Milwaukee’s Riverwalk Vs. San Antonio’s
In many ways, this city’s Riverwalk is superior. Part III of a series.
The environmental restoration of Milwaukee’s urban rivers that has occurred over the past 40 years is extraordinary in many respects, as detailed in our last story. Equally remarkable has been the development of the Milwaukee Riverwalk and network of linked trails and green spaces developed over the last three decades or so. Although Milwaukee’s Riverwalk is still a work in progress, it has already developed a national reputation as reflected in a September 2010 article in Travel & Leisure magazine, where it was listed as the third “coolest” US riverwalk. San Antonio’s ranked first, but there are reasons to contest this.
History of Milwaukee’s Riverwalk
According to an on-line summary published by the Department of City Development, the first segment of the Milwaukee Riverwalk was completed in 1985 on the west bank of the Milwaukee River adjacent to what was then Gimbels Department Store. In 1988, former Mayor John Norquist announced a Riverwalk Initiative with a reported objective of using it to connect Downtown redevelopment with business and leisure activities. A Milwaukee Riverlink Guidelines plan was completed and adopted by the city in 1992 to guide initial efforts to expand the system within the downtown area. Among other features, the plan identified 60 locations for future water taxi stops and 51 locations for restaurants or other food service vendors.
A key strategy for expansion of the Riverwalk has been to split costs for construction of different segments of the Riverwalk between the city and adjacent property owners and developers. In 2006, the city adopted a funding policy to apply to all future Riverwalk segments, with the city paying 70 percent of construction costs (up to $2,000 per linear foot) and 50 percent of dock wall costs (up to $800 per linear foot) with the caps subject to annual adjustments.
The Riverwalk Today
The original plan for the Riverwalk was to construct continuous walkways on both sides of the lowermost 3.1 miles of the Milwaukee River from the mouth of the Harbor to North Avenue, for a total of over 6 miles of urban walkway passing through the center of Downtown. Based on development projects that are currently in advanced stages of planning (as will be detailed in Part 5 of this series), an additional 1,700-feet of the originally envisioned system will be completed within the next two years as part of redevelopment projects either under construction or scheduled to break ground in 2015.
One of the exceptional natural features of the Milwaukee Riverwalk is its location on an estuary with stable water levels and minimal threat of future catastrophic flooding. These rare physical attributes make it possible to construct a riverwalk system that is remarkable in its quality – most notably the section bordering the Milwaukee River in the Third Ward. A photo of this portion of the Riverwalk was used recently as the cover image for a book on post-industrial cities (SynergiCity: Reinventing the Postindustrial City). This is appropriate as perhaps no urban neighborhood in the U.S. has achieved such a compelling juxtaposition of restored former industrial buildings converted to new commercial and residential uses and a former industrial river restored to provide recreational uses and ecological benefits.
Attempting to write about and describe the Milwaukee Riverwalk highlights both the challenges and opportunities associated with the system. A challenge is that the recreational components of Milwaukee’s freshwater landscape are generally not recognized as a whole, with the Hank Aaron Trail, Milwaukee River Greenway, Milwaukee Riverwalk, and other attractions described on separate websites. But despite this fragmented identity, the system has developed to the point where it has become one of the nation’s top riverwalks.
The initial development of the Milwaukee Riverwalk was focused on the Milwaukee River, but has transitioned into a much larger system that includes a six-mile trail network, a greenway, bikeways, a water trail, new urban parks, and support facilities. The system is focused not only on the Milwaukee River but on the Kinnickinnic and Menomonee Rivers as well. Noteworthy additions to the Menomonee River include approximately 2,500-feet of walkways bordering the three sides of the Harley Davidson Museum and an additional 1,040 feet recently completed on the opposite side of the South Menomonee Canal as part of development of the Reed Street Yards Global Water Technology Research Park. Meanwhile, greatly enhanced public access to additional sections of the Milwaukee River north of the former North Avenue Dam has been accomplished through dozens of projects completed within the Milwaukee River Greenway. That includes the Greenway Gateway project by the River Revitalization Foundation in the final stages of construction on the former site of the Melanec’s Wheelhouse restaurant. The result is a continuous trail system that extends from the north end of the Riverwalk northward to Silver Spring Drive.
Comparison To The San Antonio Riverwalk
San Antonio’s Riverwalk has a long history; its original section was constructed beginning in 1939. Expansion of its Riverwalk has continued over the past 75 years and the city is in the process of completing a $358 million expansion that will lengthen the riverwalk and river trail system to 15 miles, and create an estimated 2,000 acres of greenspace that is being billed by promoters as “the largest urban ecosystem in the country.” The San Antonio Riverwalk is reported to be one of the top tourist attractions in Texas, drawing over 9 million visitors per year. The Riverwalk has a significant economic impact on San Antonio, serving as the centerpiece of the city’s $12 billion-per-year tourist industry which reportedly accounts for nearly one in eight local jobs.
The 3.1 mile length of Milwaukee’s Riverwalk, however, already exceeds the 2.5 mile length of the downtown portion of the San Antonio Riverwalk, and the 16 mile length of the expanded system is probably also exceeded by Milwaukee’s full river trail network, including the Milwaukee River Greenway as well as the Hank Aaron State Trail.
Probably one of the most significant characteristics of the Milwaukee Riverwalk relative to the San Antonio Riverwalk is that it is located on a river that is an extraordinary ecological feature with a biologic community that now includes 54 fish species. By contrast, the “river” that is the focus of the most visited section of the San Antonio Riverwalk is a man-made bypass channel that is drained on an annual basis during the first week of January for cleaning and maintenance.
Although I doubt that the Milwaukee Riverwalk will ever match the San Antonio Riverwalk as a tourist amenity, it is noteworthy that the Milwaukee Riverwalk, at a mere 30 years of age, is already about the size of the San Antonio Riverwalk and trail system. Where the Milwaukee Riverwalk has a further long-term advantage is its authentic urban setting, on an estuary relatively free of flooding, on an urban river that has undergone an extraordinary environmental transformation.
Coming Next: Part 4, Milwaukee vs Chicago
David Holmes is a Milwaukee-based environmental scientist and urban revitalization consultant and the coauthor of a book on the history of Milwaukee’s Chinese community (Chinese Milwaukee).