This Plan Could Turn Around This Slice of the Harbor District

A new park and a space for public events – along with housing and offices – aim to turn around a stretch of Milwaukee River frontage.

Now, the four-plus acres along the Milwaukee River at the northern portal of the Harbor District are gritty and desolate, distinguished by the towering, monolithic concrete of an abandoned grain elevator and the faded disuse of Wisconsin Cold Storage. 

But a $150 million development called Harbor Yards aims to bring the area adjacent to Walker’s Point alive with a 150-room riverfront hotel, 150 apartments, a 10-story office tower, a small park and a public space for farmers markets and other outdoor events.

Developer Mandel Group’s goal is to create an active destination in an area that’s still a functioning harbor and home to several industrial operations. “It’s going to be bars and restaurants next to a metal recycling facility,” says Bob Monnat, partner and chief operating officer of Mandel Group. “It’s going to be a real working waterfront.”

The Harbor Yards plans call for two major public extensions: a new section of RiverWalk and Trestle Park West, a twin to the park across the river in the Third Ward. They would be connected by a one-of-a kind pedestrian bridge that would make use of a century-old rotating railroad bridge in the center of the river. A new span connecting Trestle Park to the railroad bridge would be stationary, while the portion connecting to Harbor Yards would be moveable to allow boats to pass through. “If you have a pedestrian crossing there, you can only imagine what a magnet that would be,” Monnat says.

Mandel Group closed on the land in 2018 and has since been focused on environmental cleanup and other regulatory issues. Demolition of the eyesore grain elevator is targeted for this spring, followed by the Wisconsin Cold Storage complex. Absent any economic hiccups, portions of Harbor Yards could be completed within two years, Monnat says, with other phases to follow. “What you are probably looking at is at least a five-year build-out from now,” he says. 

The largest development within the Harbor District is several blocks south of the Harbor Yards site, where Komatsu Mining Corp. is creating a $285 million manufacturing complex on nearly 60 acres overlooking the inner harbor.  

“When we created the Harbor District five years ago, what we found was a lot of underutilized land on the waterfront, a few minutes from Downtown and the airport, a few blocks from an interstate,” Harbor District Executive Director Lilith Fowler says. “It seemed obvious that there would be an opportunity here. At the same time, you have a lot of complexity in the form of outdated infrastructure and environmental contamination to deal with. There is a high reward there, but also a high level of risk if you are a developer walking into this.”


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s March issue. 

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.