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In the Valley

Don Hanlon is a Professor in the Department of Architecture,
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

In the mid-1980’s people were complaining about a bad smell emanating from the Menomonee Valley.  Not only did it assault those speeding over the Valley on I-94 or the three viaducts, it crept across the entire city, enveloping neighborhoods in a noxious vapor of something distinctly dead.  A vibrant estuary and wetland that once supported a complex ecology, by the 20th century the Valley had become a filthy industrial ghetto.  The Valley was a world apart from the rest of the City, reserved for industries most residents could afford to ignore or at least accept.  For decades people had tolerated its stench because Milwaukee’s industrial, working class legacy was at the core of its economy and its cultural myth.  Industry is not pretty but it is real.

Typical landscaping in the valley
Photo by Don Hanlon

However, the economy was rapidly shifting toward the service sector, such as banking, insurance and professions that had few attachments to heavy industry.  It was difficult to attract professionals to a City with a reputation for a cloying odor.  Something had to be done.  So the Mayor appointed a panel of civic leaders to study the problem and to propose a solution.  His panel consisted of executives from major industries in the Valley, including the slaughterhouses, the cat food plant, the yeast plant, the railroad and the tanneries.  It hired a staff, spent a lot of money and about a year later issued its report, the gist of which stated, “Smell?  What smell?  We don’t smell anything.”

This did not bode well for progress toward a solution.  It was clear that change was not likely in the near future from within Milwaukee’s business and political establishment.  Instead, it came from outside as globalization made many of the City’s traditional industries either irrelevant or cheap labor drew them away to other countries.  Much of the miasma that hung over the Valley gradually dissipated as it became a largely vacant wasteland.

The City now faced another problem: a gigantic tract of land at its center severely polluted and alienated in respect to geography and infrastructure.  Throughout its history, there had been no attempt to integrate it into the form of the City.  All major roads avoided it and apart from factory jobs, it had no features that contributed to normal urban life.  Without those factory jobs it was a dead zone.

The real problem, however, was that the City government perceived this situation as a problem rather than an opportunity.  No other city in America at the time had a comparable contiguous tract of land at its core that could be integrated into its urban structure.  Here was a chance for a city to reinvent itself by growing efficiently toward its center rather than spreading haphazardly and inefficiently outward into its suburbs.  To make this a reality required a leap of imagination, disciplined thinking and strong political leadership, all of which it turns out, were lacking.  The City missed an opportunity.  Perhaps, by examining what has been done in light of the extraordinary potential of the Valley, the City can avoid a similar mistake in the future.

I speak from personal experience.  In the late 1980’s the Mayor, John Norquist, asked me to join a group to produce guidelines for the future development of the Valley.  I was the only person in the group who was outside the Department of City Development and to my dismay the only person with professional training in urban design and architecture.  In a series of meetings, it became clear that the Department saw its mission merely as the selling of land as quickly as possible and short of that, giving it away.  Discussion devolved into the merits of chain link fencing over more expensive alternatives.  Another darkly humorous idea, proposed without irony, was to build (as if such a thing could be easily done) a small wetland at the base of the southern bluff near the Domes in commemoration of the original condition of the valley.  To my surprise, a suggestion to test the soil first was accepted, a study that produced the startling news that the soil was saturated with chromium and battery acid.

I argued for a strategic design for the Valley’s development.  Instead of perceiving it merely as a collection of potential building sites and parking lots, we should approach it as a comprehensive urban design that could break with the past and integrate the Valley into the city.  The first proposal was to recognize three zones, all of which would contribute to the future quality of the city in different ways.  The eastern end had the greatest potential for integration into Milwaukee’s downtown, the Fifth Ward and Walker’s Point due to its position and relatively low level of pollution.  It could become an attractive commercial and residential district because it was within walking distance to jobs and civic amenities downtown as well as to the railroad station.  It would also be a potential site for a new university/research center.  Because it had distinct boundaries – the Menomonee River, the canal and 6th Street – it could emerge as a place with its own character.  The key would be to design the intersection of Canal and 6th Streets as an active urban center, with a mix of commercial, entertainment and residential activities, like the core of a small town.  The second zone would be at the western end of the Valley, a district that could develop into a similar commercial and residential extension for West Allis.  The third zone would be the center portion of the Valley, which due to its higher degree of industrialization and pollution was not conducive to these uses.  Instead, with proper remediation of the pollution, it could become Milwaukee’s Central Park.

My second proposal was to make Canal Street a boulevard that linked all three zones of the Valley.  It would terminate at the western end in a new town center (where there is now a desolate parking lot surrounding one of the ugliest buildings in America).  At the eastern end, it would connect the Valley via bridges to the Fifth Ward via Pittsburgh and Oregon Streets and to Walker’s Point and downtown via 6th Street.

It has been over twenty years since the City began to consider a new use for the Valley so perhaps it’s time to take stock of what has been accomplished.  The 6th Street viaduct was lowered to intersect with Canal Street but there is nothing at this intersection of the Valley’s spine and the principal street that crosses from downtown to Walker’s Point.  Nothing.  The eastern end of Canal Street terminates in the Harley Davidson Museum parking lot punctuated by an excruciatingly kitschy sculpture.  The construction of the Harley Davidson Museum effectively killed any future opportunity for integrating the eastern end of the Valley - the part with the greatest potential for urban development - into the rest of the city.  As a simple test, see if you can spot even one pedestrian at the intersection of Canal and 6th Streets.  I doubt you will.  Likewise, the western end of Canal Street peters out into a no-man’s land of parking lots, usually vacant, that exacerbate problems with polluted rainwater runoff into the river.

Terminus of Canal Street at 6th Street
Photo by Don Hanlon

The City has proceeded in an equally haphazard fashion in its development of the rest of the Valley.  In its zeal to occupy the land as quickly as possible and to assume that the only jobs that could be created would be manufacturing jobs, the City adopted depressingly low standards in respect to design.  In short, it has approached the development of the Valley as if it were suburban land, not urban land.  With encouragement from the City, every business built there in recent years has treated the design of their building and their site exactly as if they were building in the suburbs, that is, an undistinguished corporate box standing in the middle of a parking lot with, of course, the requisite fig leaf of paltry landscaping.  For example, the rendering of a “High-Performance Building in the Menomonee Valley” in the Sustainable Design Guidelines produced by the Menomonee Valley Partners presents a horrifying prospect (design.renewthevalley.org).  It appears to have been created by an elementary school child with a vague recollection of something someone related from what they could remember of a Readers Digest article.  Replete with all the clichés of so-called “green design,” the proposal has no merit as an architectural or landscape design, yet we are to believe it epitomizes the virtues of the future of the Menomonee Valley.  When the entire Valley is eventually sold off for this kind of development, surely the politicians, business people and bureaucrats will congratulate themselves for a job well done, but the Valley will remain a strange anti-urban ghetto with no relation to the fundamentals of humane metropolitan life.

The argument for practically giving land away for the construction of the cheapest buildings possible in the Valley (with no concern for what that means to the image of the City) emphasizes the creation of relatively low paying jobs.  As if this was motivated by altruism.  Yes, there will be jobs.  But manufacturing jobs are not the only jobs that could have been created in the redevelopment of the Valley.  How about the jobs in offices, entertainment venues, restaurants and bars, small-scale services, research and education, for example?  All of which, in addition to manufacturing jobs, could have served a new, vibrant district that was active 24-hours a day.  And imagine if a high speed rail line were to eventually connect Milwaukee with Chicago and Madison so commuters to these cities could walk from their apartment in the Valley to the railroad station through a park or down a tree-lined boulevard?  What would that have meant to land values in the Valley and the economy of the City?

I was encouraged when decisions about the future development of the Valley moved beyond the Department of City Development because I hoped for a higher degree of professionalism in respect to urban, landscape and architectural design.  But that did not happen.  Public relations for the Menomonee Valley Partners, a business group that now controls development, invokes the magical term “sustainable design” (a bromide used for just about anything these days) but only as a vague recommendation and only in respect to return-on-investment, not ethical, social or environmental concerns.  There is also considerable self-congratulation for the inclusion of a soccer field, a bicycle trail and some signs, as if these constitute all that is necessary for civic amenities.

The Menomonee Valley is a “brownfield,” a euphemism in this case for a severely abused, toxic landscape.  Defenders of the past and present approach to redevelopment will no doubt invoke the term to justify their lack of foresight and imagination, claiming that nothing better could be done.  This is not true.  There are many examples, notably in Europe, in which cities have reclaimed brownfields to become vital contributors to their urban culture.  An examination of a great opportunity squandered should hinge on a simple question: Why couldn’t Milwaukee manage to do this too?  A large portion of the Valley remains and there will be other large sections of our aging city that will need to be redeveloped.  Hopefully, Milwaukee will learn something from its colossal mistake in the Valley and take a fresh, more responsible approach in the future.

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