Urban Ecology Center plans $12 million expansion at Washington Park site

Plans to demolish most of county-owned boathouse, construct 30,000-square-foot center

The Urban Ecology Center would nearly double the size of its Washington Park branch under a $12 million plan to expand at its current site.

The environmental education nonprofit organization plans to launch a fundraising campaign to replace is current home, a 40-year-old boathouse at 1859 N. 40th St., with a 30,000-square-foot community building that would allow the organization to host more students and visitors.

The current Urban Ecology Center building 1859 N. 40th St.

The UEC has been located at the Milwaukee County-owned building in Washington Park since 2007. After initially leasing one classroom, the UEC renegotiated its agreement about six years ago to lease the entire building from the county, according to Judy Krause, director of finance and operations for the organization.

The design plans for the new building include demolishing about two-thirds of the current building, rebuilding and adding a second story, Krause said. The majority of the expansion in square footage would come from the vertical addition, as the footprint of the building would only increase slightly, she said.

In addition to a new building, the UEC and the county plan to raise funds for an additional $2 million in public improvements at the park, including a new parking lot, sidewalks, public restrooms and repairs to the pedestrian bridge over the lagoon.

While owned by the UEC, the new building would remain open and accessible to the public, the organization said.

Since moving to the neighborhood over 10 years ago, the UEC has developed educational, recreational, land stewardship and community programs in the park.

Rendering for the new Urban Ecology Center building in Washington Park.

The UEC currently provides environmental education to 14 schools within a two-mile radius of the park and a facility expansion would allow it to expand its capacity to 33 schools. The organization also estimates it would be able to grow the number of visits to the facility from 30,000 to 65,000 people.

The UEC is also looking to grow its habitat restoration efforts in the park, increasing that work from 8 acres to 20 acres. That work would include the conversion of mowed turf grass to natural areas and shift the maintenance responsibility from county parks staff to UEC staff.

Deferred maintenance costs for the county-owned building are estimated at $1.85 million, largely because of its outdated HVAC system, electrical system and room. The building’s appraised value is $595,000, according to documents prepared for the county board.

The UEC has a one-year option to purchase the property from the county for $1, according to county documents. The advantage to the county would be avoiding $1.8 million in deferred maintenance costs and $450,000 in operating expenses over 25 years, the documents said.

The county board is expected to consider approval of the plan in July. If approved, the UEC would begin fundraising in 2019. The building could be completed as soon as 2022, Krause said.

“We’re excited about the possibilities and hope that the county board will vote yes — that will be a major milestone for the project,” Krause said.

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