Donor Pledges $1 Million for Lake Park Bridge
But anonymous East Side philanthropist demands closing Ravine Road to vehicle traffic.
An anonymous donor has dramatically changed the complex question of how to handle the historic but deteriorating Lake Park Arch Bridge.
An East Side resident wants to donate $1 million toward replacing the Ravine Road pedestrian bridge, which some Milwaukee County officials immediately embraced and some parks supporters immediately opposed. County Supervisor Sheldon Wasserman announced Wednesday at a meeting of the Historic Water Tower Neighborhood Association that an anonymous neighbor has offered to help underwrite a “replica” of the Ferry & Clas-designed bridge. However, he noted, the pledge is contingent on the county banning vehicular traffic on the short, winding road connecting Lincoln Memorial Drive to bluff areas of Lake Park. Instead, only pedestrians, bicyclists, and other non-motor uses would be allowed. Some attendees immediately gasped “No!” in response to the proposed road closure.
But Abele and county parks director John Dargle have taken no position so far on whether to accept the donation with its strings attached.
Members of the Lake Park Friends opposed the idea, as Colleen Reilly, vice president of the group explained at the meeting. The group passed a resolution which declares it is the “responsibility of Milwaukee County to build, repair, and maintain roads, bridges, and other infrastructure within the park lands owned by Milwaukee County… Lake Park Friends does not support any proposal to have private citizens fund the replacement of any park infrastructure.”
The resolution further noted that “Ravine Road should be reopened to vehicular traffic as it was an integral part of the original park design by Frederick Law Olmsted.”
Since its founding in 1996, the 500-member, volunteer-led Lake Park Friends “has contributed nearly $750,000 for capital projects and programming for the entire community’s enjoyment of Lake Park,” Alice Wilson, its president, told Urban Milwaukee. Friends-funded projects include the Ravine Waterfall, a performance stage and tree planting throughout the 138-acre park, as well as annual underwriting of the ice rink, summer music programs and tennis scholarships.
Wasserman was an invited speaker at Wednesday’s Historic Water Tower Neighborhood Association meeting. The 160-member group represents the neighborhood bounded approximately by East Edgewood Avenue, North Downer Avenue, East Lafayette Place and Lake Michigan. Barbara Elsner, who cofounded the group in 1973, said after the meeting, “It is an alarming precedent that a donor could demand dramatic changes to the design of a historic park.” The nonagenarian has lived near Lake Park since her family moved to the neighborhood when she was in third grade.
Elsner questioned why federal funding is not being sought for the project. Bob Schmidt, a Wisconsin Department of Transportation official, previously told Urban Milwaukee that either bridge rehabilitation or a replacement would likely qualify for Federal Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) grants, in different categories. January 2018 is the next application deadline in the two-year grant cycle. Haley has said that another county parks project is likely on deck for a TAP application.
Following deliberations by an appointed “Ravine Road Bridge Work Group,” county officials are favoring a replacement bridge—instead of repairing and preserving the existing bridge. Nonetheless, Carlen Hatala, the City of Milwaukee’s historic preservation planner, recently wrote in a statement about the bridge, “It makes no sense to think of a historic resource as expendable…Demolition is the last resort and all efforts must be made to repair and retain” it.
In addition to being listed on the National Register, both the bridge and park are in a designated local historic district. Thus, any bridge plan must be reviewed by Milwaukee’s Historic Preservation Commission and Wisconsin’s State Historic Preservation Office. Also, Milwaukee County Parks’ Historic Properties Management Plan, developed in 2013 with Wisconsin’s Department of Transportation, states that “Rehabilitation should always be considered as the preferred treatment for a historic bridge.”
Laurence Cotton, writer/producer of “Designing America,” a PBS documentary about Olmsted, has noted that Lake Park is one of Olmsted’s most-intact landscapes nationwide, along with Manhattan’s Central Park and Boston’s Emerald Necklace parks.
Wasserman told Urban Milwaukee he floated this proposal because he believes it is his “fiduciary responsibility” to consider any offer relating to the bridge. Wasserman said the prospective donor and his family have enjoyed walking on the closed Ravine Road.
Asked by a meeting attendee if bridge and road proposals would be heard by the county board or parks committee, Wasserman said none is currently planned. But he later told Urban Milwaukee, “Of course, there will be an open hearing” about possibly closing the road and “all groups and individuals advocating for this park and neighborhood will be able to weigh in.”
Recently retired county supervisor Pat Jursik told Urban Milwaukee it’s not appropriate to use the budget process to enact de-facto “policies about public-good issues.” She said there should be public hearings about the bridge and road, separate from budget deliberations.
Other recent developments may be relevant to Ravine Road Bridge issues:
- Konstantin Sobolev, professor and chair of UW-Milwaukee’s civil and environmental engineering department, has begun exploring potential preservation solutions for the Ravine Road Bridge as a pro-bono project. He told Urban Milwaukee he has met with Milwaukee County engineering staff and offered to oversee such research. Sobolev is a recognized expert on innovative concrete materials and says colleagues in national engineering circles have expressed concern that a bridge with such engineering and design significance might be demolished.
- The appointed Ravine Road Bridge Work Group recommended in September to raze the bridge and replace it with one based on the original design. Representatives of four parks and neighbor groups agreed to support that option. Kevin Wood, a Graef USA engineer who chaired the committee’s meetings, said in September that about $200,000 of $400,000 allotted for “bridge study and design” has been spent. He estimated that interim bridge repairs–to allow the road to safely reopen–would cost about $25,000. However, such repairs would require a new allocation since they cannot draw on capital funding. Wasserman told Urban Milwaukee this week he does not think a “short-term fix” is going to happen. He believes the county does not want to open Ravine Road before completing a long-term solution.
New methods to repair concrete bridges–“fiber wrapping” and “shotcrete”–were used to rehabilitate the historic Marsh Rainbow Arch Bridge in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Completed in September, the $841,000 project received city, state and federal funding. The Chippewa Herald reported that a city official said that price tag “was much better than the alternative—the $3-4 million it would have cost to build a new bridge that looked the same as the current one.”
Correction: An early version of the story incorrectly suggested parks director John Dargle enthusiastically supported using the $1 million donation. He has so far taken no stand on this.