Wauwatosa Master Plan Would Bulldoze Last Corner of County Grounds

Must “Sanctuary Woods” be sacrificed for retail and residential development?

I crept through the snowy woods as stealthily as possible, my eye on a tree limb ahead. Four long-eared owls perched on that limb stared back at my approach. As I raised and focused my telephoto lens one of them swiveled to confront me head on. Our eyes locked.

Long-eared owl.

Then it and the others—including two I hadn’t noticed—rose and took off, sailing deeper into the woods. Six large owls! It was both a peak experience and a reassurance. I hadn’t seen any owls for several years and here was clear proof that they were back on the Milwaukee County Grounds in force. This was good news not only for the birders and others who love these woods, but it meant that the habitat remained healthy enough to attract an elusive and sensitive species.

Unfortunately, my reassurance was tempered by the realization that the very spot on which I stood watching the owls disappear from sight could soon be a road. If that happens they would likely disappear again, this time for good.

Sanctuary Woods has become a very popular place to walk dogs.

For many, especially those who use this area regularly to walk dogs or simply to walk in the peaceful woods, it will probably come as a surprise to learn that this corner of the County Grounds has never been protected. It feels like parkland. In fact it was fenced off during years of construction all around it in order to preserve the habitat I’m witnessing now.

Construction fencing encircled the woodland during construction of County Grounds Park and the MMSD detention basins.

But the decades of negotiation and compromise that resulted in the establishment of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Innovation Campus and adjacent County Grounds Park never involved this southeast corner. Now the City of Wauwatosa is developing a master plan that, in its current form, includes a new thoroughfare connecting Innovation Park with the Village of Wauwatosa. The 66-ft. wide right-of-way, which has already been named “Emerald Parkway,” would bifurcate the woods. A second, north-south road would separate the woods from the County Park, fragmenting wildlife habitats and diminishing the recreational experience for the public (see map below).

4 Caption: Aerial view of County Grounds showing the approximate location of the new roads.

The primary purpose of “Emerald Parkway” would be to spur dense, mixed-use developments (including residential and retail) along the entire length between it and Watertown Plank Road. According to a recent article in BizTimes*, the County Grounds portion is just a small part of a larger plan to increase density along Watertown Plank Road, thus creating a new “metropolitan center” for the city. That larger plan has merit.

Stepping back from the County Grounds for a moment, an overall increase in density ought to be good both for economic development and conservation of wildlife habitats. As global populations become increasingly urban and therefore more distant from surrounding nature, city planners all over the world are taking up the challenge of providing urban parks as an antidote. Density is part of the solution—as long as the density doesn’t destroy irreplaceable natural areas.

The stub of a new road already points east from Innovation Park towards the threatened woodland.

You don’t have to be a nature-enthusiast to see that parts of Wauwatosa’s plan fly in the face of conventional wisdom. Parks improve the quality of life for a community’s residents. But also, from a purely pragmatic point of view, it is well documented that property values (and therefore potential tax revenues) increase near parks and natural areas. Parks create value. They are also an attraction. On its website, Discover Milwaukee, a business-oriented organization, describes Wauwatosa as “attractive to professionals because of its proximity to the Milwaukee County Grounds” [emphasis theirs].

Although it has no official designation, the southeast corner of the County Grounds has come to be known colloquially as “Sanctuary Woods,” a hopeful appellation. The location, adjacent to the Milwaukee County Regional Medical Center makes it ideal, in its current natural state, for a health and wellness trail. “Proximity to nature is a valuable asset for the medical complex,” says Dr. Marc Gorelick, pediatrician and Executive Vice President at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. “The natural beauty of the County Grounds is important to patients and families, who see it as a peaceful refuge at a time of great stress. It is also increasingly attractive to our workforce, many of whom are millennials who value environmental conservation. Given the existing high density of development on the medical campus itself, any further loss of green space on the remainder of the grounds would be very concerning.”

Stone stairs still lead down to the ravine trail from the time when the County Asylum was located here. 

Sanctuary Woods, which includes a meadow, wetland and a rare remnant oak savanna, is one of the more beautiful and biodiverse sections of the County Grounds and therefore—not surprisingly—intensively used by the public.It is safe to say that, if you polled the neighborhoods around the County Grounds, you would find resounding support [emphasis his] for preserving this wildlife habitat,” says Bryan Lenz, Director of Bird City Wisconsin.

Wauwatosa, which prides itself on being a Tree City USA, has yet to be designated as a Bird City. But it could. In a passionate letter opposing the proposed road Lenz describes the importance of such natural areas to humans and wildlife and says that the County Grounds has “one of the largest bird lists” in Milwaukee County. He goes on to say that the road and subsequent developments would cause fragmentation of habitats and “destroy its value for sensitive wildlife.”

A very healthy cardinal wintering in the County Grounds. 

It’s probably safe to say that those at City Hall who want to see this road built will not be polling the neighborhoods to learn how much the community loves this land. However, there will be an opportunity for public input. An updated version of the master plan will be presented to the Wauwatosa Common Council’s Committee of the Whole at 6:00 p.m. on January 17. That meeting is open to the public. After that meeting, a public open house will be scheduled for sometime in early February, according to Paulette Enders, City of Wauwatosa Development Director.

In the meantime, you can always contact the Wauwatosa Common Council, the mayor’s office and Milwaukee County supervisors to voice your opinions and feelings. Although the City of Wauwatosa is developing the master plan, the land is owned by Milwaukee County. In a resolution passed in October 2016, the county board requested an environmental assessment specific to the proposed road be done by March 2017.

A snowy morning in Sanctuary Woods.

On a recent morning as I walked again through Sanctuary Woods I met a man named Mike whose two large dogs ran circles around us as we chatted. He echoed my love for the woods. When I mentioned the proposed road he grew solemn and told me, “I used to walk my dogs around the abandoned Eschweiler buildings, until they built apartments there. I figure this here is the last corner left that’s natural and peaceful. Seems like they just want to tear everything up.” I assured him that there are many people who feel the way he does and expressed hope that “they” can be convinced to save Sanctuary Woods.

As he turned to go he said he’d contact his alderman.

All photos by Eddee Daniel. See more of Daniel’s photos of Sanctuary Woods and the rest of the County Grounds on Flickr.

*Biztimes; Dec. 19 – Jan. 8, 2017, pg. 11. 







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 eddee@eddeedaniel.com.