Op Ed: The Great Wall of St. Francis » Urban Milwaukee
Op Ed

The Great Wall of St. Francis

Lake Michigan shoreline getting obliterated by development.

By - Jan 27th, 2017 02:47 pm
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Photos of the land prior to development. Photo by Jonnie Guernsey.

Photos of the land prior to development. Photo by Jonnie Guernsey.

If some St. Francis city planners and officials have their way, the Lake Michigan shoreline from Bay View to Cudahy will be developed into a wall of buildings. Given the current proposals, people soon will not see the water, but a long hodgepodge of mid-rise buildings obscuring one of the most unparalleled vistas in the metro area.

We have the opportunity to protect the last two remaining parcels of lakefront property from the bulldozers. The southern parcel abuts Sheridan Park and could be annexed into county land. The other parcel, formerly the site of a Wisconsin Electric Lakeside Power Plant, could become a scenic overlook of the harbor.

Neither property is suitable for development.

If you have ever driven south from Bay View along the lakefront, just past the looming condos, you already know that section of land with the show- stopping view. You may be one of the hundreds of people who pull over to snap a photo, or who sit on the bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. You may have lingered to watch the super moon, a sunrise, or a storm roaring across the water. The place draws us in, inviting us to pause under the open sky and experience nature slowly unfolding.

Some native plants are re-establishing themselves along the bluff. In the open field, native wetland plants restored themselves prior to grading and seeding with turf. If the mowing was discontinued, the vegetation would re-establish itself quickly without management. Being part of the flyway, it would soon be repopulated by migratory birds and butterflies.

Significant portions of this land have characteristics of fen and seep systems. These systems are wetlands that are produced by underground water flowing through various layers of clay and sand – in other words, it is a natural filtration system that is badly needed in densely populated urban areas, contributing to the removal of fertilizers, pesticides and road runoff. This small area could help compensate for all the storm water runoff from St. Francis and Cudahy that flows directly into Lake Michigan and local streams. Think rain garden on steroids.

These waterways are interconnected with water systems in Grant and Warnimont parks as identified in The 2002 Wisconsin Land Legacy Report of the Department of Natural Resources. The shoreline is unstable because it is wetland and isn’t properly reinforced due to the landfill materials put in place twenty years ago. The former power plant site has been capped and contained due to hazardous waste.

The existing – uncompleted – lakefront developments in St. Francis are grossly out of scale with the surrounding neighborhoods, are not fully occupied, and a large percentage of condominiums have become rentals. Two abandoned elevator shafts have prominently dominated the landscape for 15 years, and stand as testament to how ridiculous further lakefront development would be.

And yet, the City of St. Francis intends to allow more developments that will obscure the view of the lake for people who cannot afford to live in high-end housing, and diminish the connection of the community with the lake shore. There is a clear divide between the haves and have nots. Wealthy people will be able to enjoy the view. The rest of us will only catch glimpses as we pass by.

Adding insult to injury, these projects are being funded by Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) that defers tax revenues (including those that fund our schools) well into the future, shortchanging the education of a generation of students in the near term.

The City of St. Francis is providing TIF incentives for developers to build along the lakefront, without regard for the environment or integrated design. In actuality, maintaining open green space can enhance property values, attract more residents and result in greater revenue for the City of St. Francis.

The Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) recommends that the city maintain open space in areas along the lakefront. The Wisconsin Land Legacy Report recognizes the importance of the ecological landscape along the lakefront. The state legislature in 1987 required that a portion of the lakefront in St. Francis to be set aside for public access. The City of St. Francis ignored this legislation.

Preserving this land would require action by the Department of Natural Resources, environmentalists and residents of Milwaukee County to keep the bulldozers at bay. It also requires that the City of St. Francis take an environmental stand instead of focusing on tax revenues.

The land should be preserved for greater public access, which is currently enjoyed by hundreds — if not thousands — of people living in and visiting the area. Retaining the visual integrity of the south shore will greatly enhance the quality of life in Milwaukee County. Preserving shorelines will leave a legacy for future generations.

Fourteen years ago, in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story, Milwaukee historian John Gurda took a stand on this issue.

There was a time when Milwaukee knocked down private developments that encroached on the liquid wilderness at our doorstep. Now, apparently, we encourage them. Blame it on a lack of money or a lack of will, but we seem to have lost faith in one of the principles that made Milwaukee a special place. What’s happening on the St. Francis lakefront is the betrayal of a birthright.”

The question is, why doesn’t St. Francis pay attention?

Jonnie Guernsey is a resident of Cudahy.

The View

Categories: Op-Ed, Real Estate

11 thoughts on “Op Ed: The Great Wall of St. Francis”

  1. Jerad says:

    This entire op-ed is about a 2,000 foot stretch of bluff, that is bookended by a mile or more of park land on each side… which won’t be deveoped… at all.

    Not to mention there will still be swaths of natural grassland/habitat between the new buildings and the actual shoreline.

    Sounds like one single individual is just pissed they won’t be able to see the lake any more.

  2. Robert says:

    So if there’s a park in one place, development next door is de facto warranted? Who knew our lakefront parks quota had been satisfied? I guess Jerad is the arbiter of these sorts of things.

    You can add me to the author in opposing development on this stretch of land. That makes at least two of us, since you’re counting.

  3. Tim says:

    Exactly, it’s about a 2,000 foot stretch of Bluff, why the rush to develop them when there are so many other opportunities in SE Wisconsin?

  4. Ted Chisholm says:

    There’s no good reason to develop this particular piece of land. Lucrative development opportunities exist elsewhere in St. Francis, and there’s already two large condominium developments nearby. Jonnie authored this piece, but she is writing on behalf of a large and active group of Cudahy, St. Francis, and Bay View residents that’s been working on this issue for over two years.

  5. Virginia says:

    Aren’t some of those newish “condos,” now rental apartments, among the buildings that were never properly inspected because the city of St. Francis and the state just did not have enough qualified inspectors available? I’ve heard the shoddily built buildings (including one with an exposed elevator) are deteriorating, losing value, heading toward become blight.

    And a new TIF has been proposed as the solution to bail out the city due to its other failing TIFs. YIKES!

    Sounds like elected officials in St. Francis have no long-term vision, no sense of how to build a community around an extraordinary amenity. And a neutered DNR may be of little help, nor SEWRPAC if they don’t do what they’re supposed to do. It will be up to individual citizens, scientists, etc. to hold city officials feet to the fire.

  6. Anthony says:

    Simply, TIF should never be allowed for green land development. It’s completely defiant of the logic of what TIF started from, to redevelop land. If TIF was only allowed for redevelopment, we would be using land sources better. How can redevelopment compete against new development otherwise?

  7. Barbara Richards says:

    I am fully in support of Jonnie Guernesy’s position. Taking away public space that can be for all so that a few people with big dollars can enjoy that space is not what we need to be encouraging with TIF monies or anyone’s monies. Development, particularly development that lacks any attempt to be on the Living Building/LEED Certification scale has no “business” being built. I see development that takes away our connection to the natural world rather than increases it as harmful to whom we are as human beings. Look up “biophilia” as you look up “Living Building Design” parameters.
    I have been hoping to see this here as I wanted to respond to Jonnie’s LTE in the Journal/Sentinel.

  8. Ron Perszewski says:

    Our local officials — including blue-collar legends like Dan Cupertino — were committed to maintaining the so-called Emerald Ring of parkland around the county. Now shortsighted folks like the St. Francis mayor are working to destroy the city’s number one asset, which could instead be used to draw other, more fitting development to the community. Many of the existing buildings offer only views of the walls of other buildings. We will pay dearly in the long run for these misplaced Brooklyn-like brownstones.

  9. Naptime says:

    Yes there are park spaces on each side. THEY ARE IN BAY VIEW AND CUDAHY!!! NOT ST. FRANCIS. The power plant land and beach was sacred grounds for me when I was growing up. We had basically a Southern California setting to have raging parties and bonfires. A rite of passage to many of us. And them apartments are the worst built pieces of shit I have ever seen. I am in the trades and have worked inside of them, repairing shitty HVAC systems. Looking at the severe stress cracks in the walls all over and seeing how off level most of them are, I would never live there. And it’s not all people with money, believe me!

  10. Ingrid Buxton says:

    I have done a lot of driving and camping along the US coastlines both before and after these big developments have been built. It is heartbreaking when dunes and vistas are replaced by concrete and steel. There is just no reason to built right up to the edge instead of building back far enough to allow public access to the shoreline. When the bluffs begin to deteriorate then the private owners start coming for public money to fix the situation, a situation exacerbated by building on the edge in the first place.

  11. S. Edward says:

    There is a public access pathway that actually runs along the bluffs behind the developments. That path connects to the parks on either end. The best way to enjoy the view is getting out of your car and going on a walk (as you more or less have to do in Cudahy to view the lake). Walking along the path and stopping and taking in the view the from the actual bluff is more enjoyable than a brief view from you car where the tree line stops at the developments and then begins again in Cudahy. Is this break in the tree line natural? Further to speak on these developments and the TIF’s struggles and to fail or purposefully ignore what happened in 2009 during their later phases seems a bit disingenuous. They couldn’t fill the developments so the triangle TIF failed and has been bleeding the city. It’s a chicken and egg situation. Please address how you purpose to fix the complex situation the city has gotten itself into. I’m conflicted as I agree that there are far too many of these medium rise complexes going up everywhere that do not serve large portions of the community. At the same time I would like to see some commercial development in the triangle but another TIF is risky. At the same time this article comes off as if St. Francis is just a place you drive through in between Bay View and Cudahy…

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