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Master Plan Memo for Kilbourn Reservoir Park


The following design guidelines were used to develop the master plan for the decommissioning of the Kilbourn Reservoir and reconstruction of the reservoir area as Kilbourn Reservoir Park. The guidelines are based on information and comments from discussions during the past six years between the Milwaukee Water Works, elected officials, and residents and business representatives from the neighborhoods surrounding the reservoir.

The Kilbourn Reservoir had been an integral part of Milwaukee's water distribution system for over 125 years. The reservoir was built in 1873 on land donated to the city by founding father Byron Kilbourn. Its purpose was to store and distribute water for drinking and fire protection. The reservoir was decommissioned in 2004 as it was no longer needed for Milwaukee Water Works operations.

Major Guidelines

Preserve the "hill"

The hill surrounding the reservoir is an important landmark and is protected by its historical designation. Neighbors appreciate the views from the top of the hill and say its looming presence is just as important. They would like the southern portion of the hill to remain intact and favor the re-grading of the northerly slopes.  

Connect the two park parcels

Neighbors express a strong desire to connect the open spaces that lie north and south of East North Avenue. They favor improved pedestrian connections, saying a physical connection of the two parcels would be ideal.

Minor Guidelines

Increase the recreational uses of the open space

The park should be a space that is attractive to people and provides recreational opportunities.


The park should include quality trees and shrubs including the pines on the south side and the heirloom trees that were inventoried during the most recent planning process. Shrubs and so-called volunteer trees should be pruned or removed. Any vegetation that would be planted should receive, at the least, low maintenance.

Desired park facilities

  • Sledding hill
  • Ice skating area
  • Multi-use building/community center
  • Small ball field for pick-up play and kick ball
  • Walking and ADA accessible trails and formal park entrances
  • Skateboard park
  • Tot lot
  • Picnic shelters and areas
  • Restore the small shelter building on the north end to a usable building (it could serve as interpretive space)

Facilities desired by some but not all

  • Fenced-in dog area for off-leash walking
  • Band shell
  • Small soccer field
  • Off-street parking

Site Description

Kilbourn Reservoir Park is located on the near north side of Milwaukee, about one-and-a-half miles from the downtown business district. The park is roughly rectangular in shape and is bisected from east to west by East North Avenue. It is bounded to the east by North Bremen Street and to the north by East Meinecke Avenue. To the west the boundary is formed by the alley between North Booth and North Pierce Streets and the east property lines of the properties fronting on North Booth Street. To the south, the park is bounded by the extension of East Glover Street. The park is 29.28 acres including the roadways, or 26.96 acres excluding those parts of East North Avenue and East Garfield Avenue which extend across the grounds.

The portions of the park north and south of East North Avenue have distinctive features. North of the avenue, the park consists of a large, mostly man-made hill of a seven-sided irregular shape, under which the reservoir is located. The dimensions of the reservoir are 515 feet (north to south) by 310 feet (east to west). When filled with water to a depth of 21 feet, the water surface was 150 feet above the city's average altitude. The reservoir was covered with a concrete cap in 1979. While the slope facing East North Avenue is rather steep, the hill tapers more gently to a flat area as it approaches East Meinecke Avenue. The grounds are filled with planted and volunteer trees and shrubs. There is a pathway along the toe of the slope as well as around the top of the reservoir.

The south portion of the park features rolling terrain, open play fields and trees, and ends at the bluff overlooking the Milwaukee River and recent development on each shore. The reconstruction project does not extend south of East North Avenue with the exception of the removal of East Garfield Avenue.


General Discussion

The final shape of the hill, once the reservoir is removed, was a topic of much discussion and study during the master planning process. General consensus was that the south end of the hill would stay about the same shape and without the reservoir underneath, the top of the hill would be about five feet lower than with the reservoir. This will allow for a large, flat plateau at the top and will meet the guideline of preserving the hill as a landmark and provide an unmatched view for the neighborhood.

The center, east, and west sides of the hill will be reduced in height, with the sides shaped to an ADA-accessible slope and the center shaped like a large bowl. The bowl shape will provide sledding opportunities and a natural amphitheater setting. The east, west, and north sides of the old reservoir will have a paved path that outlines the old shape of the reservoir and allows access to the upper reservoir overlook.

The north end of the site will be significantly re-graded to create a much larger flat park-like area than what currently exists.

Access across East North Avenue was another topic of discussion. Some favored a separated grade access from the north to the south parcels of the park but this is not feasible due to space and fiscal constraints. However, the master plan does provide improved at-grade pedestrian crossing opportunities across East North Avenue in combination with the improved sight lines of the reconstructed street. Reconstruction will be completed as a Milwaukee Department of Public Works project in spring 2006.

Buildings, Memorials, and Vegetation

The Upper Pump House

The small white building on the west edge of the top of the reservoir will be removed and restored offsite by other parties, independent of the reservoir decommissioning and park restoration project. Space will be saved and the ground readied for the ultimate return of the building to the site.

The Lower Pump House and Service Building

Both buildings will remain as is.

Comfort Station

Located on the northern side of the reservoir and directly south of North Fratney Street, this chalet-style, half-timbered building that housed toilet facilities has been closed for many years but the exterior is in good condition. As part of the master plan, the comfort station will be restored and plumbing, electricity, and access will be brought up to code. The project will include a paved plaza area with park benches and bike racks around the building.

American Legion Star

The distinctive star-in-a-circle floral design on the east face of the reservoir has served as a landmark on East North Avenue for years. It was installed in 1941 to honor the American Legion, which held a large convention in Milwaukee that year.

During the past several years the floral bed has not been maintained and its reconstruction is not part of this master plan. Space should be reserved for a commemorative icon, yet to be determined.

Memorial Obelisk

The obelisk is located on the south-facing slope just off of East North Avenue. It will not be disturbed by the reconstruction of the park. Some clearing and cleanup around it may be necessary to make it more visible from the street.


Early aerial photos of the site depict mowed lawn on the steep slopes of the reservoir. Over the years, frequency of mowing decreased and eventually ceased. When the mowing stopped, volunteer trees and shrubs took over the slopes. The slopes are so densely vegetated that there is no ground cover in many areas. There is a cluster of trees on the northeast side of the reservoir that has been identified as historic by the City Forester. The master plan calls for the landscape architect to work with the Forester to preserve the healthy, historic trees that remain. Much of the volunteer vegetation will be removed as part of the construction phase, and low maintenance, low-growing vegetation will take its place.

The master plan also calls for the addition of shade trees to the park to define pathways and recreate the feeling of the pastoral city park of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Park Features

Paths, Entry Plazas, and Plaza Nodes

The reservoir park will have a number of trails winding through it similar in nature to those designed by William Brotherhood, the original landscape architect of the site. As mentioned earlier, an ADA accessible path will depict the old edge of the reservoir. An entry plaza with decorative paving, pedestrian lighting, and bollards will be placed at the main entrances to the park (East North Avenue on the east and west ends, North Pierce Street and the corner of North Bremen and East Meinecke Avenue). A plaza node with decorative paving, park benches, and lighting will create a meeting space at the intersection of the various paths that wind through the park.


The staircases on the east and west side slopes will be removed and replaced. On both sides of the staircases, handrails will be decorative, historic, and fitting to the setting.


Pedestrian lighting will be provided throughout the park. The light fixture style will match that currently used by the City of Milwaukee, the Harp light.

Ornamental Fencing

A fence will be placed along the north side of East North Avenue to direct pedestrian traffic to the designated crosswalks.

Upper Reservoir Overlook

The upper reservoir overlook will be a highlight of the park. A large pedestrian plaza will serve as a gathering space and provide a turnaround for emergency vehicles. An iconic structure will be visible from East North Avenue as one travels east on that street. The structure will provide shade and frame the views of downtown Milwaukee and the lakeshore. Benches, trash receptacles, lighting, and bike racks will be provided.

Baseball Field

On the northwest corner of the site there will be a small baseball field with a backstop and an infield with a prepared surface. The infield will allow for play other than baseball. The lack of sideline fencing will provide open lawn area for soccer or football.

Tot Lot

The master plan provides a footprint for a tot lot. The tot lot will be designed and installed by the Department of Public Works using available grant funds.

Half Court Basketball

The half court basketball court located in the northeast corner of the site will have one hoop. The court will not be lighted.


The Kilbourn Reservoir has long been a favorite open space and park for the residents of the near north neighborhoods of Milwaukee, especially Riverwest. In the past few decades, there has been decreased use by the neighbors and the general public. While the removal of the reservoir is necessary for Milwaukee Water Works operations, the reservoir site will remain as a gathering place, a place to recreate and relax, and take in the view. The improvements will enhance the park, restoring it as a much-loved landmark and a center of activity for the Riverwest neighborhood.

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