Milwaukee is looking to solidify its title as “Fresh Coast capital” by redesigning its industrial inner harbor area into a mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly, eco-conscious new neighborhood: the Harbor District. The initiative, led by nonprofit Harbor District Inc., is seeking ways to retain the area’s vital industrial uses and also complement the neighboring Water Technology District, where freshwater research facilities are clustered and the city is experimenting with green infrastructure like purple pipe.
Lilith Fowler, executive director of Harbor District, says the rebranded area could also serve as a showcase for sustainable water solutions, a home to water-related businesses, and a connection point between residents and Milwaukee’s industrial past and present. It also provides opportunity to restore a damaged landscape. A protected river channel on Lake Michigan, the inner harbor has been dredged, filled, straightened, channelized “and kind of abused into oblivion,” says Fowler. Thousands of acres of rice marsh once covered the area, providing habitat to wading birds, fish and beavers. Today, as for most of the last century and a half, it supports shipping, manufacturing and other industrial uses. Cargo ships are loaded and unloaded; a grain elevator that’s been in continual operation since 1916 still serves area farmers, moving corn and soybeans out and barley for Milwaukee’s brewers in.
Fowler says the idea is not to displace these economic engines, but to make both operations and land use more efficient so the area can support other uses too. For all of the harbor’s active industry and manufacturing, there are also numerous sites in various stages of vacancy and underutilization, like a city-owned plot that until recently hosted an 8-story pile of coal — even though Milwaukee’s Valley Power Plant doesn’t run on coal anymore.
The property, directly across from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences, will become available next year when the city’s lease with the current user ends. At a Harbor District-hosted design charrette last fall, four studios focused on this parcel in addition to the entire neighborhood’s redevelopment. Studio Gang, Wenk Associates, DTAH and PWL Partnership brainstormed solutions to the primary challenges: creating better transportation access, melding mixed uses without compromising safety or industry, and restoring an ecosystem threatened by decades of use.
“It’s trying to do almost the impossible in a little space there,” says Jason Wegman of Vancouver-based PWL Partnership, a challenge he says that made the project all the more appealing. Wegman has witnessed the transformation of Toronto’s waterfront, a redevelopment that more or less removed industry to make way for residential towers. During public engagement sessions conducted by Harbor District, long-term residents specifically said that they wanted to retain their neighborhood’s gritty, mixed-industrial character, musing about what a shame it would be to lose that to luxury condos, says Fowler.