Will the Historic Lake Park Footbridge be Preserved?

Replacement with replica, historic preservation of span are two options facing county

A historic footbridge in Lake Park seems to be on the way to replacement after being blocked off for months. But advocates of historic preservation hope to redirect those plans to repairing the structure rather than replacing it.

The 1906 bridge was designed by Milwaukee architects Alfred C. Clas and George Bowman Ferry, following the original design of the park by Frederick Law Olmsted, the nationally prominent landscape architect who also designed Riverside and Washington Parks, along with Central Park in New York and parks or park systems in numerous other cities.

Last month in Lake Park’s community room a standing-room-only crowd of residents and officials debated whether to preserve or replace the concrete arch pedestrian bridge that spans Ravine Road. Milwaukee County Sup. Sheldon Wasserman, who hosted the panel discussion, supported replacing the bridge, in part to get something going quickly.

County Supervisor Sheldon Wasserman with crowd at Feb. 15 Lake Park bridge meeting. Photo by Tom Tolan

Wasserman said at the forum that he remained somewhat open to a preservation solution. However, he said Monday that he did not think any options for preservation were viable and was moving forward with the replacement option. He said county officials are working out the details for tax deductions for several private donors who want to help get the project done.

Wasserman said “There is no money pledged or otherwise designated for a study of preservation options.” However, county officials reported before a bridge committee disbanded that less than $200,000 has been spent out of a $400,000 capital budget account allocated in 2015 to study options to “repair or replace” the bridge.

In the Feb. 15 meeting, Wasserman and county administrators advocated building a replica bridge, estimated at $2.5 million, which they say may cost less than rehabilitation over a “100-year life cycle.” Proposed rehabilitation options are estimated at $1.8 million and $2.3 million.

Panelist Carlen Hatala, a City of Milwaukee preservation planner, said at Wasserman’s meeting that “It does not make sense” to see a structure on the National Register of Historic Places as “expendable” after the considerable effort required to get it listed. Hatala asked, “Why are we looking at this historic bridge differently than the recent restoration of City Hall?” She added, “Demolition must absolutely be the last resort, after all repair options have been exhausted. A replica is nice, but not the same” as the original historic structure. She said replication is usually done only after a structure “has been lost or damaged beyond repair, such as in a hurricane.”

City ordinances require the Historic Preservation Commission to approve any plans for the bridge, including demolition. Lake Park is part of a City of Milwaukee historic district, in addition to the bridge and park each being listed on the National Register.

Area residents likewise expressed divergent views. One man said, “Git ’er done! Take the money and run,” referring to an anonymous million-dollar donation reportedly contingent on permanent closure of Ravine Road. (Wasserman did not respond to multiple queries about whether this donor might also be open to funding a solution to preserve the bridge.)

In contrast, a woman speculated that if the discussion was about a structure in New York City’s Central Park, “we would be preserving this bridge.” Forgotten New York’s website confirms that assertion.

Preservation versus Replacement

Numerous community members support replacement with a replica, including members of a bridge committee chaired last year by engineering firm GRAEF USA. It included county officials, GRAEF staff and subcontractors, preservation officials and community representatives. The committee considered three replacement-bridge designs, two rehabilitation options, and removal without replacement.

GRAEF was awarded a two-phase contract last April to design replacement bridges (originally totaling $170,000; currently $240,000 is requested). GRAEF had previously been hired to perform an in-depth condition assessment of the bridge for $60,000. 

Others, including Lake Park neighbor Julia Taylor, are urging Wasserman to call for due diligence. She recommends a study “conducted by an engineering firm with extensive preservation experience with historic bridges” that relies on the very thorough engineering work already completed. Taylor believes “a suitable preservation option would likely be less costly than total replacement and like the Lion Bridge repair, would also provide a suitable lifespan and open the door for potential federal funding.”

Sarah Greenberg wrote in a statement that “every property owner in this neighborhood enjoys increased value due to the presence and well-preserved condition of Lake Park.” She moved with her husband from Washington D.C. in 2014 to a historic home near the park. A community and economic development professional with historic preservation experience, Greenberg added, “From my understanding of the process, it appears that while options to replace the Ravine Road bridge were fully researched, options to preserve the bridge were given little consideration.”

Hatala noted in her remarks that new technologies are being used to restore concrete bridges nationwide, including vehicular ones. Rebecca Silber, a neighbor and graphic designer recently created a website compiling bridge-related information

Dawn McCarthy of Milwaukee Preservation Alliance asked whether the county has consulted with the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), as required by state statute. Dargle said he did not know. Whaley-Smith said he was unaware of the statute’s particulars but noted that the SHPO could only “respond” to actions proposed by the county.

Funding Challenges and Options

At the forum, Whaley-Smith detailed fiscal challenges facing the county and its parks. Wasserman outlined how he had enlisted more county funding – from $500,000 to over $1 million – for a bridge project. He believes that’s the maximum the county would allocate. He also said that three private donors, all anonymous, have approached him. Donations of $100,000 and $500,000 reportedly have no strings attached, unlike the million-dollar pledge.

Parks director John Dargle, Wasserman and Whaley-Smith jointly pitched the case for accepting the strings-attached gift.

Several forum attendees urged officials to get behind efforts to secure long-term dedicated funding, such as through a local sales tax, to adequately maintain all parks. Gov. Scott Walker recently reaffirmed his opposition to such local-control measures to fund parks and cultural institutions.

The Future of Ravine Road

Much forum discussion focused on aptly nicknamed “Snake Road.” County officials closed it in December 2014 after announcing concerns that small bits of concrete might fall from the long-neglected bridge onto the roadway. Chain-link and plastic fencing was added last December to block all access to the road and bridge.

The county closed the bridge in December because of safety concerns. Photo courtesy of Virginia Small

Citizens spoke about the pleasures of traversing, by foot or car, the winding east-west road that connects the lakefront to Lake Park’s bluff. The road and bridge were built in accordance with Olmsted’s master plan for the park. The bridge links its north and south sections along a mile-long continuous pathway.

Some advocated banning cars and transforming the historic road into a safe route solely for pedestrians and bicyclists. One woman expressed satisfaction that the closed road has kept “all those non-neighbors out.” Others preferred keeping the road open for all uses. Suggested options included shifting usage access at various times, as is done in Central Park, or making vehicular access one-way. When Wasserman took a straw poll the majority supported closing the road to traffic.

Dargle said installing wire mesh on the bridge’s underside could allow safely reopening the road until a bridge solution is completed. Cost of meshing has been estimated at $25,000. However, short-term repairs must be financed with cash allocations, not bonded funds. (Long-term rehabilitation projects may be financed through bonding.)

What’s Next?

  • County residents may express their views about the issue to county supervisors, the parks director, and city preservation staff.
  • County administrators have pledged to begin consulting with the state historic preservation office. SHPO’s Brown said: “It’s nice when parties involved in discussions about a historic resource are not talking past each other.”

Virginia Small, a Milwaukee freelance journalist and researcher, is a member of Historic Water Town Neighborhood and Lake Park Friends.