When Milwaukee-based developer David Winograd announced plans last fall to build a 12-story, 164-unit apartment tower at the corner of South Pittsburgh Avenue and South Water Street, many looked at the development as another sign of success for Milwaukee’s booming Walker’s Point neighborhood.
But others see that project as the first step in turning the South Water Street side of the Milwaukee River into a mirror image of Third Ward side of the river, complete with high-end condos and apartment buildings.
Of course, that type of development is hard to imagine today. Driving along South Water Street, there is a mix of abandoned sites, vacant lots and aged industrial buildings, leading the way into a 970-acre area known as the Harbor District.
The district, which includes roughly nine miles of waterfront access including Jones Island, is bordered by First Street, Bay Street and Pittsburgh Avenue.
After being cut off from the city and neglected for decades, the Harbor District is getting a closer look – in part, because it is surrounded by three of the most in-demand neighborhoods in the city: Walker’s Point, The Historic Third Ward and Bay View.
“There is a lot of development pressure on the north end of the Inner Harbor; That, combined with other factors, are the impetus to make us put a plan together quickly,” said Dan Adams, planning director for Harbor District Inc., a nonprofit organization formed last year by the City of Milwaukee.
Using data from a community survey conducted in June 2015, Harbor District Inc. has hired Los Angeles-based consultant group AECOM to develop a water and land use plan. The goal is for the Milwaukee Common Council to adopt the plan by the end of the year, so when developers want to build in the district, they have a regulatory document to follow that includes zoning recommendations, building guidelines and standards related to the waterfront and public access.
Lilith Fowler, executive director of Harbor District Inc., said there is a consensus that people want a mixed-use district that is more accessible, more environmentally functional and makes better use of the waterfront. Getting there, however, will take some work, she said.
“It’s going to require significant public investment and that’s where the water and land use planning is needed,” Fowler said. “If the big vision for Milwaukee is we are going to be the fabulous freshwater capital, then how does that relate to what we are doing on our riverfront? What pubic investments do we want to ask our city, or state or our federal government to make?”
The Milwaukee Inner Harbor redevelopment project was one of two catalytic projects Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett identified in 2013 as part of his ReFresh Milwaukee 10-year sustainability plan.
Revitalization is already taking place in the district. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee completed the $53 million School of Freshwater Sciences in the fall of 2014. Wauwatosa-based developer Wangard Partners is also working on the Freshwater Plaza, a $48 million mixed-use project on eight acres at the corner of South First Street and East Greenfield Avenue.
Harbor District Inc. held a “design charrette” in October, inviting four teams from across the country to participate in a design challenge for the Harbor District. Some of the major themes proposed by the teams included:
- Modifying the current water’s edge to enhance public access and ecological function.
- Building a harbor walk with several waterfront parks and public green spaces.
- Reintroducing the street grid into the Harbor District to connect surrounding neighborhoods to the waterfront.
- Separating heavy industry that exists in the district from other land uses.
The proposals will be costly, but are all examples of the variety of uses that could take place in the district, Adams said.
Since the 1900s, the Harbor District has been home to foundries, tanneries and rail yards. But it also contains the Milwaukee Estuary, which is an island waterway that is the mouth of the Kinnickinnic, Milwaukee and Menomonee rivers and a direct link to Lake Michigan. The estuary is recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as an Area of Concern, which Fowler said could be beneficial in obtaining federal grants for clean-up.
Besides the clean-up, there are other obstacles. There is a rail line operated by Union Pacific that still serves some of the businesses that are located in the district. Until the rail line ceases operations, redevelopment cannot take place where the lines cross, Fowler said.
Many of the large parcels in the district are city-owned, but others are still privately held. One example is the 47-acre former Milwaukee Solvay Coke & Gas Co. site at 311 E. Greenfield Ave., with buildings the city has been trying to demolish for more than a year, but the property owner has refused to cooperate. The matter is currently in litigation.
Fowler, who was the first executive director of Menomonee Valley Partners from 1999 to 2004, said the challenges of the Harbor District are not any different than what the Valley faced 20 years ago.
“In 1997, the first plan for the Menomonee Valley was being written; that’s where we are today,” Fowler said. “I think it helps that people saw the progress of the Valley and what it has become.”
Fowler said there has been interest from the development community in the Harbor District project, but with so many directions to go, there has been a bit of a “wait and see” approach.
“No one wants to be the first guy to go plunk something down and wait 20 years for the rest of the district to unfold,” Fowler said.
For Winograd, building the apartment tower at South Pittsburgh Avenue and South Water Street makes sense. The development is across the street from his South Water Works development, a mix of repurposed former industrial buildings and new construction that includes the headquarters for PKWare Inc. at 201 E. Pittsburgh Ave. and Next Act Theatre at 255 S. Water St.
Over time, Winograd said he can envision a buildup of the entire South Water Street side of the Milwaukee River.
“It’s going to be a process, but it is definitely starting,” Winograd said. “There are only so many (undeveloped) areas of the river left that have a direct opening to Lake Michigan and there is a lot of interest from people to be in those areas.”
Erick Shambarger, director of environmental sustainability for the City of Milwaukee, said the city would love to see the Harbor District become more accessible to the general public.
“A lot of people wouldn’t even think of going back there,” Shambarger said. “There is still a lot of work to be done, but think about the Menomonee Valley and what that was – a brownfield site reimagined for industry.”
Fowler believes the only difference between the two neighborhoods is the water and the clean-up efforts it will take to make the waterfront viable for public use.
“(The Harbor District is) not more blighted and not in any worse shape (than the Valley was)— in some ways, it’s better,” Fowler said. “There is an appreciation that this is a funky, gritty, historic port district. I think it’s an unusual distinction that people value. This place can be spectacular.”
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