2016's CREAM CITY FARMS @ WALNUT HILL
A multi-year public/private partnership converted a City-owned contaminated vacant lot into Milwaukee's newest, most sustainable commercial urban farm
In 2006, Mayor Barrett announced an ambitious effort to transform the 30th Street Industrial Corridor into a major modern employment center and economic hub. One of the early steps in this revitalization initiative was to inventory “brownfields” or sites with real or perceived contamination hindering redevelopment. With the financial support of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Milwaukee (RACM) was able to conduct environmental investigation at approximately 50 properties.
2055-63 North 30th Street was one of these brownfield sites. Past uses of the site included a lumber company, manufacturing and machining companies, a foundry, a trucking company, and a warehouse. In 2006 – 2008, RACM sampled and analyzed soil and groundwater from the site and removed five leaking underground storage tanks, but residual contamination remained, hindering any redevelopment prospects. The City of Milwaukee foreclosed on the property in 2007 and transferred it to RACM in 2009.
In 2009, the federal EPA funded an urban agriculture feasibility study at the site which engaged local urban agriculture stakeholders in a workshop to brainstorm possible site configuration and specific end uses. While the workshop and study generated ideas and introduced the site’s potential to the local community, remediation cost estimates remained prohibitively high and interest waned as the economic downturn hit.
"It takes a village" - the value of public/private partnerships
In 2014, an urban planning grad student/urban farmer named David Johnson approached the UW-County Extension and ECO'S HOME GR/OWN (project funder) looking for vacant City land for a new commercial urban farm – “Cream City Farms”. David had previously helped develop the wonderful Cream City educational gardens at the Guest House. This was the spark of community interest it took to begin to pull the project together.
UW-Extension and Cream City Farms agreed to lease the property after remediation to operate a farm at the property. RACM’s environmental consultant – GZA – designed a project that remediated the site by removing one source area, and then capping and bringing in clean soil to raise the site 24-inches. Building up the site (rather than excavating large quantities of soil off-site) saved money and also creates a topography that supports stormwater collection.
GZA and Reflo – a nonprofit promoting sustainable water solutions – designed a rainwater collection and stormwater management system that adds value to the project in many ways: an underground rainwater harvesting system captures 40,000 gallons of stormwater via bioswales along the eastern boundary of the site. This water is available for the farmer to use for irrigation, and also keeps stormwater out of the combined sewer system providing both water quality and water quantity benefits. Additionally, locating the rainwater harvesting system in the source excavation area saves the cost of backfilling that volume with soil. Milwaukee Shines, an ECO project partner, installed a solar panel system to the site which allows for a permanent water pumping system as well as a source of energy to power a control system that can be remotely operated by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) and Veolia, project funders, to assist with peak flow management, remotely operating the site as a mini "Deep Tunnel" to relieve the storm sewer system during heavy rain events. Once completed as a commercial farm, the site would require a fence for security. The arts group Arts@Large and artist Muneer Bahauddeen joined the team to develop art with children for installation on the wooden fence.
BEFORE - Cream City site
Because of the contamination issue, Tory Kress of the City's Redevelopment Authority began looking at possible clean-up ("remediation") strategies and secured some funding from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The City's environmental engineers from GZA, Inc., Jay Karls and Justin Hegarty, began investigating clean-up of the site at the same time that the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District ("MMSD") was looking for stormwater management locations in the 30th Street Corridor. Justin, who also heads the stormwater management non-profit Reflo, realized that this site could capture a tremendous amount of rainwater/snow melt, helping prevent flooding and basement sewer back-ups in the area. MMSD was intrigued by the possibilities and MMSD and its contractor, Veolia, came aboard as project partners along with GZA and ReFlo - joining farmer David Johnson, HOME GR/OWN, the Redevelopment Authority, Department of City Development, the EPA and the UW-County Extension. The site seemed an ideal candidate for a solar power system to power the proposed pums and controls - Elizabeth Hittman of ECO's Milwaukee Shines rounded out the project team to evaluate the solar possibility. Groundwork Milwaukee was involved in site planning from the start, coordinating the lease of the land from the City and handles site insurance issues. The project team was complete. Months of planning, design and budgeting began as the team pushed through the gritty details of such a complex transformation of a polluted 1.3 acre site. A site plan was developed.
Thoughts on the project from project partners
“Cream City Farms has been one of the most rewarding projects I’ve worked on at the Redevelopment Authority. The dedication, innovation, and passion that all of the partners bring to the table is what has made this site’s remarkable rebirth possible.” - Tory Kress, RACM
"I am very proud of what the City of Milwaukee has accomplished through the Home Gr/own program. And I am very grateful for the opportunity and support the program has provided me in my efforts to grow Cream City Farms into a valuable asset for the neighborhoods where my sites are located as well as for the metropolitan area as whole. I am very excited about what we will accomplish together." - David Johnson, Cream City farmer
" The remarkable talent and dedication of the individuals and organizations participating in the Cream City Farms project has truly been one of the most inspiring projects that I've been fortunate enough to be involved with. The farm's many successes are not only defined by the resulting project which is arguably one of the "greenest" in the City, but by the partnerships that were formed to bring the project to fruition. I'm very excited to see the farm and partnerships continue to blossom over the coming years." - Justin Hegarty, Reflo
TOP: Cream City Farm's location within Milwaukee's 30th Street Corridor
BOTTOM: Schematic of the layout of Cream City Farms
The project had 6 main components:
- Addition of hundreds of yards of crushed rock on top of the existing soil and a fabric membrane to "cap" the contamination and provide a clean, fresh start for the soil.
- The digging of the giant hole for the 40,000 gallon cistern and creation of the bioswales.
- The assembly of the AquaBlox (plastic boxes that resemble large milk crates) and the installation of the AquaBlox in the cistern hole.
- The addition of hundreds of yards of fresh, virgin soil to serve as the planting material for the farm.
- The construction of a wooden fence around 2 sides of the site for protection.
- The addition of a concrete vault for machinery and the pole-mounted solar system and monitoring equipment.
This work took place over 2015 and 2016 - the site was planted out in the summer of 2016. David Johnson sold his 129 varieties of vegetables through a CSA.