Wednesday, April 28, 2010

UWM Plan for County Grounds Passes after late night deliberations

Picture taken 4-28-10: Spring Fireworks on the County Grounds.

Tension mounted among committee members as the evening grew late. Serious questions were raised about the specifics of UWM’s plans for its Innovation Park developments on the Milwaukee County Grounds. Most came from newly elected aldermen Organ and Jay. How did UWM come up with the figure of 200,000 sq. ft. of residential development and was market research done to justify such a large amount? How would contractors be prevented from “inadvertently” damaging the root systems of trees universally acknowledged to be crucial to the health of Monarch butterfly habitats protected by the plan?

While the meeting remained calm, impatience and frustration simmered. Freshman aldermen, sworn into office just last week, make up a neat half of the 8-member Committee on Community Development. All four seemed troubled by the need to make what felt like momentous decisions without adequate preparation.

Nancy Welch, Director of Community Development, unwittingly provided a prelude to these late evening exchanges during her opening orientation of the new committee members. She explained that, for the sake of brevity, the information packet that each member receives to prepare for the meetings often contains condensed versions of complex proposals such as those for the County Grounds. Understandable. She wisely observed that fully understanding the complexity of the issues would require reading 30 to 50 pages. I agree and I believe the new members were put in a difficult position, having to make spur of the moment decisions in the absence of this important background.

It wasn’t their fault. It was an unfortunate coincidence that these deliberations, which are so important to so many in this city, spanned a period during which a large transition of aldermen occurred. The solution should have been to table the decision so that new members could read the 50 pages. The hesitation on the faces of the committee members was obvious to the many constituents who came to watch the proceedings, but who were prevented from speaking.

City Attorney Alan Kesner guided the committee to a compromise amendment that enabled them to pass UWM’s plan with stipulations. The main sticking point was the proposed 200,000 sq. ft. of residential development that would surround the historic Eschweiler Buildings. For some committee members this seemed like too much to concede without concrete justification. Understandable. The representatives of UWM and its consultant HGA Architects were very patient with the proceedings and cooperative whenever questions arose. The height restrictions, they said, had been self-imposed for “purely aesthetic” reasons out of concern for the Eschweiler complex and they were willing to consider other options. More troubling for the committee was the informal nature of the deliberations that resulted in the 200,000 sq. ft. figure. The compromise amendment establishes that figure as a maximum with the stipulation that actual, specific design proposals must attempt to reduce the square footage (not just the footprint) and provide market research to justify the economic need for the final figure. I personally think they should be more concerned about the overall footprint, which has grown with each “compromise.” Let’s hold development at 850,000 sq. ft. or less.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, the amendment also included a well-meaning, but ill-advised lifting of height restrictions, which had been limited to below the Eschweiler buildings. Being able to build higher provides a developer with the flexibility to maintain square footage while reducing the size of the footprint. But any gains made by doing this to maintain scenic views of the historic buildings would be more than offset by two significant losses. Taller buildings create more violent wind patterns that would disrupt the butterflies’ ability to roost at the adjacent protected sites. Also the Eschweiler Buildings are far from the only scenic concerns. Well designed architecture can solve that problem in any case. What are far more valuable as scenery are the views of downtown Milwaukee visible from the hilltops and the wide expanse of the land itself, with its rolling prairie character. Tall buildings would destroy that character.

UWM has consistently expressed a willingness to comply with the wishes of the public on most issues and wisely chose self-imposed height restrictions that respect the low profile needed to maintain these assets. At last week’s public hearing the Common Council’s constituents turned out in force to express their desire to see this land preserved as open green space, while no constituents spoke in favor of development. The committee room was likewise packed, even though the public could not speak. The committee members’ instincts were good. Caution is required. Let’s proceed with due caution and consultation.

View of County Parks building from proposed Innovation Park

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Touring Milwaukee's Natural Areas with the Parks Dept. expert.

You’d think I would get used to it, but still I’m nearly always rattled after a peaceful walk in one of Milwaukee County’s natural areas, when I return to “civilization.” Accompanied today by Brian Russart, natural areas coordinator for the County Parks, I spent a lovely couple of hours. Brian’s expert guidance led me not only to four outstanding natural areas that I’ve never seen before, but to see wildflowers and birds I would never had noticed. As happens so often in the urban wilderness, we were alone wherever we went, from McGovern Park on Milwaukee’s north side to unmarked county land far south in Franklin. Afterwards we drove past brand new industrial parks, commercial strips, and residential developments that sprawl along Ryan Road.

When I have more time I hope to share more of our experience together. Brian is a storehouse of knowledge about the 10,000 acres of natural areas that exist within the 15,000 acre (gold medal-winning!) County Park system. And what a treasure that is! Milwaukee, do you know how lucky you are?

Below is just a sample of what we saw. It is a vernal or ephemeral pond, which means that it appears after spring snowmelt and dries up in the summer heat. These endangered ponds are essential habitat for a variety of dwindling species and therefore a welcome sight in Greenfield Park. Several species of salamander that depend on vernal ponds adjacent to wooded uplands, as they are here in the park, have existed here historically. Unfortunately, says Brian, this 40 acre woodland, which seems relatively large as we stroll through it, isn’t enough to support most of the salamanders. When it comes to wildlife habitat, less is definitely not more.

Monday, April 26, 2010

RRF buys vital new parkland on the Milwaukee River

Score one for the urban wilderness today! With bright spring sun for a spotlight and the newly green foliage surrounding Caesar’s Pool for a backdrop, a large gathering of prestigious folks assembled in the parking lot of Melanec’s Wheelhouse. The remains of that former restaurant have been boarded and await demolition. With a simple handshake, John Chowanec, the former owner, ceremoniously handed ownership of the 2.8 acre property over to the Executive Director of the River Revitalization Foundation (RRF), Kimberly Gleffe, while the Secretary of the Wisconsin DNR, Matt Frank, looked on.

Although small, this strip of land at the curve of the Milwaukee River has been, until now, a vital missing link. Over the past ten years the RRF has quietly acquired land and developed the Beer Line and East Bank trails that create a now continuous loop along both sides of the Milwaukee River. This new property anchors the south end of this loop on the west side of the river right at the point where it changes abruptly from urban wilderness to the canyon of condominiums downstream of Humboldt Blvd.

There is still work to be done. Today’s ceremony kicks off a capital campaign to raise the relatively small amount still needed to complete the demolition and development of a new park. (To contribute, click here. I have and will again.) Landscaping will tie it to the river corridor as surely as the pedestrian bridge already connects it to Caesar’s Pool Park across the river. It is worth the time, expense, and effort. The Milwaukee River corridor is already an unparalleled urban wilderness experience. (I’ve written about it before.) This is the final piece of a beautiful puzzle.

The wilderness that runs in my veins warmed to the words spoken by several of the distinguished guests. Secretary Franks established the theme by saying “we know we can have sustainable cities.” Yes!  He went on to articulate how important it is to protect open spaces and connect people to the land, “not only in rural spaces, but also in urban areas.” Yes!  He concluded by asserting that inner city children should be able to go outdoors, to hike in nature, and to see wildlife. Yes!

My hearty thanks from here at the urban wilderness blog to RRF, DNR, MMSD and everyone else who made this possible!

A thorough account of the purchase and links to media coverage can be found on the RRF website.
East Bank trail and the North Avenue Bridge

Spring at Caesar's Pool on the Milwaukee River

The payoff for a weekend of rain: luscious foliage and brilliant skies. And maybe, just maybe, spring is also celebrating this spot, newly acquired by the River Revitalization Foundation for parkland to anchor the Milwaukee River Greenway, a.k.a. Milwaukee's Central Park.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Two Meetings Tuesday to Discuss Fate of Milwaukee County Grounds

I'm passing this information on from Barb Agnew, leader of the Friends of the Monarch Trail. I hope to make both meetings and I hope you'll join me.
As she says, if you can't make the meetings, send a message. Links below.

The Pressure is on: we need to keep pushing to hold the ground we have gained and continue our vigilance. The County, City, and Real Estate Foundation are waiting for us to give up but determination will win out.

2 meetings this week will impact the County Grounds----both on Tuesday April 27th, 2010
  • Parks Dept 5 pm-7- conservancy vs. soccer field---Sue Black will attend this hearing and I hope there will be many people to explain the incompatibility of wildlife, all natural, functioning habitat and soccer fields. If you cannot attend, send emails to her or me, I will bring them along as representing those who did not know about, or could not attend this meeting. 
  • Tosa City Hall-Committee on Community Development 8 pm. They will discuss and vote to hold or recommend the UWM proposal to the full Council (may 4th) We need to be here to support the 6 Preservation points and be sure the Alderpersons understand that they represent their constituents and the Hearing last Tuesday was a clear indication of public sentiment for the County Grounds! The Real Estate Foundation will be here in force to persuade the Committee.
If you cannot attend email:  State that it is for distribution to all alderpersons and for the record.

We all wonder why the UWM folks did not participate at the Public Hearing but I do not want them to overpower this committee with rhetoric or unsubstantiated promises. Again, our presence at this meeting will go a long way toward a better outcome for the County Grounds.

And know that the “time-crunch” excuse is an empty threat being used to hurry the Wauwatosa Common Council. The County is not entertaining other development on the Grounds and will give any time extensions the UWM Foundation requires. This IS the most important project Tosa will be making decisions on—they need to take the time to fully understand this plan!!!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Dawn at Des Plaines River forest park, near Chicago

The wide, bare flood plain is deep umber in the pre-dawn mist, crusted with dried mud, split with a mosaic of cracks. The wood is silent. My footsteps crush pieces of the mosaic but do not disturb the stillness. I reach the river, flowing but equally silent.

Downstream a single goose utters a low tentative cough. The somber colors of the fresh spring foliage begin to brighten, imperceptibly at first. Then the edges of individual leaves begin to glow, as the low, rising sun pierces the uniformly cropped lower reaches of the forest canopy. Sunlight streaks through and the far side of the river blazes with the dawn.

I walk along the uncluttered riverbank, feeling the river flow next to me. I startle four deer. Their heads pop up simultaneously from foraging for new shoots in the mud. Although they stare, they do not run. I may be out early, but they’re well accustomed to people wandering their domain. I reach the bridge just as a train, briefly breaking the silence, rushes overhead toward downtown Chicago. I can almost feel the silence it leaves behind like a presence in the cool riparian air.

Across the water, the lone goose appears, framed in the arch of a concrete culvert, as if standing guard. Then I see its mate abruptly rise from its hiding place on the dirt bank. I recognize the pair’s one-two attempt to divert my attention from the concealed nest, which likely contains eggs at this time in April.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Milwaukee Celebrates Earth Day in Style

As the crowd looked out at Lake Michigan, Dale Olen, the featured speaker, described the mile-thick glacier that would have filled the view, had anyone been around to see it. The wind, symbolized for the event with the figure above, was off that ultramarine lake on this beautiful, sunny Earth Day. When Olen asked us to imagine the glacier, it was not too difficult: I was stamping to keep warm and still my feet felt encased in that great block of ice. A typical April day in Wisconsin!

Except for the arctic temps, the event was wonderful. The program promised and then delivered an ambitious variety of activities, speakers, and special features.

John Clifford, a Lakota leader from South Dakota, introduced one of the most eclectic interfaith blessings I've witnessed. He opened by explaining his belief that "things happen not by planning or design, but by synchronicity." The Lakota do not believe, he went on, that everything is relative but that "all things are relatives," with a dramatic emphasis on the plural.

"Ommmmmm..." began Urmila Bharadwaj, representing the Hindu Temple of Wisconsin. She gave a litany of peace: "May there be peace on the land..." peace on the water... and then "May all the divinities bring us peace."

Sharon Lerman, of Congregation Shir Hadash read from the Torah: "We live in a world that we do not own...," an ancient Jewish echo of the Indian assertion that we live in community with the earth and the many speakers who lamented the common contemporary view of the earth as a commodity and resource for the accumulation of wealth. Jan Rutkowski, a member of the Buddhist Soka Gakkai International followed with "If the mind is not pure, then the earth is not pure."

There were Christian and Islamic participants as well; a truly ecumenical gathering, as is appropriate. Care for the earth is clearly not a sectarian issue, nor should it divide people.

The imaginative program included singing and speakers who impersonating Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, and John Muir. Antler, the esteemed former poet laureate of Milwaukee, carried off the latter with appropriate gravity. One of the highlights was when another "earth poet," Suzanne Rosenblatt led the group with a kinetic and onomatopoetic rendition of water.

Congratulations are in order for Dianne Dagalen of the Sierra Club-Great Waters Group, the event sponsor. She pulled off this remarkably complex event with grace and aplomb.

My feet finally started to thaw during the Native American round dance that concluded the festivities.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Happy Earth Day from the Urban Wilderness!

Here's looking at you on Earth Day!

This image is from the urban wilderness of the Des Plaines River forest park near Chicago.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Milwaukee County Grounds: a proposal with no proponents

It was standing room only in the Common Council meeting room at Wauwatosa City Hall last night. On the agenda: a public hearing about whether or not to rezone two pieces of the Milwaukee County Grounds. Item one, if approved, would rezone 89-acres as a business district in order to permit UWM to move forward with its proposed Innovation Park and research campus. Item two would rezone 55 acres as a conservancy district for parkland.

Mayor Jill Didier explained that each item would be addressed as follows: Proponents speak first; then opponents, followed by general questions.
No one stood up to support the proposed rezoning of item one.

(A member of the Wauwatosa Preservation Society did stand up and speak in order to address the preservation of the Eschweiler Buildings, but she specifically qualified her remarks by saying she was not there to support the entire zoning proposal.)

Then a wide variety of citizens of all ages took turns at the microphone to oppose the rezoning and propose that the entire remaining land in the county grounds be zoned as conservancy. They spoke eloquently and passionately about the value of the land, the loss of green space in Wauwatosa, the importance of the Monarch and other wildlife habitats, and about their personal experiences on the county grounds. The mood in the room was overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining open green space and preserving wildlife.

When all the opponents were finished I rose to ask two rhetorical questions.

Why did no one come to support the proposal? It requires no leap of logic to conclude that the proponents were so confident of approval that they felt the Common Council needed no convincing.

If the land is rezoned, does that mean that the UWM proposal is also approved? That proposal, which was left alarmingly open ended, has generated continued controversy and debate. Nancy Welch, Director of Community Development, explained that the business district zoning would give Wauwatosa the most control over the development of the site. I urged the Common Council to assert its control by adopting specific and effective restrictions over what, where, and how much development occurs. The goal should be to keep within the spirit of the previously adopted Kubala-Washatko plan and the will of the community as expressed at this hearing.

Item two was more predictably one-sided. The entire audience stood in support of conservancy zoning for the parkland. Several spoke. Cheryl Nenn, Milwaukee Riverkeeper, urged that both parcels be zoned as conservancy. This elicited a rousing applause. Another speaker assured the Council that no one opposes UWM, only their choice of a location for their campus. A UWM faculty member reminded the Council that the Innovation Park proposal is highly controversial even within the UWM community.

No one spoke in opposition to this proposal.

“Call me a skeptic,” I said as I got up once more to ask a question. What kinds of development are allowed in a conservancy zone? There was a loud collective gasp as Ms. Welch explained that conservancy zoning allows for athletic facilities and educational or park-related structures. Mayor Didier quickly jumped in to assure the crowd that no stadiums were being proposed.
I requested that the obvious will of the people be enshrined in the greater protections provided by zoning the land as “no-build” in addition to conservancy. Further, the “no-build” restrictions should be added to those portions of the business district identified in the plan as wildlife habitat and green spaces, as well as the 17-acre DOT outlot set aside for freeway expansion.

Much was said about the value of this land and the Monarch habitat. It is not hyperbole to suggest that this is the most valuable land in Milwaukee County (someone added “in Wisconsin.”) It is also not hyperbole to underscore the irreplaceable importance of the Monarch habitat and the value it brings to our community. As I’ve said on the record many times: Let’s keep this treasure for future generations to enjoy.

For more on this hearing, go to WauwatosaNOW.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Milwaukee Celebrates 40th anniversary of earth day

Come celebrate Earth Day, which, despite turning 40 this year, shows no signs of being over the hill. Going strong; even becoming mainstream.

The Sierra Club has put together a terrific and varied program for the occasion. I say that because, although I am honored to be one of the featured speakers, there are many other fun and informative activities planned.

Click here to go to the Sierra Club pdf with details.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Milwaukee County Grounds Public Hearing

Urban Wilderness Alert:

Public Hearing concerning plans for the Milwaukee County Grounds.
Tuesday, April 20, (tomorrow!) at 7:30 pm.
Wauwatosa City Hall (76th & North Ave.)

It’s been over ten years since the Milwaukee County Board abandoned plans to sell the entire 235 acre Northeast Quadrant of the County Grounds in the face of overwhelming public opposition. Much has happened since then. People who have been following this important issue know that the County has sold 89 acres of it to UWM. Their proposal, called Innovation Park, includes a small research campus. It also includes commercial and residential developments. In March UWM presented plans drawn by HGA, their architectural firm, to the Wauwatosa Common Council and Plan Commission. While the plans look good, unfortunately, they are merely recommendations.
The City of Wauwatosa, because it is responsible for zoning the land, has the power to make the plans effective and permanent or ineffective. The public hearing gives those who care about preserving the natural character of the land a voice in the matter. Please plan to attend.
The plans include habitat protection, bio-filtration of stormwater, and other environmentally sensitive features, as well as a hypothetical footprint for roads and buildings. These are my suggestions for the Common Council:

• Habitat areas and green buffer zones must be clearly delineated and permanently protected.
• Funding and policies for maintenance of these areas must be established.
• The density of building footprints and building height restrictions must be codified, not recommended.
• Limitations on the types of development done by secondary developers must be clearly defined.

Moving this process along quickly is not in the best interest of the public.

UWM is a good fit for the County Grounds because they can be expected to be good stewards of what is prime land for parks, recreation and wildlife habitat. Secondary developers cannot be held to the same levels of accountability; yet this door has been left open for potential degradation of UWM's good plan. It is up to Wauwatosa to establish this accountability and it is up to us to tell the Common Council that.

If you cannot attend, please submit comments FOR THE RECORD to Let them know you visit Wauwatosa and care about the future of the County Grounds and that you are unable to attend.

For a more in depth report on this issue, this link will take you to an article entitled "Divided Opinion Concerning Innovation Park" posted at the UWM Post blog.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Cleaning the Menomonee River in Solitude

Down in the “canyon” of the Menomonee all is still, quiet, and suddenly warm. The warmth is a combination of bright, almost liquid sunshine and the peaceful feeling that the stillness brings. I shouldn’t be surprised, with all my previous experiences in this very place. Nevertheless, I am surprised -- and charmed all over again.

The low, distant murmur of traffic doesn’t disturb the mood. The occasional jet overhead is but a brief interruption. Only one tiny detail mars my reverie. A plastic grocery bag, caught high in tree branches above the rim of the bluff, where a steady wind whips it fiercely, snaps like a flag. Unfortunately a fitting symbol, it reminds me of my purpose.

This time I haven’t come to the river for my normal dose of urban wilderness. Earth Day is upon us and I am here to clean the river. The annual River Clean Up, sponsored by Milwaukee Riverkeeper, Menomonee Valley Partners and others, has brought hundreds (perhaps more) to many parts of the watershed to help.

I’ve attended each of the last ten such clean ups, but this is the first time I’ve found myself alone with the river –and the trash! Sadly, there is plenty for me to collect, as per usual after the spring thaw has revealed the detritus left from wintry months and runoff.

But could there be a more fitting moment for me to inaugurate a new Urban Wilderness blog? Here I am, at peace once again with the river and helping to clean it at the same time.