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Wauwatosa's Schoonmaker Reef is rediscovered and redeveloped, with preservation at the fore.

PASSAGE OF TIME: Above, the Reef as it looked in 1934. Photo courtesy of Historic Photo Archives/Milwaukee Public Library.

The Schoonmaker Reef was the first ancient coral reef discovered in North America and among the first discovered worldwide. It is a relic from the Silurian Period, 405 million to 435 million years ago, when much of North America was covered by water.

This reef, which predates the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth, is located in Wauwatosa.

Increase A. Lapham, “Wisconsin’s first scientist,” was the first to collect fossils from the site in 1844. More than 10,000 marine fossils have since been excavated from the reef, many of which can be found in major museums across the country. In 1997, the Schoonmaker Reef gained recognition as a National Historic Landmark.

In recent years, however, the reef has sat largely unnoticed at the north end of a long-dormant brownfield site. The area off State Street between 62nd and 66th streets in eastern Wauwatosa is overgrown with vegetation and home to debris. In fact, when Wangard Partners Inc. began work on the site in 2012 for a 180-apartment, seven-building, $23 million-plus development, they were unaware the property included a 425-million-year-old coral reef.

“We didn’t know what a jewel we had,” says Stewart Wangard, chairman and CEO. “There’s a responsibility that comes with that.”

Wangard is taking that responsibility seriously. The company will be exposing the rock face of the reef, and is building decorative fencing and walkways to make it publicly accessible. If fossils are discovered during the process, says Wangard, the first call will be to scientists Donald Mikulic and Joanne Kluessendorf, who fought to win the historic landmark designation and who continue to work at the reef.

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The city of Wauwatosa, which will oversee public access, has been instrumental to the site’s development. In 2011, as executive director of the Village of Wauwatosa Business Improvement District, current Mayor Kathy Ehley worked with then-Mayor Jill Didier and the city of Wauwatosa to craft and adopt a strategic development plan, which identified the area surrounding the reef as one ripe with possibility. Wangard Partners expressed interest within the next year.

Ehley says Wangard embraced the preservation of the Schoonmaker Reef. “To them, it’s a benefit and not a hindrance,” Ehley says. “That goes a long way to making the reef accessible for people to view. Not to walk on, but to view.”

The city provided $3.2 million in tax incremental financing (TIF) to help finalize funding, address community needs and assist with needed cleanup, says Wangard. Manufacturer Western Metal Specialty was the site’s most recent occupant. When the plant closed in 2003, “significant contamination” was left behind, says Nancy Ryan, a hydrogeologist at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Working with the DNR, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) provided a $700,000 brownfield grant to bridge the financial gap for the cleanup.

The development, referred to as “The Reef,” had its ceremonial groundbreaking on Aug. 5. Along with Wangard and Ehley, Wauwatosa resident Gov. Scott Walker spoke at the event. “This is a really dynamic area,” Walker said. “To see this, The Reef, just taking it up a notch, we were pleased not just because this is my hometown, but because we think about the role of the DNR and the WEDC [in this project]. From an economic development standpoint, this is a no-brainer.”

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The Reef’s first buildings are set to be completed by July 2015. And while it incorporates a piece of ancient history, it is decidedly forward-looking.

“We’ll be creating a very vibrant, sustainable neighborhood, a walkable neighborhood and a bikeable neighborhood,” says Wangard. “This development is designed to meet the needs of current residents of the city of Wauwatosa and the future residents – a diverse group, and an ever-changing group.” ■