During the second half of the 20th Century it became obvious that Milwaukee had turned its back on its most valuable economic resource, the three rivers that run through the heart of the City. Once the center of commerce and recreation, the Milwaukee River had became one of the City’s most neglected amenities.
In March 1988, former Mayor John Norquist committed to change the way Milwaukee viewed its waterways. The City announced the Riverwalk Initiative with the intent to use the river as a means to connect downtown development with business and leisure activities. The City believed the project would have a far-reaching impact, improving public access to the river and increasing property values. The primary goal was to put a renewed focus on the river as a destination for residents, employees, and visitors alike.
Legal Basis of the Initiative
Wisconsin’s Public Trust Doctrine places all lakes and streams in trust for the benefit of all citizens to use for commercial navigation, pleasure boating, sailing, fishing, swimming, skating, rowing, sculling, walking, and the enjoyment of scenic beauty. To ensure compliance with the Public Trust Doctrine, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) requested the City prepare a Master Plan to include the established guidelines for construction and use of riverwalks, as well as the location of proposed Riverwalk segments for future construction. The City worked in cooperation with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to create a Riverfront Comprehensive Plan that would comply with the State Constitution and the Public Trust Doctrine.
Once this Master Plan was written and formally approved by the DNR and the City of Milwaukee, the process of issuing permits for the construction of the Riverwalk was greatly simplified. DNR permits for Riverwalk construction are now issued for developments consistent with the adopted Master Plan.
In 1993, the Riverwalk Initiative was formally expanded to reinforce the City’s commitment for the design and construction of the Riverwalk. Consisting of 22 proposed segments, the end goal was a Riverwalk system that would unify downtown attractions and become, over time, a significant attraction in itself. A resolution creating the Riverwalk Site PlanReview Overlay District (SPROD), followed by the creation of a Riverwalk Development Fund was adopted in the fall of 1993.
The purpose of the SPROD is to provide an opportunity to create new Riverwalk projects which are compatible with their neighbors while encouraging creativity, variety and excellence in design and layout. The design specifications associated with the SPROD apply to but are not limited to landscaping, lighting, accessibility, adjacent building facades and the ability to connect to future Riverwalk segments. The overlay district applies to the lower and middle portions of the Milwaukee River, extending 3.1 miles, along both sides of the River from the Harbor northward to the former North Avenue Dam.
RiverWalk Development: Segment by Segment
Even before the City’s Riverwalk Initiative was formalized, limited project specific activity was underway along the River frontage concentrated in the downtown. Financed through a partnership between the property owner, the Greater Milwaukee Committee and the City of Milwaukee, the very first segment of Riverwalk was constructed adjacent to the Gimbels Department Store (currently Borders Bookstore) in 1985. At the time of construction, a Riverwalk Civics Committee was moving plans forward for a small park and boat landing at the foot of East Mason Street, a Riverwalk along the east side of the Milwaukee Center (Theater District), the Performing Arts Center and along Pere Marquette Park
By the time the Riverwalk Initiative was formalized in 1993, various Riverwalk segments had already been constructed to link the Riverside Theater, the Pabst Theater, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, the Grand Avenue Shopping Center, the Performing Arts Center, and the Water Street/Old World Third Street nightlife area.
Specific segments completed by this time include:
- Milwaukee Center
- 100 East Wisconsin Avenue
- Riverfront Plaza
- The Performing Arts Center
- Pere Marquette Park
- Ivory Tusk Building
- Michigan Avenue to Clybourn Avenue (Home to Milwaukee Boat Line)
- 735 North Water Street
As riverwalk development continued in the downtown, property owners in collaboration with the City formed a Business Improvement District (BID) for the purpose of constructing and maintaining downtown riverwalks. Approved by Council in March 1994, the district encompasses the portion of the Milwaukee River corridor which runs through Milwaukee’s downtown. The objective of BID No. 15 is to complete improvements along the river that will increase public access to the Milwaukee River and promote, attract, stimulate and revitalize commerce and industry within the City. The constructed improvements within the district are adjacent to many of Milwaukee’s major entertainment and recreational sites as well as numerous retail and dining establishments.
The BID No. 15 and the City share the costs of Riverwalk construction and other Riverwalk capital expenditures in accordance with the terms of a Development Agreement. Property owners with a riverwalk constructed on their river frontage are solely responsible for maintaining such riverwalks to a standard acceptable to the City and the Board. If a property owner fails to maintain its riverwalk, either the city or BID No. 15 may perform any necessary work on such riverwalk and the cost therefore shall be specially assessed directly against such property owner.
North Avenue Dam Removal
In 1994, DNR staff led a technical advisory group consisting of the City, Milwaukee County, Village of Shorewood, Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission and the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. The team studied alternatives for river revitalization and recommended the partial removal of the North Avenue Dam(built in 1891) to lower and narrow the river flow back to natural conditions.
Upon partial removal, the river resumed a more natural course and water quality quickly began to improve. By the end of 1994, the first downtown riverwalk segment, completed in accordance with the formally adopted Riverwalk Initiative, was constructed. Enthusiasm for further River revitalization ensued.
With renewed interest in the Milwaukee River, additional studies were conducted with regards to improving this valuable resource. Study findings suggested the North Avenue Dam be removed completely to enhance revitalization efforts. City officials agreed, permits were secured, and in 1997 the remainder of the Dam was removed. A pedestrian bridge now spans the length of the River at that location and serves to connect the revitalized Brady Street neighborhood to the newly developed Beerline “B” neighborhood, located along Commerce Street.
Historic Third Ward
To capitalize on new interest in the River as a destination for living, shopping, and vacation, the Historic Third Ward Association, Business Improvement District No. 2, and the City of Milwaukee took steps to create a riverwalk that connect to yet distinguish itself from the Downtown’s nearly complete riverwalk. Planning for the $11 million project began in 1999, resulting in the Common Council’s adoption of design guidelines specific to the riverwalk within the Historic Third Ward neighborhood boundaries, extending from the north side of East Clybourn Street to the Lakefront and a portion of the west side of the Milwaukee River extending from the north side of West Clybourn Street southerly to the centerline of the Menomonee River. The City established a Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) District to pay for the upfront costs of construction with BID No. 2 reimbursing the City 22% of the riverwalk costs from yearly assessments over a 20 year period.
Riverwalk construction began in 2002. In 2004, the nearly one mile long boardwalk within the Historic Third Ward first opened to the public and by summer of 2005, a connection to the Downtown Riverwalk was completed. Segments continue to be completed (Marine Terminal in 2008, River Renaissance in 2007, 80 foot gap in 2012). Built from Ipe wood, a tropical hardwood, the Historic Third Ward Riverwalk has won several design awards since it opened, including a 2007 American Institute of Architects (AIA) Honor Award for Regional and Urban Design.
The Beerline “B” neighborhood refers to a former industrial rail line along what is now Commerce Street, between East Pleasant Street and North Humboldt Avenue. In the late 1990’s the City began a focused effort to bring this area back to use. The first step was the creation of a Redevelopment Plan that created a vision for the new neighborhood which included mixed use, predominately residential development. To ensure the continuation and extension of the City’s Riverwalk System, the Redevelopment Plan required a public/private riverwalk along the Beerline. Next, the City created a Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) district to fund the environmental cleanup of the area and to put in the public improvements needed for private development to occur. Rail lines were removed, contaminated soil was excavated and new streets, utilities, bridges, staircases, and public parks were built. Riverwalk funding was set aside as a match for future developments.
Following the infrastructure improvements, private development began with the conversion of the former Gimbels warehouse into the Brewer’s Point Apartments. Since 2001 more than ten new condominium and mixed-use projects have been constructed, representing $87 million in value. More than 1000 linear feet of Riverwalk has been completed and given the completion of the Beerline B Apartments Riverwalk, one is able to walk the edge of the river from Pleasant Street to the North Avenue Dam with only a minor interruption near Humboldt Avenue.