Harbor District could be a jewel in the rough

Milwaukee’s Harbor District, one of the city’s most opportunistic areas for ongoing development, will evolve quicker if state authorities and others continue to streamline remediation policies and procedures.

Starting just south of the Summerfest grounds and stretching further south to Bay View and west to South Second Street, the Harbor District is a diamond in the rough in terms of attracting new building and business ventures.

With access to multiple waterways—the Milwaukee, Kinnickinnic and Menomonee rivers—coupled with its easy access to downtown and surrounding neighborhoods, the Harbor District is an attractive area for a diverse array of development.

The area already has a significant catalyst in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences. Additional development, though, will depend in large part on successful remediation of land and underwater sediment impacted by decades of heavy industrial activity.

Generally speaking, waterfront redevelopment projects tend to be complex and lengthy. The need for assistance from many different programs at the state level that in some cases have overlapping and competing requirements can present substantial hurdles to redevelopment efforts.

With these challenges in mind, an independent advisory team known as the Brownfields Study Group recently issued its 2015 report,“Investing in Wisconsin,” that includes a series of proposals on how the state Department of Natural Resources’ already strong brownfield development efforts can become even stronger.

Included in the report are a series of proposals for waterfront brownfield revitalization that, if implemented, could help expedite investment and development of older districts and main streets located along our waterways, like Milwaukee’s Harbor District, Racine’s Machinery Row or stretches of the Fox River in Waukesha.

Among conclusions drawn in the report is that redevelopment in areas like Milwaukee’s Harbor District will be more impactful and more efficient if regulatory requirements are clearly known, predictable and addressed on a systemic, not a project-by-project, basis.

One example of existing challenges is overlap programs within the DNR that deal with sediments and contaminated wetlands. Such overlap has resulted in structural hurdles that create inefficiencies and confusion about policy.

Make no mistake—our state’s DNR has been a well-recognized leader nationally in paving the way for brownfield redevelopment by embracing innovative ways to initiate remediation projects that can set the stage for future investment and development.

A good example lies just to our north, where the city of Sheboygan initiated a remediation project on the Sheboygan River and harbor area that had experienced contamination resulting from a nearby manufacturing plant. The project attracted more than $50 million in federal funds and several million in state and local funds as part of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

The project was initiated to revitalize Sheboygan’s harbor area and demonstrates how the state can leverage federal dollars through programs like the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Such innovative approaches will be the focus of discussion at the upcoming Wisconsin Great Lakes AOC Remediation Forum on April 23 at UWM’s School of Freshwater Sciences. The event will feature experts from the Great Lakes National Program Office, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Milwaukee Harbor District Initiative and other notable “area of concern” restoration leaders.

It will take continuous improvement of Wisconsin’s brownfield revitalization policies and practices to realize the economic development potential of waterways like Milwaukee’s Harbor District. The “Investing in Wisconsin,” report provides a good roadmap for the agencies and the legislature.

Bruce Keyes and Mark Thimke are attorneys specializing in environmental law with Foley & Lardner LLP in Milwaukee, and both are members of the Brownfields Study Group.

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