Connecting Milwaukee’s neighborhoods to its waterfront with public art — and a 350-foot beacon at Jones Island

Posted by Tom Daykin from Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on April 19, 2019

Jones Island might not make anyone’s list of Milwaukee’s best-known landmarks.

But that could change because of a growing public art project focusing on the city’s waterfront, and its relationship to the Harbor District and other redeveloping neighborhoods.

Known as WaterMarks, the project’s centerpiece envisions the Jones Island sewage and storm water treatment plant’s 350-foot smokestack doubling as a work of art.

The smokestack would typically be lit blue. But that light would change to red when heavy rains are forecast — reminding people to cut their water use to help prevent the deep tunnel storage system from overflowing.

WaterMarks includes additional freestanding signs — large letters mounted on tall poles — throughout the Harbor District and other neighborhoods, said artist Mary Miss, who’s leading the project.

Works by Milwaukee artists will complement those letter signs, which represent various aspects of water.

The goal of WaterMarks is to create a visceral connection with Milwaukee’s waterways, including Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers, Miss said.

Artists, she said, provide a unique way to get people to think about environmental and water-related issues.

WaterMarks also wants to raise Milwaukee’s profile as a city where water-related technology, environmental and development efforts are growing, Miss said.

“We want to put Milwaukee on the map as this total water capital of the world,” she said.

The first WaterMarks pole sign was completed in January outside United Community Center’s Acosta Middle School, 1038 S. Sixth St., in Walker’s Point.

It features a large letter “A.” That could stand for a number of things, including Acosta, aquatic awareness and agua, the Spanish word for water, Miss said.

A second sign is coming by year’s end to the southeast corner of South 16th Street and West Harrison Avenue, near the Kinnickinnic River.

Meanwhile, another four WaterMarks letter signs will be built along Greenfield Avenue within the Harbor District — about 1,000 acres bordered roughly by South First Street, the lakefront, the Milwaukee River and Bay Street/Becher Street.

Those signs are planned for Harbor View Plaza, which opens in June at the end of Greenfield Avenue; on the west side of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences, 600 E. Greenfield Ave.; near the Freshwater Plaza apartment and retail development, north of the avenue and east of South First Street; and next to Rockwell Automation Inc.’s headquarters, at the avenue and South Second Street, according to the Department of City Development.

Those markers seek to transform Greenfield Avenue into what Miss calls “an active gateway,” which draws people to the inner harbor while also showcasing the WaterMarks project. They are to be completed by the end of 2020.

The letters used in the WaterMarks pole signs can represent a number of things, such as “L” for lake, “R” for rain garden or “W” for water.

Those signs serve as map pins for what Miss calls “an atlas of water.” Around 20 such signs, mounted on 25-foot to 40-foot poles, are envisioned for both Milwaukee’s south and north sides.

The idea is to tell stories that make people think about water, and how they connect to Lake Michigan and its rivers, Miss said.

That can lead to a greater appreciation of water’s value as a resource, and the need to protect it.

Such awareness might not come easily in an urban environment, said Aaron Asis, associate designer at City as Living Laboratory, an organization founded and led by Miss.

“But the city is not separate from nature,” Asis said.

No matter where a person lives, he said, “What matters more than air and water?”

Public reaction to WaterMarks has been generally positive, albeit with some caveats.

“We are supportive of any project that builds people’s appreciation of water resources,” said Lilith Fowler, executive director of Harbor District Inc., a nonprofit group that oversees district development efforts.

Added Fowler, “It’s not totally clear to me yet how this project does that. But we’re working with the artist and her team. And I’m sure we’ll get there.”

The Greenfield Avenue signs are tied to the Harbor District’s largest commercial development: Komatsu Mining Corp.’s future corporate campus overlooking the inner harbor at the end of the avenue.

Those signs are being funded with a $200,000 city grant, provided through a tax incremental financing district for the Komatsu project. The Common Council approved the WaterMarks grant in March on a 15-0 vote.

That money will help pay for the letter sign installations, as well as complementary art work and community engagement efforts.

The latter includes water-based walks led by artists and scientists, workshops to generate ideas about protecting waterways and other events aimed at neighborhood residents.

One such walk is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. April 27 in Kaszubes Park on Jones Island.

City financing for the $285 million Komatsu development could eventually total $40 million.

Those city funds, provided through the Komatsu development’s new property tax revenue, include $15 million to build a RiverWalk and other public improvements — such as the WaterMarks installations.

Other WaterMarks pieces are being funded through foundation grants.

The main installation, at the Jones Island smokestack, would cost around $1.5 million to $2 million.

Miss is seeking a variety of funds, including grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, for the smokestack project.

Kevin Shafer hopes Miss can raise the money. Shafer is executive director of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, which owns the Jones Island treatment plant.

“I like the idea of lighting the smokestack,” he said. “I think it’s an important message to help people understand the need to conserve water.”

Miss has long focused on creating art that connects with waterways.

Her 1969 work, “Ropes/Shore,” featured a series of ropes, anchored with large rocks in New York City’s East River, which extended to the shore of Ward’s Island.

The temporary project covered a half-mile of shoreline, with the ropes installed at 20-foot intervals — forging a literal connection between land and water.

Miss’ other works include designing the portion of Milwaukee’s RiverWalk that runs through the Historic Third Ward.

It differs from the downtown RiverWalk. Miss’ 1998 design called for using wood, not concrete, with the walkway going directly over the river, instead of on its bank.

The Third Ward RiverWalk also is known for its spiral stairway at the end of East Buffalo Street.

With WaterMarks, Miss hopes to create a sustained impact on how people think about water.

That includes creating ongoing programs with Marquette University’s Haggerty Museum of Art and other local partners.

“One-time engagement is not how you make change,” she said.

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