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How life came back to the banks of our major artery

For much of its history, the city turned its back on the Milwaukee River. The buildings faced away from its banks, the waterfront lots off limits to a public that largely saw the river (Downtown, at least) more as a sewer or a railroad line than as a leisure resource. But in the early 1980s, with rumblings of a contiguous public walkway along the river, the physical and mental landscape started to flip. The city formed a crucial public-private partnership with riverfront property owners to help foot the bill, and by 1996 much of the RiverWalk’s Downtown segment was completed. Soon the path would grow south to the rapidly redeveloping Third Ward and upriver to the Beerline neighborhood. Over the past two decades, the RiverWalk helped transform those areas into desirable places to live, work and shop. Property values have soared throughout.

Those remarkable feats have won notice. In November, the RiverWalk was one of 13 winners of the Urban Land Institute’s prestigious Global Award for Excellence, which recognizes outstanding development or land use.

In separate interviews, we asked four key people involved in the RiverWalk to recount the past and look into the future of the project.

Gary Granau

Developer, chairman of Milwaukee RiverWalk District board

John Norquist

Milwaukee mayor, 1988-2004

Alyssa Remington

RiverWalk project manager, Milwaukee Department of City Development

Marsha Sehler

Assistant secretary, Milwaukee RiverWalk District

John Norquist photo by Adam Ryan Morris; Gary Granau photo by Kat Schleicher


Before the RiverWalk

Marsha Sehler: It was at [John Norquist’s] urging that the RiverWalk got created. He had been working on it – maybe not actively – but certainly it was in his mind that it needed to be created for a long time before the work began. He had the idea that it could be a important place in the landscape of the city. We have to credit him for that vision.

John Norquist: don’t think people understood that [the Milwaukee River] was an asset. When the city was founded, people were trying to establish whatever commerce they could to survive. It was a working river.

Sehler: It was for a long time a shipping lane for the beer industry. Nobody saw it as an entertainment space at all.

Norquist: Parts were beautiful; if you look at old photographs, you can see schooners – sailing ships that were used to haul cargo – lined up in the Down- town. But you couldn’t walk along there. It was private property for most of the river harbor. [City officials] didn’t even think of it that way, except for a few people like Alfred Clas [who designed a river walk plan in 1904]. He had seen the canal that runs through the middle of Vienna. There was a subway underneath the river walk on each side of the canal – that’s basically what Clas drew. There would have been a subway on each side of the river. Milwaukee didn’t [build a river walk] during that period. Then you had the Depression and World War II, and then after World War II everything was about highways and suburbs. The city was not in people’s minds.

Sehler: Early on before the RiverWalk was built, people wondered, “Would anybody bother to come down to the river? Did anyone see it as enough of an asset to even bother?”

Norquist: It took a long time for that thinking to change.

Gary Granau: [Norquist] and I kept talking about how Milwaukee had turned its back on the river and how we could revitalize and it could have a tremendous impact on the Downtown.

Norquist: Can you imagine London if they made the walkways along the Thames private property so the public couldn’t walk along the river? It would have ruined a lot of the value that the Thames River has in the middle of London.

Finding Funding

The Milwaukee River sometime between 1909 and 1920. The schooner at left is full of Christmas trees. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Museum

Sehler: Finding how much the city would have to invest in order to get the building owners to agree to participate, that was one of the big hurdles. What was that formula going to be? How much city investment would make this thing work?

Norquist: Gary Grunau and his allies along the river did a really good job of recruiting property owners to understand what was going on.

Grunau: Once we came up with a way that [property owners] were only going to pay  22 percent and the city was going to pay 78 percent, they saw so many advantages of this development. They all got on board.

Norquist: I would’ve held out for 50/50. I floated that idea, but it didn’t go over with anybody but Grunau. He was an enthusiast of the project. We ended up with 78/22, and I think the city has reaped way more property value to tax by getting the RiverWalk as far along as it is.

Grunau: You need a strong public-private partnership to get something like that done. It all came together very well.

Alyssa Remington: When we went down into the Third Ward, each property owner negotiated their own cost share. Some property owners were able to get 75 percent – this is back in the late ’90s, early 2000s. It was never higher than 78/22. In the Beerline, a couple properties were at a 50/50 split.

Building & Decorating

Downtown RiverWalk; steps are at the foot of Mason Street. Photo by Dennis Raschke.

Sehler: We didn’t have all the money in the world to do it all at once. We did as much as we could, when we could.

Remington: They were able to focus on this area Downtown where there would be heavier traffic, and change would be recognizable. And from there, build on that success and then redo the Beerline and move south into the Third Ward. Everyone can see the success and the value in it. We put city financing into it, and it just takes off from there.

Norquist: It’s on one side or other of the river for the entire stretch, and it’s on both sides of the river most of the way. It’s had a positive effect on taxable property values. I think the city got the money back a lot more than other public projects that have happened in Wisconsin.

Remington: I think it’s important in Milwaukee when you plan on making change to start small. Get people used to the idea of the change and show that it can be successful. Even if we don’t identify that’s how we operate here, I think that is the way we operate. I think that is the success of the RiverWalk.

Grunau: It’s been a total of about $50 million to $60 million of investment in the RiverWalk. About a quarter of that was private and the rest was public. The property values where we put RiverWalks have increased by over $1 billion. People see that and realize why it’s wise to continue to build these things.Norquist: It accelerated the development of the Third Ward.

Grunau: We expected an increase in economic values and business, but I don’t think anyone foresaw the enormous impact that it has had.

Norquist: I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and think, “God, if only I did this or that,” but with the RiverWalk, it went faster and had more benefits to the city and the taxpayers than I ever expected.

Sehler: It kept getting expanded. We keep adding different things to make it more interesting.

Remington: We try to have little pieces of interest throughout. You can go on long stretches and still be entertained. Some of that took place – like the trellises and the improvements to the fish sculpture on the side of the Riverside Theater – in the last 10 years.

Sehler: Early on, we would go to other places to see what they were doing in other cities. One of our trips was to Navy Pier in Chicago. There were all these grand sculptures and I got the idea that if we put these sculptures along the RiverWalk we could create a path that encouraged people to explore the RiverWalk in a different way. We have as many as 20 or more different sculptures on the RiverWalk. I think the most photographed sculpture in the city, including anything at the Art Museum, is the Fonz. People come and take their picture with the Fonz. There he is; he’s life sized. People ask, “Why is he so small?” Well, Henry Winkler is not a big guy.

Connecting the City

When Trestle Park and its adjacent RiverWalk are finished this year, the entire 3-mile stretch between the harbor and North Avenue bridge will be complete. Rendering courtesy of HGA.

Norquist: I was in Army Reserve training as a medic in San Antonio in 1972. I saw their River Walk. I’m glad we didn’t do it like San Antonio. San Antonio is almost like a theme park, and they’re having to redo it now to make it more part of the city. It’s an isolated river walk. It’s not connected to the street grid in a visible way. Milwaukee’s RiverWalk isn’t some kind of Disney-type tourist attraction. It’s part of the skeleton of the city. It holds things together.

Grunau: [The RiverWalk] brought people to the riverfront. It moved buildings around. You could enter them off the RiverWalk, rather than on the streets. It opened up the main artery to Downtown.

Norquist: In Downtown from the mouth of the [Milwaukee] River up to the North Avenue Dam, the river and the RiverWalk are urban. They are connected to the street grid; the buildings are connected to the walkway. Once you get to where the North Avenue Dam used to be – where there’s a natural waterfall – it becomes natural. You could be on the Wolf River in northern Wisconsin. When you’re walking along those pathways along the river, you can’t even see the city. You’re in the woods. You can fish.

In the Future

Remington: Right now we’re working on Trestle Park [in the Third Ward]. We wanted to utilize this enormous structure [an abandoned railroad trestle] that goes out over the water and can provide a new perspective. This one extends out over and gives you an amazing view. [Architect Jim Shields] wanted to keep it like the High Line in New York. He wanted to keep it industrial, the rail feel.

Norquist: What needs to be done about the RiverWalk? Well there might be some things that need to be done, but a lot of it needs to evolve on its own.

Remington: The future plan and vision would be to extend [the RiverWalk] into the Menomonee Valley. There’s a lot of still-industrial property, and a lot of it is city-owned property. But as the face of that property starts to change, and as development happens, there will be a requirement for a RiverWalk. And moving up the Kinnickinnic River as well, and working with the harbor district and all the changes that they are doing down there. We don’t want to leave public access behind to Milwaukee’s riverways. The RiverWalk is a proven method to get people to the water. ◆


The Milwaukee River did not have a great reputation a half-century ago. “It is sometimes odorous, but oftentimes is not,” a 1968 report on the river said. Still, heavy rain and snow falls caused untreated sewage to run off into the river. The Deep Tunnel project, completed in 1993, reduced the amount of this pollution by creating a giant sewer below the city to house excess amounts of wastewater until it can be treated. 

In the Deep Tunnel’s first 20 years, sewer runoffs were reduced from an average of nearly 60 a year to just 2.4. “That made the river appreciably cleaner … and less smelly,” says Marsha Sehler of the Milwaukee RiverWalk District. In 1997, the removal of the North Avenue Dam further improved water quality and increased the fish population upstream.

 “Right now, they have 30-some species of fish north of the North Avenue bridge. Before the dam was taken out … they didn’t have much going on less than 10 species of fish.” John Norquist


Downtown RiverWalk near Kilbourn Avenue. Photo by Dennis Raschke.

Following a 2003 Americans with Disabilities Act complaint, the city signed an agreement with the Justice Department in 2006 to make improvements to the RiverWalk, including new ramps and lifts. “It was originally our understanding as long as you could [get] from point A to point B in an accessible pathway, then you were good,” says Alyssa Remington, RiverWalk project manager. “Our pathway had you crossing the river at certain points and then crossing back again, so it was really more of a zigzag path.” The updates were completed in 2016 and now both banks of the RiverWalk are wheelchair accessible.

“Now you can get from point A to point B on both sides of the river unobstructed with no accessibility issues at all.” — Alyssa Remington

‘Revisiting the Riverwalk’ appears in the March 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning February 26, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.