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.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Fund for Lake Michigan: supporting environmental restoration and innovation

It didn’t take much persuasion. When Vicki Elkin suggested that we go to Three Bridges Park for our photo session I jumped at it eagerly. The park is one of several projects in the Menomonee Valley that have been made possible in part by grants from the Fund for Lake Michigan, which Elkin administers. As regular followers of this blog know, it is also one my favorite places in the Valley.

We stroll between the contoured slopes of park hills that rise from a formerly flat rail yard. Fresh green grasses and newly planted seedlings emerge from burlap staked down to prevent erosion during this fragile stage in the process of vegetating the park. A row of boxcars sits idle on one of the remaining tracks adjacent to the park. The human hand in creating what eventually will become natural-seeming habitat is everywhere apparent. It’s an example of what I like to think of as “intelligent design” and an appropriate setting to talk about Elkin’s role as Executive Director of the Fund for Lake Michigan as well as the variety of environmental, scientific and technological projects it has enabled.

To read the rest of this post and view the photo essay, click here to go to Arts Without Borders.

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.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Selling O'Donnell Park is a lose-lose for Milwaukee County taxpayers

Northwestern Mutual would like to purchase O'Donnell Park, which stands between its campus and Milwaukee's lakefront. County Executive Abele and some members of the Board of Supervisors have agreed to a proposed sale that would net the county $5 million. That is peanuts compared to what this prime land is worth on the open market. No piece of property in the State of Wisconsin is in a more lucrative location. Every taxpayer in the county ought to be asking the board why it can be considering such an ill-conceived sale.

The cost is secondary, however, to the principle of selling park land in the first place. Sure, O'Donnell is an under-loved park. But, as the following letter explains, we can do better than transfer it to private ownership in a firesale. The current proposal is a lose-lose proposition for us the taxpayers and citizens of Milwaukee County. Please tell this to your county supervisor. For a list of supervisors and contact info, click here.

The following is an open letter to the county board urging it to preserve public control of O'Donnell Park. I've added my name to the list of signers. I hope you'll join me.


We, the undersigned, oppose the sale of O’Donnell Park to Northwestern Mutual Life, or to any corporation or private individual. By definition, parks are held in trust for the public interest. If this proposed deal closes, Milwaukee County citizens and visitors will lose all rights to this land legacy, not just the structures on it.  The public will have no inherent say in decisions regarding the park’s continued operations or its future designed use.

Regardless of any promises the proposed buyer has made regarding “public access” and concessions to zoning and such, private owners can do what they want with their land, within variable land-use parameters. Yes, many businesses choose to let the public “enjoy” their private properties to some extent. However, the only way that the public can retain any stake in the future of O’Donnell Park is if the public holds ownership of the land, as required in long-standing deed restrictions. Public officials, as well as all citizens, are duty-bound stewards who must honor these exacting covenants, just as executors of an estate must honor its bequests in perpetuity.

O’Donnell Park has been unfairly, and repeatedly, portrayed as a bleak garage with no intrinsic value. This 9.3-acre lakefront overlook did not become a park by accident. It was set aside for the common good by far-sighted leaders beginning in 1868. The short-sighted sale of this multi-purpose park will deprive taxpayers of more than just the current amenities and views O’Donnell provides and the substantial revenue it produces. It will also rob the public of any future possibilities that visionary civic leaders and philanthropists may have for re-imagining this priceless public land. For example, downtown Chicago’s dazzling Millennium Park (also built above a parking structure) would never have happened if the land on which it was built had not already been publicly owned. Public projects that are supplemented by private contributions first require a vested public interest.
If this unprecedented sale is executed, how will citizens ever stave off other schemes to privatize county or city parks?

We urge the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors to reject this ill-advised sale. Whenever corporations across the U.S. want to help “improve” public parks, they make designated donations for that purpose. Parks drive economic development and eco-tourism, and increase property values, so supporting them makes fiscal sense to businesses and individuals. Lease arrangements can be used effectively to ensure that public assets continue to be managed for the public good. This unnecessary sale of park land is simply an abdication of the public trust.

We Milwaukeean County residents, of all ages, take pride in our magnificent lakefront “emerald necklace.” We cannot afford to chip away at this legacy through the arbitrary sale of our most valuable gem, the very downtown gateway to our city’s treasured lakefront.

Philip Blank, President, Public Enterprise Committee 
Peter Blewett, Ph.D.; Former President, Milwaukee School Board
Diane Buck, Community Activist and Art Educator
Tony Busalacchi, Past President, Milwaukee School Board; Past President, City of Milwaukee Art Commission; Former Cultural History Educator
Eddee Daniel, Photographer, Writer and Art Educator
Daniel J. Diliberti, Former Milwaukee County Treasurer; Former Milwaukee County Supervisor
Vincent Goldstein, MPS Social Studies Teacher
James Goulee, Former Regional Parks Manager, Milwaukee County Parks
Henry Hamilton III, Esq., Member, Lakefront Development Advisory Commission; Member, Milwaukee County Parks Advisory Commission
Laurie Muench, Landscape Architect; Retired Milwaukee County Park Planner
William Lynch, Esq., Chairman, Lakefront Development Advisory Commission
Linda Nelson Keane, AIA, Professor of Architecture & Environmental Design, Art Institute of Chicago; Placemaking Board, National Project for Public Spaces
Mark Keane, Architect and Principal, Studio 1032; Professor of Architecture; University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
William F. Kean, Professor Emeritus, Geosciences; University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Cheryl Nenn, Environmentalist
Keith Schmitz, Founding Member and Steering Committee Member; Grassroots North Shore
Peggy Schulz, Writer, Third-generation Milwaukeean; Supporter of Public Infrastructure
Walter Wilson, Fellow of the American Institute of Architects; Retired Principal Architect, Milwaukee County
Anita Zeidler, Ph.D., Urban Education

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Photo Phenology 3: A photo essay

“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, "What good is it?" If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.1

Silver Maple
For the third time during the course of this year I’ve undertaken a personal, somewhat unscientific version of phenology in the parks of the Menomonee Valley. Phenology is the science of observation, specifically of seasonal variations in the life cycles of plants and animals. The Urban Ecology Center has volunteers who go out into the two parks adjacent to its Menomonee Valley Branch on a monthly basis to photograph in a methodical manner. On my first two phenology excursions I accompanied UEC teams. This time, it being a glorious autumn afternoon, I went more spontaneously, alone. The light was magnificent and kept getting better as the day wore on.

Sumac & Steel
The quote above is from Aldo Leopold who was a habitual and meticulous phenologist as well as one of our country’s most famous ecologists and author of the classic, A Sand County Almanac. The quote is suggestive, I submit, of a current way of thinking about the Menomonee Valley. The history of the Valley could easily suggest that our predecessors tinkered with it in rather unintelligent ways. The original, natural landscape was not just discarded piecemeal but very nearly in its entirety. Now, however, there is a concerted attempt to ameliorate the situation and reintroduce some of what was lost. I believe we have gotten better at intelligent tinkering.

My ramblings took me in a loop around Stormwater Park, adjacent to the 35th Street Viaduct, then briefly into Three Bridges Park. Here is what I saw.

Switchgrass & Ingeteam
Black Oak
Wild Grape
Purple Aster
Silver Maple
If you're paying close attention you will have noticed that silver maple leaves can turn red or yellow. I was skeptical so I checked with Jeff, the wildlife ecologist at the UEC. He assured me that this is true.
Stormwater Park & Viaduct
View from Valley Passage Bridge
Kayakers Posing
Sumac Explosion
Tomatillo in Community Gardens
Community Garden Boxes & Sky
Oak Seedling
City on a Hill
I will end as I began, with a quote from Leopold:

“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.”2


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.