Sunday, February 10, 2013

Put ‘Innovation’ back into UWM Innovation Park

The piece that follows is a guest post by Cheryl Nenn, Milwaukee Riverkeeper. It was published this morning as an Op Ed piece on the cover of the Crossroads section of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The two photos they used to illustrate her story may be familiar, as I first posted them (and others) in this blog. 

UWM Project is sacrificing County Grounds Land

 Since the mid-90s, local citizens and environmental advocates have been fighting to protect the Milwaukee County Grounds from development. Why? Because the County Grounds contain the largest remaining open space in Milwaukee County and are home to the confluence of the Menomonee River and Underwood Creek.   Eighteen years later, we are still fighting to protect the County Grounds, which continues to experience a death of a thousand cuts.   

In an attempt to be proactive, local advocates worked with Milwaukee County and Wauwatosa to create a Master Plan for 66 acres of the northeast quadrant of the site, which allowed for 850,000 square feet of development but also recommended that views and green spaces be preserved, that new buildings and roadways be shaped to respond to topography and facilitate natural drainage, and that the historic Eschweiler Buildings be preserved.

In 2010, UWM Real Estate Foundation entered into an agreement with the County to purchase 89 acres of the northeast quadrant to create an engineering campus for UWM or an “Innovation Park.”  Since DOT took 17 acres on the west end of the site for the Zoo Interchange, the development area was shifted east, into the open space that was set aside for the public. Innovation Park was proposed to house some private technology companies and potentially reuse the historic Eschweiler Buildings for graduate apartments or university offices. In order to pay for the costly restoration of the historic buildings, the Real Estate Foundation convinced Wauwatosa to increase the recommended square feet of development by 40% (to 1,192,000 square feet of buildable space). This increase in building footprint virtually assured that development would come into conflict with preservation of the natural features of the land. In fall 2010, Wauwatosa approved using $12 million in taxpayer dollars (through a TIF) to fund infrastructure for Innovation Park, including roads, sewers, stormwater management features, etc. The TIF was meant to make the site suitable for development and to "support the goals of natural and historic preservation."  The City is now considering increasing the TIF by an additional $21 million, and diverting TIF funds for parking and other developer subsidies.

Several weeks ago, contractors used TIF funds to remove almost all the high quality vegetation on the site, including a large stand of oaks and pines in a ravine that provides vital site drainage, and a stand of 100-200 year old oak trees east of the Parks Department –  all to make room for the new “Discovery Parkway.” UWM and the City have justified this by saying that the DOT ordered the road further east;  however, the “parkway” could have been better designed to wind around existing trees and honor “existing natural resource features and topography” as stated in Master Plans for the site.

Innovation Park is well on its way to becoming neither innovative nor a park. It is possible to create jobs and tax revenue and still protect the environment. UWM has talented faculty and students, but where are they? Wauwatosa and UWM could use Innovation Park to truly model innovative, sustainable development techniques, attract engineering jobs, enhance a nationally designated historic building district, and protect natural areas and parkland.  They could show leadership in creating a development project that reflects the forward thinking of a world class university. Instead, they are paving paradise to put in a parking lot. There is no innovation here, just another conventional business park that is over budget. It remains to be seen whether Innovation Park will live up to the expectations of its name. We challenge UWM to make use of their talent, before it is too late. 


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