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Riverwalk History

Milwaukee River before RiverWalk construction   Third Ward Riverview before RiverWalk construction

During the second half of the 20th century, it bcame obvious that Milwaukee had turned its back on one of its most valuable economic resources, the three rivers that run through the heart of the City.  Once the center of commerce and recreation, the Milwaukee River had become one of the city's most neglected amenities. 

In March of 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, 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 DNR 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 Plan Review Overlay (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 site of the former North Avenue Dam.

North Avenue Dam Removal

In 1994, Department of Natural Resources (DNR) staff led a technical advisory group consisting of the City of Milwaukee, 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 (originally 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 ater 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 Brady Street neighborhood to the Beerline "B" neighborhood.

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 (now the Ivory Tusk Building) 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, the Performing Arts Center and along Pere Marquette Park. 

As the concept of a riverwalk system continued to materialize, property owners, in collaboration with the City, formed a Business Improvement District (BID) for the purpose of constructing and maintaining downtown riverwalks.  Approved by the Common Council in March, 1994, the district encompassess the portion of the Miwlaukee 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 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 Riverwalk BID 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 along their river frontage are solely responsible for maintaining such riverwalks to a standard acceptable to the City and the BID Board.  If a property owner fails to maintain its riverwalk, either the city or the BID may perform the necessary work and the cost shall be specially assessed directly against such property owner.

Historic Third Ward

To capitalize on new interest in the river as a destination for living, shopping, and recreation, the Historic Third Ward Association, Business Improvement District No. 2 and the City of Milwaukee took steps to create a riverwalk that connects to yet distinguished 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.  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.  As of January 2014, only one segment remains to be completed in the Third Ward.

Beerline "B"

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.  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 over $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 now able to walk along the riverfront from Pleasant Street to the site of the former North Avenue Dam, with only a minor interruption near Humboldt Avenue.

City of Milwaukee Department of City Development

Contact DCD

Alyssa Remington
Project Manager
(414) 286-5802
Department of City Development
809 North Broadway
Milwaukee, WI  53202


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