Rivers, Railways and a Greener Milwaukee

By - Apr 1st, 2003 02:52 pm
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By Matt Czarnik

Milwaukee, a city built on the edge of a Great Lake and fed by the convergence of three major waterways, each supporting its own diverse and extensive natural habitat of flora and fauna, is a land capable of creating and sustaining many forms of life. Follow the ancient formula that gave birth to civilization and you’ll find that where the rivers run and spread streams into the land, people have flourished, formed cultures, developed systems and made their histories along the waterways.

But gone are the days when the first settlers forged their existence by maintaining a symbiotic relationship with the earth’s precious resources, and modern humans wince at the lost motto of beauty in simplicity. In remedy, they must work with the concrete world they’ve created.

For Milwaukeeans it’s not a secret how the land and waterways have been punished by the industrial age. You need only watch the water flowing through the city during the spring thaw or smell the air in summer when it mixes with the fumes escaping from the rivers and Lake Michigan. But too often, the scars left by commerce are viewed only from a distance by drivers passing over viaducts, not looking long enough to wonder what’s gone wrong and not troubling themselves to learn what’s being done for the future.

But when a state’s identity (not to mention economic survival) relies on the health of its natural resources for shaping itself as a vacation destination and sanctuary for wildlife and wildlife-watchers, the idea of the state’s most populous city not guiding the conservation and preservation efforts has motivated some people to act to protect the environment on behalf of the people.

Leading the recovery revolution

Leading a coup d’etat for the environment is a challenge undertaken by many different, groups, from non-profit entities like the Friend’s for Milwaukee’s Rivers, the River Revitalization Foundation (RRF) and Menomonee Valley Partners, Inc., to city, county and state agencies like the Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) and local neighborhood associations.

Two projects currently receiving funding on the local and federal levels, as well as private donations from partnerships and non-profit fundraising, are the proposed Beerline County Trail as an extension of Gordon Park in the historic Riverwest neighborhood and the Hank Aaron State Trail (HAST) which follows the Menomonee River from the city’s west side to Lakeshore State Park.

Both will be located along the banks of rivers, the Beerline along the west bank of the Milwaukee and HAST along the Menomonee. Both are in the early stages of multi-year plans to build paved city trails that will link urbanites to recreational amenities throughout the city. Each is unique in design and location, but similar in what they offer to the revival of the water basin.

The Beerline County Trail

In 1987, former Governor Tommy Thompson created the Milwaukee River Revitalization Council, which, after extensive research, published the Riverway Plan. This document advises the WDNR, and stipulates that certain actions be taken to improve water quality and restore the habitat for public access to the Milwaukee River, through amenities like boat launches and paved trails. The first action was to form the non-profit River Revitalization Foundation (RRF) in 1994 to asseverate the public’s claim to the waterways.

Access is the mission

“Public Access is part of the mission. [The goal is] to get people to the river, get them active, get them a place, especially in the city, where they can be somewhat connected to the natural environment.” said RRF executive director Kimberly Gleffe. The Beerline will link Gordon Park in Riverwest to proposed city developments on North Ave. and in Cesar’s Park on the Eastside. Improvements include a pedestrian bridge, which, according to the RRF newsletter, River Currents, has a budget of $500,000 and must be completed before the end of 2003.

With riverfront property a hot item for residential developers, and non-profit groups like RRF scrambling to compete for riverside real estate, Gleffe said that putting the good of the public first is hard when your budget is limited.

“We’re really concerned about urban areas because there are so few natural spaces that are being preserved.” She added, with a touch of frustration, “It is hard for non-profits to compete with developers who have more financial resources than we do.”

Which is why she’s also concerned that the Park East redevelopment plan, which she said would expose about 16 acres of county owned land, will ignore the need for open space and instead be lost to another condo developer.

“I looked at the model for that whole redevelopment and there is not much open space that is going to be designated. And there’s no buffer zone to protects the banks and river where development will occur.” Her sentiments are that “smart land use is our perspective, and that there should be balance between the built and natural environment.”

But it’s money that matters

But the 10 ft. wide, asphalt Beerline B bike trail has been funded and will be constructed on the recently acquired the needed land from Gordon Park to N. Wright St. with the assistance of a $206,897 WDNR Stewardship grant. Also, the RRF recently received $320,000 from the Department of Transportation. A 50�atch of $206,897 is needed for the Stewardship grant, and a 20�atch of $80,000 for the DOT award.

Hank Aaron State Trail (HAST)

Equally promising and already underway is the HAST, which will run from its western terminus at Doyne Park, along the Menomonee River, through Canal St. and the Historic Third Ward, to the eastern terminus at Lakeshore State Park. But attaining that balance between the built and natural world might prove more challenging.

Trail Manager Melissa Cook of the WDNR explained that generally, for trails like the Beerline B, which makes use of an abandoned rail corridor, the WDNR and other organizations will work with whichever county it’s in and propose the trail, but then the county will actually manage the trail.

However, since the HAST will run through both private and city property, the WDNR will manage the trail. And because they are still in the process of trying to acquire easements (which in this case means giving the public a shared interest in private property), and attain funds for its development, the WDNR is seeking to establish long-lasting and mutually beneficial partnerships with the city, private businesses and non-profit groups.

She explained that since trail’s route runs through an extremely congested and developed section of the city, commuter traffic figures to be very high. This has forced the WDNR to closely examine how and where the various connections to the trail will be developed to maximize on safety, but also provide the valley with the opportunity for a long overdue facelift.

“I think that the city of Milwaukee, in part, and the business owners understand what a dramatic difference this can make in how people will view the Menomonee Valley. For the last 59 years people have looked at the valley as a big question mark, as a very environmentally harsh area…we have an area with a major river going through it, it shouldn’t be harsh,” Cook said.

Cook said that building strong, active partnerships with organizations like Atlas Development, the Milwaukee Brewers, or the Menomonee Valley Partners, Inc., and working with other development projects, like the construction of Miller Park, helps to make sense of the changing landscape.

“To develop a trail in an area that’s already developed is a hundred times more difficult than buying a corridor where you have a railroad operating, which is how we usually do it,” Cook said.

Good news for HAST

With just two sections of the trail completed – a half mile stretch near Miller Park and another on the south bank of Menomonee along Marquette University’s Athletic Field – the good news is that three federal Department of Transportation Congestion, Mitigation and Air Quality grants create a potential $3 million dollars in funding for the trail. Two are held by the city and the third by the WDNR, but all require a 20�atch, which has already been appropriated for the trail and will not come under attack in Madison, as lawmakers deal with a $3 billion state budget shortfall.

“All the money is there, it’s sitting there, we just need to get all the okays to use it for construction projects that we want to move forward with starting this year,” said Cook. Predicting that it will be used heavily by commuters, Cook believes the trail will be a great place to initiate the Menomonee River’s ecological recovery and allow people the chance to rediscover the natural beauty Milwaukee’s citizens once enjoyed.

“You’re making green space available to the three most densely populated districts in the state,” notes Cook. “One of the reasons for the placement of this trail was that the people who live in these adjacent residential communities might not have the opportunity to get to our other state parks and trails. Now they’re going to have one that’s virtually in their backyard.”

Help Blaze The Trails

The next major event for the Beerline Trail is this year’s Earth Day Fundraiser, which will be held again at the Lakefront Palm Garden on Earth Day, Tuesday April 22nd from 5 – 9 p.m. The event will feature live music, food and Lakefront micro brews, and is sponsored by the River Revitalization Foundation in cooperation with the Riverwest Neighborhood Association, the Urban Ecology Center and the Bike Federation of Wisconsin. For more information on the event, call Vince Bushell at 414-265-7278 or Kimberly Gleffe at 414-271-8000.

For more information on fundraising opportunities and events, or to make a tax deductible donation to the Beerline County Trail contact Kimberly Gleffe at River Revitalization Foundation: riverfdn@hotmail.com 414-271-8000 200 N. Jefferson St. #201 Milwaukee, WI 53202

For more information on the Hank Aaron State Trail and/or to become a member of the “Friends of the Hank Aaron State Trail” contact Trail Manager Melissa Cook at 414-263-8559.

On Apr. 26, from 12-5 the Urban Ecology Center, located behind Riverside High School at 2808 North Bartlett Ave., invites everyone to the groundbreaking ceremony for their new building.

To become a member and supporter of the Urban Ecology Center, or for more information about their activities contact them at 414-964-8505, visit the Web site at www.urbanecologycenter.org or email: uec@execpc.com.

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