Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

City Expands Vision For Harbor District Riverwalk

Bathrooms, Kaszube historical pavilion, more boat docks, but railroad disconnect remains.

By - Sep 16th, 2022 01:34 pm
The Inlet conceptual rendering for South Harbor Campus riverwalk. Rendering by SmithGroup.

The Inlet conceptual rendering for South Harbor Campus riverwalk. Rendering by SmithGroup.

The City of Milwaukee’s vision for its largest ever expansion of the riverwalk system is getting more elaborate, and expensive.

As part of Komatsu Mining‘s South Harbor Campus development between E. Greenfield Ave. and S. Kinnickinnic Ave., a 4,300-foot riverwalk extension is being planned that would allow visitors to literally touch the water, find a rare public restroom or take in a concert.

The board of the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Milwaukee approved $3.1 million in cost increases Thursday related to the now $14.5 million project that would allow designer SmithGroup to move forward with plans to add a bathroom structure, extend utility infrastructure to the structure, construct “The Node” as an accessible landscape where visitors can touch the water, fully design a bridge that honors the historic residents of Jones Island and deal with a number of engineering and permitting issues related to the dockwall on the site.

The changes, said Department of City Development riverwalk project manager Alyssa Remington, are being driven by feedback from community members and project stakeholders that came after the initial contract was signed in early 2021. The project is being paid via a tax incremental financing district that captures the increased property tax revenue from the $285 million Komatsu development.

Construction, assuming bids come in as expected, would begin in April 2023 and be completed later the same year.

“We have added some incredible things into this design,” said SmithGroup project manager Adam Hammen. The riverwalk corridor, which will be much wider than what is Downtown, was originally envisioned as a transportation corridor and a way to access the water. But after soliciting feedback, a plan has emerged at the northern end to effectively expand the Harbor View Plaza park at the east end of Greenfield Avenue. That includes a flex space that would be comfortable when just a couple of people are present or when 150 people are there for a concert. A shipping-container-style structure would contain bathrooms, and play off the shipping-container design of the adjacent slide. The expanded plaza area will improve access to the existing kayak dock and provide another dock for “medium-sized” boats. The riverwalk structure would project over the water and provide fishing access. “We are very excited about where the project is going.”

SmithGroup principal Tom Rogers said feedback revealed people want three primary things in the design: a natural habitat and the ability to engage with it, visible remnants of the area’s industrial heritage and spaces for people to gather.

Heading south from the plaza expansion, and past the Komatsu office building, leads to an area referred to as “the backyard.” It’s designed as a pathway around a small, water-fronting parcel used by an industrial tenant. Remington said when that parcel is eventually vacated, the riverwalk will run through it, along the water. But for now, the plan calls for going around the triangular site. The extra depth will be utilized for one feature, called “The Node,” which will include an accessible path down to an inlet of water made by removing part of the dockwall. A bridge will cross the new inlet, demarcating the space, will allow people able to touch the shallow water several dozen feet back from the actual inner harbor. The city secured a $128,000 coastal management program grant earlier this summer from the state and is now pursuing a $100,000 Fund for Lake Michigan grant. Rogers said the remainder of “the backyard” area will be planted trees, a low-cost strategy to allow more money to be spent elsewhere.

One challenge presented by the area is that the adjoining dockwall doesn’t actually exist in Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources records, at least not where it actually is. Rogers said it was believed to be built in 1985 without a permit. This is requiring the city and design team correct flood maps for the area.

Heading south from “The Backyard” leads to another notable hangup: the Union Pacific rail line that bisects the site. Komatsu spanned it with a skywalk, but the riverwalk will currently dead-end on each side of the track. The designs show a pathway over the seldom-used tracks, but that would require railroad approval which the city and its partners do not currently have.

“This is one of the more complicated little slivers of land you can deal with,” Rogers said, after describing the various challenges.

The southern leg of the riverwalk, for now, will be accessed via a new walkway from S. Kinnickinnic Ave. at the Kinnickinnic River. The signature feature of that segment will be the former car ferry slip, now called “The Inlet.” Industrial remnants like the dolphins (wood pilings) that were used to guide boats and masonry pieces from an old dock would remain to highlight the area’s heritage. A bridge and pavilion would be erected in a style inspired by the Kashubian fishing village that used to exist across the inner harbor on Jones Island. Rogers said the pieces would tell the story of the Kashubes. Floating habitat islands would be placed in the inlet, and other wildlife habitats would be constructed. The design said the area would create a great location for photos, which was something the design team received suggestions for.

Partners on the project with the city are Harbor District Inc., Komatsu and We Energies, which owns the underlying land on the southern leg as a result of the environmental cleanup from former tenant Solvay Coke & Gas.

The board unanimously endorsed the contract amendment. “The design looks great,” said commissioner Bill Schwartz. “SmithGroup has done a good job.”

Conceptual Renderings and Project Budget

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