Can the downtrodden harbor area become the new Menomonee Valley, or something more diverse?
Lilith Fowler sits in front of a window overlooking the Milwaukee harbor estuary and a towering grain elevator, and she has a vision to match the view. The area south of Downtown is targeted for redevelopment, but it won’t be another lakefront recreation area like Veterans Park, nor another corridor of residential buildings like those on Water Street. “We can do something different and be a place that has its own feeling,” Fowler says. “There’s an urban industrial theater that happens in a place like this, and it’s fascinating.”
The Harbor District, organized as a nonprofit in 2015 and now led by Fowler, has taken on a chunk of land with heavy industry and the occasional odd smell and hopes to turn it into something more. There’s over 1,000 acres, with much yet to be developed, Fowler says, “serving the full range of live-work-play uses.” Action is already happening at the edges of the district: Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin opened a new clinic on the northern end last October, not far from some more established apartment buildings. Fowler points to Foamation Inc.’s Cheesehead factory, which has a store, party room for rent and tours, as an ideal crossover.
The nerve center for the district is the UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences, which Fowler hopes can attract companies per the district’s newly minted water and land use plan. A few “catalytic projects” have been designed to make the area more attractive, including the development of a riverfront park, a new section of the RiverWalk, and a special focus on the vacant area south of the school. The district’s plans also involve drawing people into the area. In October, the group held a Harbor Fest with activities and a boat parade.
Ultimately, the district aims to encourage people to return to the waterfront, and to develop the types of industry that won’t drive them away. In Port Washington, the harbor area saw a transformation from an old coal dock to a magnet for tourism, a place that feels like Door County. That’s not the goal here, but something new will be welcome.