One of the last remaining stands of mature trees, along with a valuable wetland, may yet be lost on the Milwaukee County Grounds in Wauwatosa. The compromise that established UWM’s Innovation Park development zone and County Grounds Park did not protect all of the undeveloped portions of the long-contested county land, as many have assumed.
Two unprotected parcels — among the loveliest in what officially is known as the Northeast Quadrant — are located immediately north of the We Energies power plant and Ronald McDonald House (A and B, respectively on the aerial view below).
The Milwaukee County Board’s Economic Development Committee voted last week to recommend the sale of the power plant to the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center (MRMC.) The resolution goes to the full board Thursday, March 26. Since the plant serves the MRMC, the sale makes sense. However, a 10-acre mix of woodland and wetland north of the plant is included in the resolution. This portion of the site provides a wealth of benefits to the community as a high-quality natural area and serves as a buffer between County Grounds Park and the intensive developments along Watertown Plank Road. People use it constantly for dog-walking and simply strolling in the shade.
It appears to most who walk this land to be part of the adjacent parkland—and it ought to be—but it is not. Its future may be in jeopardy.
The 10 acres are currently zoned for institutional use with an expectation of economic development. The resolution passed in committee would remove all deed restrictions and “allow the County to have unencumbered control” over its fate. The County Board could recognize the virtues of protecting this site. After all, the Monarch Conservancy was established on the north end of Innovation Park and serves as a model of integrating environmental concerns with economic development. But the odds may be stacked against the 10 acres in question. I’ll explain, but first, let’s take a quick tour.
I went out on one of last week’s unseasonably warm days. The balmy temperature made up for the drab colors so typical of mid-March. It also woke up a bevy of spring birds. Invisible in the damp meadows and brushy wetlands, their lively chatter was a welcome harbinger of spring.
A disused rail line leads towards the power plant. Overgrown with buckthorn, it frames a well-worn trail. I let a young couple pass me by. Their large, brown, mixed-breed dog ranged back and forth through the surrounding thickets. I tried to spot the owls that winter over here with no luck. It’s likely they have migrated north .
A sheet of icy snow remained in the shelter of a short precipice. A black trench threaded an irregular pathway through the snow, marking the route of the only running stream on the County Grounds. Bright afternoon sun sparkled on the surface of the water. A bit of moss poked through in places, so far the only sign of green. Two young boys rode past on bikes with thick tires. They called out to one another, racing up a hill towards the park. The snow has melted completely off the hills leaving behind matted grasses and the exposed tunnels of small mammals.
Desperate for dwindling resources this late in the winter season, rabbits have taken to gnawing bark off the bases of trees. I see this as a metaphor. Since the late 1990s, when then-County Executive Tom Ament declared the Northeast Quadrant “surplus” and proposed selling all 300 acres to developers, political and economic interests eager to exploit it have been trying to nibble away at what remains. Every time a new “compromise” is proposed, more public land is nibbled away. Now, all that remains are two small woodland parcels and the question: what is the best use of this land?
The many recreational users of the land have already cast their vote. There also is a clear rationale for the medical community to take advantage of the peaceful setting. Hospitals around the country are recognizing the great health value in creating wellness trails in nearby natural areas. The close proximity of these woodlands make them ideal for the purpose and would benefit patients, visitors and staff of Ronald McDonald House as well as the MRMC and the community at large.
If preserving the woods and adding the land to the existing county park seems so obvious a choice, as it does to me, why then I am concerned about the odds of such an outcome? I won’t say it’s all because of the rabbits, but they are ever-present and nearly insatiable. The wording of the resolution that will be put to the county board is suggestive: The parcel in question would be released from restrictions, “freeing up over 10 acres of land in a high value area.”
Sandwiched between County Grounds Park and the power plant, the woods indeed have high value—for recreation and personal health as well as significant wildlife habitat. But unless the City of Wauwatosa changes the zoning from institutional use to conservancy, its value must be construed solely as a financial transaction. It doesn’t need to be “freed up” in order to continue to serve its native functions.
According to city and county officials, the MRMC is currently involved in strategic and land use planning. Wauwatosa is not far behind. Ideally, good land use planning would consider the inherent worth of high-quality natural areas. County Supervisor James Schmitt, whose jurisdiction includes the County Grounds, says he “would not vote for anything that would harm wetlands.” He adds, however, “Eventually, there will be some development in there.”
I don’t believe in the inevitability of development. Sometimes our better judgment prevails, provided all interested parties (MRMC, city officials, county supervisors, the recreating public and even potential developers) come to understand that everyone benefits when the community protects prime woodlands.
No opposition to the resolution is expected. The current resolution is not the problem. If passed Thursday, it will become the County’s responsibility to decide how to proceed with its 10 acres of woodland and wetland. I believe it’s time to stop nibbling around the edges of the County Grounds. As de facto parkland it has served the community well. Making it official parkland would increase its value far beyond any monetary measure.
Note: For a thoughtful overview of County Grounds history, read “Dismembering the County Grounds.”