Milwaukee County Grounds: Winter walking tour demonstrates citizens’ concern

Open house at Wauwatosa City Hall invites public input on Tuesday from 5:30-7:30

“I heard that the city had changed its plans and will be saving the woods.” That was among the many comments I heard this weekend in a section of the County Grounds that some have dubbed “Sanctuary Woods.” I was talking with Dennis, who comes to the County Grounds almost daily to walk his two large dogs. Unfortunately,

Dennis had heard something misleading – perhaps from an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – that depended on how “Sanctuary Woods” was defined.

The current draft of Wauwatosa’s Life Sciences District Master Plan would cut a road through the very spot we were standing, just as the previous version did. Dennis, like nearly everyone else I met, was surprised when he looked around at the area that would be destroyed.

The pavement on this popular pathway is a legacy of the asylum grounds that formerly occupied the site. This is where the road would go.

There has been an outpouring of concern about the fate of the County Grounds as well as the master plan itself. On Saturday a group calling itself Tosa for Good led a guided tour of the area that would be affected by the proposed road. Despite a gloomy, overcast day, 50 to 60 people — including several city and county officials — endured frigid wind chills to walk the route of proposed “Scenic Drive.” The organizers had made the impact of the proposal more vivid by taping off part of the route in a 60-foot wide swath.

Caution tape indicating the width and route of the proposed road.

The tape made it clearly visible that the plan’s proposed 58-foot right-of-way would obliterate a lot of natural land and require cutting plenty of trees. Virtually everyone who was there and saw firsthand what’s at stake agreed that the road should not be built.

Seven-story tall Harwood Place gives a sense of the impact that even taller buildings would have on adjacent woodlands.

When people are further informed that the proposed plan allows 10-story buildings to overlook the County Grounds, there is universal astonishment. No one I spoke with wants this to happen.

The proposed road would cut a swath approximately four times as wide as this unofficial but well-used neighborhood trail.

The proposed road would cut a swath approximately four times as wide as this unofficial but well-used neighborhood trail.

Starting at 87th Street, the tour took the group east to a section of the grounds rarely included when people discuss “Sanctuary Woods.” But this combination woodlot and wetland that drains into the Menomonee River is the most secluded on the County Grounds. A trail well packed by neighbors skirts the woods on its way to the rest of the grounds. The proposed road would slice off a big swath of the woods and create traffic through this bucolic corner of the grounds and around Harwood Place. However, the people who live in the adjacent neighborhood have developed an organized campaign that is generating more citizen interest and investment in the master planning process.

The proposed road would replace a series of warehouses along the railroad separating the County Grounds from Hoyt Park.
This wetland adjacent to “Sanctuary Woods” was isolated when the current roadway into the County Grounds was created.

Many of the tour participants had never been on the County Grounds and no one wanted to miss the now-famous ravine. We entered the woods and followed the west rim. The packed earth trail indicates how popular this spot has become the current master plan would protect it.

One of two stone staircases in bad disrepair that remain from the time this was a retreat for residents of the county asylum.
As the tour passes the second of the stone stairs a couple of children break away to climb down and up again.

Beyond the end of the ravine, several trails diverge and head uphill towards the rear of Ronald McDonald House. There are three meadows in the former asylum grounds. One is a remnant oak savanna, which is not only rare but also high quality habitat. The other two are hugely popular with dog walkers. All three would be destroyed by the road and development proposed in the plan. Two woodlots that many who use this land consider part of “Sanctuary Woods” would also be cleared.

The tour grouped around one of the entrances to the woodlot separating two meadows. This woodlot and both meadows are in the path of the proposed road.

The tour turned from the east meadow and headed back towards 87th Street, covering only half the area that would be affected by the proposed master plan. I returned the following day in order to complete the walking tour in photographs.

The meadow in winter
The meadow in autumn

Humble as it may appear in winter with its matted grasses and dull colors, this meadow is what I consider to be the heart of “Sanctuary Woods.” It is spectacular in the summer when decked out in wildflowers and surrounded by giant oaks and maples; or in autumn when the leaves turn red and gold. Plus, this is excellent habitat for the birds, butterflies and small furry creatures that keep it spectacular. The proposed road would run right through the middle of it.

Dog walkers socializing on edge of County Grounds Park. The proposed road would go through the woodland in the background.

Sunday was as overcast as Saturday, but warmer. I met dozens of people. Most of them were out walking dogs of all sizes and breeds. Normally I keep to myself but this day I stopped frequently to chat. Without exception everyone I met had heard of the master plan. And all considered the road idea a mistake at best. Most used spicier language to describe the plan.

A small creek runs through the woodland, excellent habitat for a variety of reptiles and amphibians.

A man with a graying beard introduced himself as Tom. He told me he’d grown up in Wauwatosa and was incensed about the road. He’d seen plenty of changes over the years and he confessed that he had never been opposed to the flood detention basins like so many others had been. But this new master plan was going too far, in his opinion. He proudly whipped out his cell phone and showed me a photo he’d shot of a buck peering out of the undergrowth. “At least 6-point,” he said. “Could have been an 8-pointer.”

Danielle on her daily walk with her two dogs

“It makes me angry,” said Danielle forcefully, referring to the master plan. “There’s so much wildlife here. If they put this road in here it will drive off the wildlife. Expect coyotes in your backyards killing your pets!” She explained how careful she was to control her two dogs so that they wouldn’t cause any harm.

The proposed road would begin at the roundabout next to the Marriott hotel at Innovation Park and run through this woodlot behind the power plant.

Two members of the Wauwatosa Common Council had taken the tour. Second District Alderman John Dubinski spoke with passion about the grounds. A retired police officer, he recalled fond memories of the County Grounds and especially the County Asylum buildings when they were still standing. “Now almost forty years later it is gone.” He enumerated the losses: beautiful brick buildings; an old red barn; baseball diamond; soccer fields; “and gone are all of the mature trees that shaded the area.”

Alderman John Dubinski: “I am strongly against the proposed road.”
I counted eight owls on Sunday and I met two birders who had driven from Iowa to see them.

“I will be taking my grandkids for a walk through the wooded area north of the McDonald house, and taking many photos. It will be good to have a record of history should the wrong decisions be made.” When I asked specifically about the master plan he was unequivocal: “I am strongly against the proposed road.”

In an email after the tour, Third District Alderwoman Nancy Welch summed up the event: “I was impressed by the number of people from all parts of Wauwatosa who had taken the time to walk through the woods on a brisk Saturday morning. As I spoke to individuals along the way, it was clear that they valued the area, especially the ones who were experiencing it for the first time. Most conversations started with them telling me that elected officials should be listening to their constituents and doing more to protect the area. The conversation quickly turned to the quality of life that attracted them to this community and keeps them here. They were very concerned that protecting the Woods would require more than a promise to change the zoning, it will require changing the current focus on promoting too much development. I lingered after everyone left to appreciate the setting and was rewarded with the sight of a heron flying above the trees.”

An open house on the Life Sciences District Master Plan is scheduled at Wauwatosa City Hall on Tuesday, Feb. 7, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. This is an opportunity to ask questions, raise concerns and state your opinions about the plan.

More information available on the Wauwatosa website. To read the draft master plan, click here.

All photographs by Eddee Daniel. Additional photos of the area at issue available on Flickr.



Eddee Daniel is a Milwaukee-based photographer and writer. His work explores the intersection of nature and human culture. A graduate of the UW-Madison and UWM, he brings to his current practice more than 30 years of experience teaching art and writing about nature. He is the author of "Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed," a visual and narrative tribute to Milwaukee’s Menomonee River. Eddee writes two blogs: Urban Wilderness and Arts Without Borders. He serves on the Board of Directors of Preserve Our Parks. You can email him at