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.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Wauwatosa master plan would bulldoze the last corner of the County Grounds

Must “Sanctuary Woods” be sacrificed for retail and residential development?

I crept through the snowy woods as stealthily as possible, my eye on a tree limb ahead. Four long-eared owls perched on that limb stared back at my approach. As I raised and focused my telephoto lens one of them swiveled to confront me head on. Our eyes locked.

Long-eared owl
Then it and the others—including two I hadn’t noticed—rose and took off, sailing deeper into the woods. Six large owls! It was both a peak experience and a reassurance. I hadn’t seen any owls for several years and here was clear proof that they were back on the County Grounds in force. This was good news not only for the birders and others who love these woods, but it meant that the habitat remained healthy enough to attract an elusive and sensitive species.

Unfortunately, my reassurance was tempered by the realization that the very spot on which I stood watching the owls disappear from sight could soon be a road. If that happens they would likely disappear again, this time for good.

Sanctuary Woods has become a very popular place to walk dogs
For many, especially those who use this area regularly to walk dogs or simply to walk in the peaceful woods, it will probably come as a surprise to learn that this corner of the County Grounds has never been protected. It feels like parkland. In fact it was fenced off during years of construction all around it in order to preserve the habitat I’m witnessing now.

Construction fencing encircled the woodland during construction of County Grounds Park and the MMSD detention basins
But the decades of negotiation and compromise that resulted in the establishment of UWM’s Innovation Campus and adjacent County Grounds Park never involved this southeast corner. Now the City of Wauwatosa is developing a master plan that, in its current form, includes a new thoroughfare connecting Innovation Park with the Village of Wauwatosa. The 66-ft. wide right-of-way, which has already been named “Emerald Parkway,” would bifurcate the woods. A second, north-south road would separate the woods from the County Park, fragmenting wildlife habitats and diminishing the recreational experience for the public (see map).

Aerial view of County Grounds showing the approximate location of the new roads
The primary purpose of “Emerald Parkway” would be to spur dense, mixed-use developments (including residential and retail) along the entire length between it and Watertown Plank Road. According to a recent article in BizTimes, the County Grounds portion is just a small part of a larger plan to increase density along Watertown Plank Road, thus creating a new “metropolitan center” for the city. That larger plan has merit.

Stepping back from the County Grounds for a moment, an overall increase in density ought to be good both for economic development and conservation of wildlife habitats. As global populations become increasingly urban and therefore more distant from surrounding nature city planners all over the world are taking up the challenge of providing urban parks as an antidote. Density is part of the solution—as long as the density doesn’t destroy irreplaceable natural areas.

The stub of a new road already points east from Innovation Park towards the threatened woodland
You don’t have to be a nature-enthusiast to see that parts of Wauwatosa’s plan fly in the face of conventional wisdom. Parks improve the quality of life for a community’s residents. But also, from a purely pragmatic point of view, it is well documented that property values (and therefore potential tax revenues) increase near parks and natural areas. Parks create value. They are also an attraction. On its website, Discover Milwaukee, a business-oriented organization, describes Wauwatosa as “attractive to professionals because of its proximity to the Milwaukee County Grounds” [emphasis theirs].

Although it has no official designation, the southeast corner of the County Grounds has come to be known colloquially as “Sanctuary Woods,” a hopeful appellation. The location, adjacent to the Milwaukee County Regional Medical Center makes it ideal, in its current natural state, for a health and wellness trail. "Proximity to nature is a valuable asset for the medical complex," says Dr. Marc Gorelick, pediatrician and Executive Vice President at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin. "The natural beauty of the County Grounds is important to patients and families, who see it as a peaceful refuge at a time of great stress. It is also increasingly attractive to our workforce, many of whom are millennials who value environmental conservation. Given the existing high density of development on the medical campus itself, any further loss of green space on the remainder of the grounds would be very concerning."

Stone stairs still lead down to the ravine trail from the time when the County Asylum was located here

Sanctuary Woods, which includes a meadow, wetland and a rare remnant oak savanna, is one of the more beautiful and bio-diverse sections of the County Grounds and therefore—not surprisingly—intensively used by the public. “It is safe to say that, if you polled the neighborhoods around the County Grounds, you would find resounding support for preserving this wildlife habitat,” says Bryan Lenz, Director of Bird City Wisconsin [emphasis his].

Wauwatosa, which prides itself on being a Tree City USA, has yet to be designated as a Bird City. But it could. In a passionate letter opposing the proposed road Lenz describes the importance of such natural areas to humans and wildlife and says that the County Grounds has “one of the largest bird lists” in Milwaukee County. He goes on to say that the road and subsequent developments would cause fragmentation of habitats and “destroy its value for sensitive wildlife.”

A very healthy cardinal wintering in the County Grounds
It’s probably safe to say that those at City Hall who want to see this road built will not be polling the neighborhoods to learn how much the community loves this land. However, there will be an opportunity for public input. An updated version of the master plan will be presented to the Wauwatosa Common Council’s Committee of the Whole at 6:00 p.m. on January 17. That meeting is open to the public (at Wauwatosa City Hall, North Ave. and 76th St.). After that meeting a public open house will be scheduled for sometime in early February, according to Paulette Enders, City of Wauwatosa Development Director.

In the meantime, you can always contact the Wauwatosa Common Council, the mayor’s office and Milwaukee County supervisors to voice your opinions and feelings. Although the City of Wauwatosa is developing the master plan, the land is owned by Milwaukee County. In a resolution passed in October 2016 the county board requested an environmental assessment specific to the proposed road be done by March 2017.

A snowy morning in Sanctuary Woods
On a recent morning as I walked again through Sanctuary Woods I met a man named Mike whose two large dogs ran circles around us as we chatted. He echoed my love for the woods. When I mentioned the proposed road he grew solemn and told me, “I used to walk my dogs around the abandoned Eschweiler buildings, until they built apartments there. I figure this here is the last corner left that’s natural and peaceful. Seems like they just want to tear everything up.” I assured him that there are many people who feel the way he does and expressed hope that “they” can be convinced to save Sanctuary Woods.

As he turned to go he said he’d contact his aldermen.

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

This story first appeared in my column at Milwaukee Magazine on January 9, 2017.