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Mar 19, 2014

Spotlight on Milwaukee: Industrial Center and Community Park is Model of Sustainable Redevelopment

Category: General
Posted by: rita

When the City of Milwaukee took a hard look at Wisconsin's most notorious brownfield - a 140-acre former manufacturing site, in the 100-year floodplain and smack in the middle of the city - it seemed like a crazy idea to purchase the site and take control of its redevelopment. This part of the Menomonee River Valley was marsh until the late 1870s. From 1879 to 1985, Milwaukee Road Shops built rail cars and locomotives and was one of the largest employers in Milwaukee. After declaring bankruptcy, the company closed in 1985, leaving dozens of vacant and dilapidated buildings and 140 acres of contaminated land in the middle of the city. When the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Milwaukee (RACM) purchased the site in 2003, the site had been abandoned for 18 years. Consequently, making the site work ecologically, economically and socially presented a huge challenge and economic risk.

The Menomonee River Valley site prior to redevelopment

The Menomonee River Valley Industrial Center and Community Park after redevelopment

Fast forwarding to today, that risk was well worth taking. The site is now the Menomonee Valley Industrial Center and Community Park. It contains 60 acres of industrial development, supporting 1200 family-supporting jobs, over $1 million in new property taxes, restored wetlands and riverbanks, 60 acres of public parks, two miles of trails, and restored native prairies, savannas and forests. The project has garnered awards from diverse organizations including The American Council of Engineering Companies and The Sierra Club. The site’s redevelopment has been so successful because throughout the planning and redevelopment of the site, the RACM, its partners, and the community have shown an unwavering commitment to sustainability. The following are key features of the site’s environmental, economic and community sustainability:

Environmental Sustainability

  • On-site remediation of contaminated soil including PCB, lead, and VOC impacts
  • Restoration of a variety of native habitats and 3000 feet of riverbank;
  • Creation of an outdoor classroom for the Urban Ecology Center, a nonprofit environmental education and stewardship organization;
  • Improvement of river ecology by building a centralized, state-of-the-art stormwater treatment facility that treats stormwater from 100 acres of industrial development;
  • Reuse of 700,000 cubic yards of fill from a nearby highway project to raise the ground surface 8 feet out of the 100-year floodplain;
  • Onsite management of over 120,000 cubic yards of asbestos-containing building debris into landscaped mounds;
  • Reuse of 20,000 cubic yards of crushed concrete in stormwater conveyance structures and road subgrade;
  • Use of recycled glass panels in decorative pathway railings, former stockyard beams to construct park benches and tables, grubbed vegetation chipped and in topsoil, and "Cream City" brick from historical fill as landscaping elements.

Economic Sustainability

  • All of the parcels at the site have been purchased from the city except for 6.5 acres of the 60 acres, and the parcels have sold for more than expected.
  • Over $1 million in new property tax was generated.
  • Employees at the site are paid a family sustaining living wage, which was double the minimum wage when the site was developed.
  • Tax Increment Financing was used to finance development of the infrastructure and remediate the site, and the repayment of the $20 million Tax Increment District is on schedule to meet its $45 million goal.
  • Forty percent of remediation and site development construction work was completed by Emerging Business Enterprise contractors.
Community Sustainability

  • The redevelopment incorporated 30 acres of new recreation area; three new state-of-the-art sports fields, a stabilized river bank that allows canoeing and fishing access to the Menomonee River, and a 3-mile walking and bicycle trail system that links local neighborhoods to regional systems through the Hank Aaron State Bike trail.
  • Volunteers from local schools, businesses and neighborhood associations regularly plant trees and shrubs, weed invasive species, and collect trash.
  • The site’s outdoor classroom for the Urban Ecology Center hosts 10,000 student visits per year.
Redevelopment Authority of the City of Milwaukee

The Menomonee Valley Industrial Center and Community Park is the most recent crowning achievement of the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Milwaukee (RACM). According to David Misky, a member of NALGEP’s Board of Directors and RACM’s Executive Secretary, "The Menomonee Valley project typifies the challenges faced by cities around the country where creative initiatives are essential to convert a 140-acre brownfield into a sustainable redevelopment that factors in economic, social, and environmental impacts. The Redevelopment Authority was used as a tool to tackle one of the most challenging real estate projects in Milwaukee’s history."

The RACM has a strong track record of successfully leveraging federal, state, and local funding to meet the financial needs of all stages of brownfields redevelopment. RACM has been exceedingly fortunate to receive more than $17 million in brownfield grant funding from the USEPA over the past 11 years. At the state level, RACM has leveraged more than $14 million of state grant funds to fill in funding gaps since 2000. Locally, Milwaukee regularly uses tax incremental financing districts (TIFs) to support brownfield projects and provide needed funding for remediation and site closure submittals.

Loans - Since 2002, RACM has provided 13 brownfield revolving loans resulting in $378 million of investment and 3,500 projected jobs to be created or retained. These 13 loans have helped in remediating more than 266 acres making them ready for development.

Assessment - RACM has utilized its USEPA Assessment Funds on more than 75 different properties that are in various stages of testing. Nineteen of these properties totaling 67 acres have been redeveloped resulting in obtaining environmental site closure. Redevelopment projects have been completed resulting in approximately $120 million of redevelopment and retention or creation of more than 700 jobs.

Cleanup - RACM has been awarded USEPA Cleanup Grants for 27 specific sites to date; with cleanups completed at 15 of the 27 sites and cleanup activities continue to proceed at the remaining 12 sites. Risks to human health have been reduced on approximately 60 acres. $12.6 million of investment has occurred and will increase as more proposed projects break ground.

After considering all of RACM’s accomplishments, it seems inevitable that the RACM and its partners would transform the most notorious and intractable brownfields site in Wisconsin into the Menomonee Valley Industrial Center and Community Park. Yet people involved in the earliest stages of the project could never have been so confident in predicting success. Fortunately, the project has given the RACM financial strength, experience, confidence, prestige and momentum for successful projects in the future.