukee’s first, constructed for Kohler in 2008.

Two other single-family homes built then are in the middle of the lots, with a landscaped courtyard in between — the inspiration for the “Commons” in the project’s name.

Two homes fronting E. Kane Pl. were preserved. A street-front four-family was converted into a three-family condominium, while its neighbor next door, a former single-family home long ago converted into a duplex, remains a rental property. Another home was built on the street frontage in 2008, leaving the lot at 1170 E. Kane Pl. vacant until it was finally sold this year.

Most of the units were constructed as speculative “gray box” structures, outfitted with exterior finishes, windows, roofs, etc., but kept unfinished inside for the anticipated custom features that the eventual buyers would incorporate into their plans. (Did they ever!)

One courtyard unit was finished by Orta Construction, the current project’s contractor, and opened as a show house for the project. Senator Ron Johnson dropped by at one point as he was shopping for a house for his son. It was election season, and there were plenty of signs for Democrats in evidence. Johnson found a home for his son elsewhere.

The Great Recession slowed the marketplace, and it wasn’t until 2013 that the prime riverfront and courtyard units were sold, finished and occupied. There has been some turnover, but sales are brisk when units open up, and are often not advertised.

Virgin Dirt

Construction of the homes posed a number of engineering challenges. The bluff of the Milwaukee river is extremely steep and unstable at this point, due to decades of fill that covered the original ravines. There was a considerable elevation shift on the lot itself. The site was a dump, quite literally, described by a contractor as “forty feet of foundry fill,” as said fill emerged from a test-drilling a decade ago.

Excavating the site. Photo by Michael Horne.

Excavating the site. Photo by Michael Horne.

I was interested to see the character of the dirt for the final excavation of Kane Commons. “What lovely rubble awaits me?” I wondered.

To my great surprise, that which greeted me is something excavators call “virgin dirt.” Except for a few little pockets on the edges, where perhaps an old privy once was, the site was surprisingly — almost astoundingly — devoid of the usual debris often found in vacant lots in neighborhoods of great age and high density.

Instead, the excavators worked their way through solid glacial clay, which required no bracing as the excavation deepened. The pickings were slim, but the Orta folks rescued a stoneware beer bottle from the Grisbaum and Kehrein Brewery that had been buried for at least 126 years. I cleaned it up and presented it to the new owner.

Puzzled at the pristine soil conditions, I consulted maps from 1894 and 1910. While they show the expected density of the neighborhood, and a rear building labeled “tenement” (my old home), apparently the site now under construction has never held a permanent structure until now, although there was one behind it that disappeared at least a half-century ago.

We’ll follow this project as it gets out of the ground. There are only two empty riverfront lots remaining on E. Kane Pl., and each would be a challenge to development. There are plans to tear down and redevelop a riverfront duplex on the street. Three units on two properties have recently sold, and there is a five-unit property currently for sale along the river.

Lots of activity. The Great Recession is long past us.

Photo Gallery

16 thoughts on “Plenty of Horne: Last Site at Kane Commons Getting Built”

  1. AG says:

    The reader is supposed to infer that Ron Johnson didn’t buy a place for his son because of political signs or democrats residing in the area? Can’t help but add your mark of drivel in your articles, can you Horne?

  2. AG I was present at the time of the senator’s visit and found his presence in the area somewhat incongruous. Ward 179 is not a Republican stronghold.

  3. Vincent Hanna says:

    Wonder where he bought a place for his son. If GOP yard signs were a requirement, River Hills, Waukesha, Brookfield, or Menomonee Falls seem like wise choices.

  4. AG says:

    Shhhh, don’t tell anyone… but there are a few other conservatives living in the area. I highly doubt the choice was made because of the political leanings of the neighbors unless his son plans to run for office.

    I just don’t see why you take an otherwise fascinating and interesting article and toss in the political nonsense…

  5. Vincent Hanna says:

    AG I know you don’t talk to your neighbors with Dem yard signs. You don’t fool me. “Dad, I can’t live by Dems. If you see any Dem yard signs, move along.” – Ron Johnson’s son. Totally plausible.

  6. Virginia Small says:

    Michael, so where did Ron Johnson’s son put down roots? Enquiring minds want to know.

  7. AG says:

    True, I actually tend to egg the houses who support democrats…

    Seriously though, I find it less than mysterious how the yard signs I put up for conservatives somehow get damaged but when we support a democrat (yes, it happens! I swear!) they are as pristine the day after election as the day we put them up…

  8. Vincent Hanna says:

    Depends on where you live maybe? I can imagine certain places in say Waukesha County where a Dem yard sign wouldn’t survive long.

  9. AG says:

    No way, conservatives would NEVER! You don’t know what you’re talking about Vincent..!

  10. Vincent Hanna says:

    OK you’re right I apologize.

  11. Tim says:

    I have a relative in Menomonee Falls that lost too many D yard signs to count.

  12. AG says:

    Tim, you LIE! That could NEVER happen!!!

    Actually that’s totally something that Jefferson Davis or one of his loony toon far right compatriots might just do.

  13. Vincent Hanna says:

    Jefferson Davis of Menomonee Falls?

  14. AG says:

    Yes, of Menomonee Falls, not the south.

  15. Vincent Hanna says:

    I think I saw him there on Monday near Fleet Farm.

  16. I don’t know about Dem/Republican animosity in the area, but the residents can be vicious. When I lived in the street section in question at 1144 E. Kane (also abutting Jeffrey Dahmer’s last victim’s building), in the time of monthly parking permits & odd/even overnight parking, the cretins across the street objected when out of necessity I parked in front of their house in their apparently exclusive space, leaving threatening notes, calling on a motorcycle cop to hide when I moved my car at night to see if I made excessive noise (he said I was as quiet as was practicable but still issued a ticket), eventually slashing my convertible top on my Olds Rocket 88. As a lowly-paid clerk just out of UWM I drove it that way the rest of its days, suffering thru the winters. Oddly enuf, I watched as the City Housing Authority built the high-rise for the elderly down the block in 1965, where I live today.

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