Sunday, January 22, 2017

The specter of bulldozers on County Grounds floods Tosa City Hall with citizens

Though prevented from speaking the size of the crowd sent a clear message

Hundreds of people turned out Tuesday night to a normally quiet committee meeting for the unveiling of a proposed Wauwatosa master plan. Everyone in the room—and the overflow crowd in an adjacent room and out in the hall—they all knew why they were present.

An overflow crowd filled the Wauwatosa Common Council chambers Tuesday evening

Reacting to the prospect of bulldozers poised to plow through the County Grounds, which I addressed in my previous column, Mayor Ehley didn’t waste time getting to the point in her opening remarks, saying it is “untrue” that bulldozers would destroy Sanctuary Woods. Her words appeared to be calculated to relieve the anxiety of the audience. Although some in the crowd may indeed have been relieved, no one left the room. Promises have been made before about the County Grounds….

In fact, as the plan itself unfolded the headline of my story, “Wauwatosa master plan would bulldoze the last corner of the County Grounds,” was born out by a map (below), which shows not only the new “Scenic Parkway” (renamed from the last draft of the plan) but also a grid of new roads and new (potentially high-rise) development in the southeast corner of the County Grounds. Why the discrepency?

Detail of plan map showing “Scenic Parkway” and development options along both sides north of Ronald McDonald House.

As the mayor explains in an article in the Milwaukee Business Journal, “Sanctuary Woods” has “no strictly defined borders.” In fact, the name was conjured by the experience of those who enjoy its peaceful character and varied terrain. But the lovely name is also misleading—because it includes more than woodlands. The terrain that confronts the specter of bulldozers, according to this plan, includes critical habitat, small woodlands, and meadows that are particularly favored by wildlife as well as dog walkers. A small but significant wetland habitat would also be impacted by the proximity of “Scenic Parkway.” The planned extension of 92nd St.—for what purpose?—would further fragment an Environmental District that the plan itself identifies as “disjointed.” 

View of Sanctuary Woods: The plan would replace this humble gravel road with a paved thoroughfare dividing the woods from County Grounds Park.
The plan would protect the ravine. In the meeting as well as in an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, promises to save the ravine and "Sanctuary Woods" took front and center. The JS article makes it clear, however, that the mayor and planners construe Sanctuary Woods to refer solely to the isolated woodland surrounding the ravine and not to the adjacent meadows. Habitats are not so easily bounded. Unfortunately for the many people who enjoy those meadows as well as the wildlife that depends on the non-fragmented integrity of the whole, this plan would greatly diminish the intrinsic—if not the economic— value of the last unprotected sixty acres on this corner of the County Grounds.

One of three meadows popular with dog walkers, south of proposed “Scenic Parkway” that would see high-rise development in the plan.
In fact, although the justification for developing this natural space is to increase its economic value, the master plan itself recognizes both the appeal and the positive economic impact of parks and natural areas. In a section entitled “Money grows on trees” it says, “People like being close to parks and green space. Even if they are stalwart urbanites, the trees, flowers, shade, and breezes are alluring. Not surprisingly, property values reflect human desires to be near parks through an almost direct correlation between the adjacency of a home to a park and its corresponding property value.”

Plan cross-section showing Scenic Parkway and 6-story building looking out over the Environmental District.
The plan bears the academic-sounding title of “Life Science District Master Plan.” The District is quite large, extending from Wauwatosa Village on the east to Highway 100 on the west and encompassing all four quadrants of what used to be the whole Milwaukee County Grounds (until successive parts of it were sold and developed.) To its credit, the plan envisions reunifying the disparate segments divided by Watertown Plank Road and Interstate 41. The proposed result would be a mixed-use, high density “metropolitan center.”

The 150-page plan, complex and comprehensive, is admirable in many ways. It acknowledges historical origins of the County Grounds, analyzes contextual elements such as circulation, development patterns, and also existing parks and natural features. Plans for new developments throughout the district are outlined in detail. Density is one of the key concepts.

Master plan map of Life Sciences District
The Life Sciences District Master Plan does pay considerable attention to the environment. A stated goal is to “Adopt an Environmental Regulating Plan to preserve, conserve, and socialize the natural environment to guarantee the use of natural features for passive and active recreational use.” The mayor and planners all emphasize the importance of balance, a value I share. With regard to the Environmental District, the plan would benefit by adding the perspective of biodiversity and wildlife ecology to balance out its emphasis on engineering and trail development.

The largest section of the “Environmental District” is made up of flood detention basins.
The plan identifies and touts a 597-acre “Environmental District” as the second largest in the county (after Whitnall Park.) However, when alderman Welch challenged the validity of that claim by pointing out that the acreage includes such non-park-like segments as Wisconsin Lutheran College’s private athletic field campus, the crowd, which had been respectfully quiet throughout the presentation, broke into applause. It felt to me like a release of pent up tension as someone finally gave voice to collective doubt.

View of Milwaukee Co. Parks Administration building with trees cut for development of Innovation Campus in 2013.
What had brought us to the meeting in such numbers and had stirred doubts despite the mayor’s reassurances? Distrust of government is not limited to national politics. The people of Wauwatosa and beyond remember the compromises that have led to the loss of precious natural land on the County Grounds. People remember with horror when tree-cutting machinery did destroy a beautiful stand of mature hardwoods around the Milwaukee County Parks administration building—and still wonder why. People remember promises made to preserve the historic Eschweiler buildings. People are tired of fighting the now 20 years of compromises that have resulted relentlessly in loss of natural habitat.

Eschweiler-designed Dormitory building being deconstructed in 2016.
Let’s consider this suggestion as a compromise: the City could drop plans for “Scenic Parkway,” rezone all 60 acres that currently are non-park county land to give them preservation status, pledge to build no new roads in those 60 acres, request that the county add them to County Grounds Park, and reconsider plans to develop other natural areas within the District (such as at the Research Park.) I believe that such a promise, if kept, would help rebuild trust of City Hall enough that other, more laudable portions of the master plan—such as increased density, the circulator bus, and high-rise development in infill areas—would be subject to less intense, more amenable scrutiny.

There are other initiatives in the master plan that will concern residents of Wauwatosa. In fact, people have expressed concern that the fuss about Sanctuary Woods might serve to screen larger issues. Why, for instance, when there has been a veritable building spree—in the Village, at the Burleigh triangle, and elsewhere—does Wauwatosa need so much new, dense, high-rise development? And at the expense of the most precious commodity a community can own, it’s natural land. Can we concede a little more density to save the last unprotected natural section of the County Grounds?

Owls and other wildlife are threatened by planned road
During the presentation the assembled multitude was assured that the plan presented was a draft and likely to change after further public input. “It is my belief that at the end of this planning process, we will have a plan that balances environment preservation with economic growth opportunities, ” Ehley said. “A plan to protect beloved green space, as well as provide opportunities and guide decisions that foster economic development, job creation and added value.”

Let’s help her protect our beloved green space.

There will be a public open house on February 7, 5:30 -7:30 p.m., at Wauwatosa City Hall.

This time you will be able to speak.

Whether or not you can make the open house, please continue to make your feelings known to County Exec. Chris Abele as well as the Wauwatosa Common Council.

To conclude, the plan itself testifies as to why so many concerned citizens showed up for Tuesday’s meeting:

“When an area’s natural resources are conserved and protected while allowing for human socialization and activity, the users’ appreciation serves as a far more protective force than any regulation. A community’s collective will to protect a forest, prairie, or natural habitat is more powerful than a government-instituted zoning district. Rules can be changed and circumvented; the will of a united community is seldom negotiable.”

This entrance to Sanctuary Woods is in the path of the proposed “Scenic Parkway.”

Read it for yourself: Link to current Wauwatosa Master Plan.

See more of my photos of Sanctuary Woods on and the rest of the County Grounds on Flickr. 

A slightly edited version this story first appeared in my column at Milwaukee Magazine on January 19, 2017.


  1. An "Environment District" Zoning designation will not guarantee that this land will never be developed. If the common council would zone this land as Park and the County retained ownership, it would better protect this land from future development and you'd have the legislative oversight of the county board with an elected Supervisor.

  2. County Executive Abele states: "I'm always looking for ways to add even more (parkland). Seems like this would be a perfect addition...all 60 acres!
    "Abele shares vision for parks, Domes, beer gardens and more"-OnMilwaukee
    Nov 23, 2016
    Are there any plans, or any intentions, to sell county park land?
    ABELE: No. My intention is quite the opposite – it is to continue adding parkland and protecting more of our natural spaces. In the past five years we've added more than 150 acres of parkland and I'm always looking for ways to add even more. Part of how we've been able to do that is by better managing the parkland we do have, catching up on deferred maintenance, and expanding our conservation efforts. With the revenue generated by the vehicle registration fee and the millions of dollars we will save by removing the Estabrook Dam, the County should be well-positioned to continue investing in our award-winning parks.

    1. Thank you. I hope the County Exec. can be encouraged to add the 60 unprotected acres on the Co. Grounds as parkland. Unfortunately, it is not parkland currently and not protected. In fact Wauwatosa has zoned it to encourage development.