Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Ruby and the Tree: Growing with 3 Bridges Park


It is at once perfectly ordinary and miraculous each time a baby is born into a loving family as it was for Dan and Nora not long ago. By contrast, the creation of an urban park isn’t an ordinary event and although in retrospect it may seem like a miracle, it is not. The establishment of 3 Bridges Park in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley was the result of a long planning process, hard work, and no small financial commitment. 3 Bridges Park arrived the same year as Dan and Nora’s daughter, Ruby.

The coincidence of these seemingly unrelated events has become intertwined for the young couple who saw in them new beginnings not only for their family but also for the community at large. Moved by the symbolism of new life and growth, they began what they intend to be an annual ritual. They agreed to let me accompany them and to share their story.

On a warm, sunny afternoon in August I met the three of them at their home in the Merrill Park neighborhood on the north edge of the Menomonee Valley. After bundling Ruby into her stroller, we headed past the 35th Street viaduct towards the freeway underpass where 32nd Street connects with Canal Street. Dan, who works for Layton Boulevard West Neighbors, explained that he takes the viaduct back and forth every day to his job near 27th and Greenfield. For casual walks in the Valley and to reach the park they prefer the Canal Street route. Although less direct, it’s quieter and they generally see other people using the Hank Aaron State Trail, which parallels the roadway.

We wound our way through the Menomonee Valley Industrial Center, past Palermo’s Pizza, J.F. Ahern Co. and Falk Corporation, to where 33rd Ct. ends at the middle of the three bridges leading into the park. We paused on the bridge to look out over the river and the park. Dan pointed to the place they had gone the year before to pick out a tree. “We thought it would be meaningful,” he said “to document Ruby growing up as the park grows up.”

After we had circled around and descended the boat ramp nearly to the water Dan gestured towards a small oak, its tender leaves resplendent in the mid-day sun. He continued his story. “We found the tree in this picturesque spot. You can see the river and the middle bridge in the background.” They sat infant Ruby next to the tree and snapped the shot.

“The idea,” Nora told me, “is that every year around the same time we will come back and take a picture so that as she grows and the tree grows and the park grows up around it, we’ll get a record of that kind of growth—the park, the community, our daughter.”

In the year since that first photo was taken Ruby already has grown significantly, of course. She now toddles around the tree, the nearby log, and the rocks along the path. The park too has begun to bloom. The earthen slope, still predominantly covered in protective burlap, sprouts spindly saplings, thin patches of rye grass and the occasional wildflower. Dan concludes, “It’s nice to see all of this happening all at once right here where we live in the center of Milwaukee.”

I looked up from the tableau of this family and their symbolic tree and surveyed the surrounding landscape. Suddenly, from this vantage it seemed as though the city itself was growing up around the newly created park. Perhaps it is, in a sense. Perhaps that’s the real lesson of 3 Bridges Park and of the Menomonee Valley redevelopment process. Like Ruby, we all have an opportunity to grow together with a new and sustainable urban landscape. After all, building a park out of an abandoned brownfield is a hopeful act.

Ruby and the tree are a perfect symbol for the desire to improve our world. The motivation for planting trees is to some degree the same as for having children: they embody our dreams for a brighter future. 

This post is one in a series that relates to my Menomonee Valley Artist in Residency. For more information about the residency and links to previous posts and photographs, go to MV AiR.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A new year in the Urban Wilderness begins with joy!

You've gotta see this crazy mouse I found running in circles on the parkway! Okay, a little context:

What brings you joy? One of the many things that work for me is walking along the rivers in Milwaukee's many urban parkways. Another is encountering wildlife along the way. This happened recently, on the Menomonee River Parkway in Wauwatosa. It was one of the drab, snowless wintry days we've had so many of lately. The colors were muted and the sun near to setting, which happens early so close to the winter solstice.

I was walking at a brisk pace due to the cold when I stopped abruptly at the sight of something moving in a curious fashion ahead on the trail. It looked like a mouse, or more likely a vole, and it was running in circles on the dirt of the path. I slowly moved closer, trying not to scare it off. I needn't have worried, though. I soon learned that it was not going to be deterred by my presence.

It continued running in the same circle, like a wind-up toy, until I was hovering right over it. It bumped into my boot but that only made it swerve a bit. Kept right on going.

I shot several videos of this. It did pause now and then to munch on some grass. But before long it started up again, in the same place, doing donuts across the path.

Click here to view video.

I got tired of its game well before it did and continued on my way. Later I retraced my steps. I wondered about the little creature. If it was gone I wouldn't know if it had become hawk food or had finally decided to end its obsession and wandered away. But no, there it was, still going at it.

I might have left it going around and around, joyfully. At least I could say the curiosity of the crazy encounter had made me joyful. Can't say what the vole was feeling. But I worried about the poor guy. Hawk bait, for sure, I thought. So I nudged it off the open path and under a tangle of brush.

May you have a joyful new year full of encounters with urban wildlife!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The County Grounds at the close of 2014

Followers of this blog will understand that I've been preoccupied with the Menomonee Valley for the past year as I served in my capacity of Artist in Residence there. (I have a new website dedicated to that work: Menomonee Valley.) But although I haven't written much about it I haven't completely neglected the County Grounds. Here is a year-end update and photo essay.

Amur maple, Eschweiler quadrangle
The biggest news has been the developments on and around Innovation Park. The Watertown Plank Rd. interchange is nearly complete and ground was broken for the apartments that will be built around the Eschweiler complex - the fate of which still hangs in the air.

The planned construction has of necessity led to more tree cutting near the Eschweiler complex. One beautiful maple in particular was documented throughout the year by Fred Retzlaff and the Friends of the Monarch Trail. The following sequence, from March through Sept. is Fred's:

This next shot is the one I took from the same location shortly after the groundbreaking in November.

More images from Innovation Park:

Oct., before tree clearing

The new Monarch Trail
The trail winds around the ABB company building
The maintenance building demolition in progress
On another part of the grounds, trees were cleared on the DNR's portion where the Forestry Exploration Center is planned to be built eventually.

A stand of cedars that had been planted in a straight line when this was still the county nursery was sacrificed.

Wil-O-Way Woods so far remains intact.

It is always nice to discover signs of wildlife out on the grounds, as here in the west detention basin.

Season's Greetings from the Urban Wilderness out here in Wauwatosa!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Myths and Facts About the Sale of O’Donnell Park


The debate continues: should Milwaukee County sell O'Donnell Park to Northwestern Mutual? My answer to that question remains NO. The board of supervisors is scheduled to rule on the current proposal on Dec. 18. Several supervisors have publicly voiced their opposition. Please tell your supervisor to join them. For a list of supervisors and contact info click here.

The following was compiled by Virginia Small:
Myth: O’Donnell Park drains Milwaukee County’s finances and must be sold to “relieve” the budget.
Fact:   Net annual revenue from O’Donnell leases and parking now exceeds $1.3 million and supports the upkeep of other Milwaukee parks. There are currently 900 monthly parkers as well as high income from 425 spaces reserved for daily parkers. O’Donnell could raise its rates by 20%, to offset any required maintenance above routine levels, and still stay competitive among parking structures in its immediate vicinity.
Myth: O’Donnell Park will need to be rebuilt in 18 years, so the County should sell it now, for pennies on the dollar, to avoid that projected cost. 
Fact:  The “useful life” of a facility is an accounting term used to calculate asset depreciation. Other County buildings with parking structures, such as the Milwaukee Art Museum, are not scheduled to be rebuilt within 40 years. The City’s 49-year-old MacArthur Square parking structure remains fully operational.
Myth: The parking facility at O’Donnell Park is dirty, decaying, and poorly lit, and needs a new owner to remedy those conditions.
Fact:   The parking facility received refurbishments totaling $5 million since 2011, and earns high marks from inspectors for cleanliness, upkeep and lighting. There’s a waiting list for monthly parking. However, up to one-third of the lights in O’Donnell’s garden plazas remain burnt-out. Bare-bones County Parks maintenance guidelines restrict replacement of bulbs for 80-some pole lights to once annually, in the spring.
Myth: Only Wisconsin’s wealthiest corporation can “preserve” O’Donnell Park.
Fact:   Government entities preserve most public parks and protect them in perpetuity. Private entities that “preserve parks for all” invariably do so through iron-clad deed restrictions or conservation agreements, neither of which are written into a proposed contract between the County and Northwestern Mutual.
Myth: Milwaukee County should declare O’Donnell Park “surplus” and sell it in a no-bid purchase.
Fact:   Milwaukee does not have too many parks. The Trust for Public Land, in its annual objective rating of cities and their parks, gave Milwaukee 10 points out of 20 points for park acreage per population in 2014. Property is sometimes deemed “surplus” when it ceases to have any use or value to the County. Parks are consistently proven to generate economic development and enhance neighboring property values.
Myth: Governments should reward large and long-standing employers by letting them buy public parks.
Fact:   The proposed buyer, Northwestern Mutual, has been given $73 million in tax credits from the City of Milwaukee to rebuild its headquarters in downtown Milwaukee. There are not enough parks in downtown Milwaukee to provide bonuses to every major business that chooses to rebuild or relocate there.
Myth: O’Donnell Park is not really a park. It’s just a small, insignificant plaza that no one uses.
Fact:   At 9.3 acres, this multi-use park with panoramic views of the lakefront and city is “huge” among downtown Milwaukee Parks, second only to Juneau (at 16__acres). Milwaukee’s  cultural gateway, it is a popular setting for taking photos, lunching, museum visits, weddings, catered events and watching fireworks. It is the defining culmination of Milwaukee’s “Grand Avenue” and has been a park since 1868.
Sources include official County and City data, attorney William Lynch’s legal analysis of the proposed sale contract, reputable journalistic reports and other research data.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Hanging Gardens: green roofs, stormwater management and bioremediation

Until fairly recently the mention of a “green roof” elicited for me a mental image of Al Johnson’s famous restaurant in Door County. The sloping roof of that rustic log building sports a plush lawn with a small herd of goats casually munching on it. It is unabashedly romantic tourist bait. It is also a far cry from the technologically sophisticated contemporary green roof used to mitigate stormwater runoff in urban areas that are increasingly concerned about environmental sustainability.

I was introduced to green roof design by Peter, the Chief of Design Integration at a company that specializes in them called Hanging Gardens. The company is located in Milwaukee’s Global Water Center and we were standing on the spongy surface of its roof overlooking the Menomonee Valley. Although it was mid-summer the first thing I noticed was that the roof wasn’t particularly green. Instead of grass it was planted with multi-hued varieties of Sedum.

Peter explained that several species of Sedum are used because they are hardy and easy to maintain. The vegetation was set into a grid of waterproof containers, a little like the flats of flowers one sees at a garden shop. The whole array was divided into 12 sections called “slices,” which represent five different types of vegetated roofs. Some of the sections were as yet unplanted. One section was packed with what looked like brown sponges, obviously different from traditional soil that’s used in sod roofs like Al Johnson’s. The absorbent blocks are made from a combination of organic and inorganic materials that hold water longer than soil, Peter tells me, and the roots of the Sedum can grow directly into them.

Green roofs can provide a variety of benefits. Chief among them are reducing or slowing down stormwater runoff and filtering pollutants from rainwater. In some locations they can also reduce cooling loads on buildings, act as soundproofing, save money on energy, and even provide wildlife habitat or a place for agriculture. A side benefit in urban settings like Milwaukee is to reduce what’s known as the “heat island” effect. Cities become hotter than surrounding countryside because traditional building materials absorb and radiate heat from the sun.

Back in the Hanging Garden office I discover that the process of establishing the green roof had to weather its own problems. John, Chief Marketing Officer and company partner, picks up the story. It was his idea to move the company out of its previous location in the basement of his home. He was eager to bring his company’s expertise to the new and exciting enterprise of the Global Water Center.

The first hurdle to overcome was financial. Because a green roof had not been included in the construction budget, Hanging Gardens offered to help install a green roof that would become a research project utilizing grants from MMSD and the Fund for Lake Michigan. The second hurdle almost stopped the project in its tracks. Pulling up the existing roof revealed extensive damage from rot. Accommodating the 25 pounds per square foot required over the entire roof would have been prohibitive. The architects compromised, however, by rebuilding approximately one fourth of the roof with sufficient structural support for the test plots.

Green roofs are just one of the types of products and services Hanging Gardens offers. I am fascinated by a demonstration display of porous pavement, which is designed to allow rainwater to penetrate into the ground instead of running into storm sewers. A stream of water pours straight through without slowing down.

Both Peter and John are keen to show off a product called “GreenGlass,” a silica-based material that looks like exceedingly fine sand. “The raw product is dry, granular, odorless, hydrophobic and non-flammable,” says Peter. It’s also superabsorbent. When contaminants in water and soils come into contact with GreenGlass it captures them through hydraulic conductivity. “The dirtier the site, the better it is able to perform,” he assures me. A little like Depends for an incontinent society, I think to myself.

John points out the second floor windows towards the freshly landscaped Reed Street Yards. The series of bioswales installed along Freshwater Way utilize GreenGlass in a controlled test, he tells me.

John is decidedly bullish on his choice of locating in the Global Water Center. In 2013 Hanging Gardens became the first company to move into the incubator suites. He loves what he calls the synergy of the place, making connections not only with other people within the building but also with visitors who come from all over the world. He remembers when delegations from France, Germany, and England all came to visit in the same week. Then there was the time he went to a luncheon with a delegation from China, the CEO of Rexnord and the president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee. “That wasn’t going to happen in my home basement office.”

His enthusiasm also extends beyond the walls of the Center itself. On one side is Walker’s Point, which he observes is “the hottest area [in Milwaukee] for growth right now.” On the other side is the Menomonee Valley. “It’s incredible to have offices overlooking the Reed Street Yards and watching them being redeveloped,” he tells me. “We look out over the Sixth Street Bridge. I can see the Potawatomi hotel going up, the Harley Davidson Museum—the whole valley. It’s just very exciting to be in the middle of all this.”

“My ultimate goal is to have our company in a building over there,” he concludes, pointing again to the Reed Street Yards. “The valley has changed dramatically. There’s a lot of opportunity here and it’s exciting to see the possibilities. There are obstacles, too, because there are brownfields. But Hanging Gardens can help with some of those issues!”

This post is one in a series that relates to my Menomonee Valley Artist in Residency. For more information about the residency and links to previous posts and photographs, go to MV AiR.