Monday, October 3, 2011

Third Urban Ecology Center breaks ground in Menomonee Valley

UEC director Ken Leinbach
“Milwaukee is an amazing city!” exclaimed Ken Leinbach, the dynamic and indefatigable director of the Urban Ecology Center (UEC). “When it comes to supporting the work of the center,” he continued, “miracles just seem to come down from the sky!” Then he looked up…leading the crowd also to turn their heads…just in time to see tiny parachutes flutter down bearing seed packets. Children scrambled to scoop them up.

The occasion was the groundbreaking ceremony last week for the new UEC, its third satellite, which will occupy a soon-to-be renovated 1933 tavern on 37th St. and Pierce in the Menomonee Valley.

Mayor Barrett plants seeds with a buddy
 At the completion of the ceremony the seeds were planted along the recently completed Valley Passage, adjacent to the center’s site, which leads to the Menomonee River,
Hank Aaron State Trail, and as-yet-uncompleted 24-acre park. Such notables as Mayor Tom Barrett, Milwaukee County Parks director Sue Black, and many others bearing trowels, each buddied up with one of the children.

The emotional intensity of the ceremony was electric. Speakers included board members, CEO’s of Valley businesses, major donors, DNR personnel, and representatives of the Silver City neighborhood where the site is located. Everyone was thrilled to be part of an historic moment. Most moving, I thought, was Michele Bria, CEO of nearby Journey House, who had brought the elementary students. She spoke with unmistakable excitement about the prospect of bringing them all to the new center and being able to visit the new park in their own neighborhood instead of having to ride the bus to Riverside Park.

Raising trowels in salute for the groundbreaking
The new branch of the UEC, which is slated to open in fall 2012, would be reason enough to celebrate. However, this is just part of a unique collaborative effort that will do much more than transform the Menomonee Valley, once largely a post-industrial wasteland, into a vital, ecologically significant, culturally rich, and economically powerful part of Milwaukee. It may well spark a revitalization of the entire region.

For the project, called “Menomonee Valley – From the Ground Up,” the UEC has teamed up with
Menomonee Valley Partners, a non-profit whose mission is to redevelop the Valley. The project has four components:
·      Improving pedestrian/bike access to and from the Valley.
·      Doubling the Hank Aaron State Trail with a six-mile western extension.
·      Establishing the third branch of the Urban Ecology Center.
·      Transforming a 24-acre brownfield into a visionary public park and ecologically significant natural area.

At Tuesday’s groundbreaking plans for both the UEC branch and the park were unveiled to the public.
Rendering by Uihlein-Wilson Architects
The old tavern has been reimagined and enlarged in designs by Uihlein-Wilson Architects with an eye toward sustainability. The rooftop sports an array of solar panels. An exterior stair provides access to a deck from which both the panels and the Valley can be viewed. At 6,000 sq. ft. it is smaller than the UEC flagship in Riverside Park, but will provide similar environmental programming, including community gathering space as well as science-based classrooms. The elegant new building steps down from its perch on Pierce St., visually and symbolically directing attention towards the Valley Passage and the park beyond. A lower level classroom opens directly onto the Passage.

Within five years the new branch expects 10,000 annual visitors and to provide students in 22 south side schools with environmental stewardship projects, urban recreational adventures, and science education, among other things.

Site of the new park
I took the time to walk through the Valley Passage for a peek at the new park.

Bikers already use the recently erected bridge across the Menomonee River and head west on the Hank Aaron State Trail. Looking east past the temporary gate, however, all I can see are large, featureless piles of dirt. 
The concept is compelling: to make of this vacant former railroad yard a “touchable ‘wilderness’” with “a mosaic of biodiverse landscapes, including forest, prairie, and ephemeral wetland,” and to evoke topographic formations specific to glaciated Wisconsin. What a refreshing way to conceive of “landscape architecture” – to design a long-abused urban space in such a way that it becomes a healthy, functioning ecosystem, so that it appears un-designed – natural.

Rendering by Wenk & Associates
The quality and ecological integrity of the design has already generated national acclaim. The
American Society of Landscape Architects has granted local designers Landscapes of Place, LLC
an honor award for their plan, called “Making a Wild Place in Milwaukee’s Urban Menomonee Valley.”

Before long, guided by Urban Ecology Center staff and volunteers, school children from all over the south side will be roaming the hills, exploring the woods, and discovering the river. Milwaukee is an amazing place! 

Some additional photos of the event:

Ken Leinbach juggling trowels!
Menomonee Valley Partners director Laura Bray with renderings
Students from Journey House
Hank Aaron State Trail manager Melissa Cook
Parks director Sue Black planting with a buddy

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