Tag Archives: Milwaukee

From Suburban Milwaukee, a History-Making Battle over Water and Sprawl

Waukesha, Wisconsin is a city whose identity has always been tied to water. In the late 1800s, the town was known for its natural springs. So fresh-tasting was the water that people traveled from around the country to share in its purported medicinal properties. Among those who sought its healing powers was first lady Mary Todd Lincoln.

But there are no springs in Waukesha anymore. Over the years, as Waukesha evolved into a sprawling and affluent suburb of Milwaukee, its springs went dry or were paved over. More recently, the deep sandstone aquifer that is the town’s main source of water has been drained substantially and has become contaminated with radium.

All of which has led to the watershed moment in which Waukesha finds itself today. The suburb is seeking permission to be the first community since the Great Lakes Pact of 2008 to pipe water in from the lakes, the country’s largest source of fresh surface water.

The proposal has sparked debates about sprawl and water policy in a region where land development has far outpaced population growth. And observers are watching this case closely because it will set a precedent which could have a profound effect on urban form and rural land throughout the Great Lakes region.

Pabst Farms, a greenfield development 12 miles west of Waukesha, typifies the sprawling development that has exhausted water resources nearby.

The Great Lakes Pact was designed to protect this important freshwater source from ever being depleted by water-starved communities in the U.S. South and Southwest. Ironically, however, unsustainable development patterns in relatively water-rich places near the Great Lakes have exhausted local freshwater sources. As a result, conflicts over Great Lakes water will be fought much closer to home. Waukesha is the first battleground.

The pact allows only communities inside the Great Lakes basin to pipe water from the lakes. Waukesha itself lies entirely outside the basin, but is eligible to apply for special diversion permission because it is part of a county that lies partly inside. Under the pact, all eight governors of the Great Lakes states will have to give their approval before Waukesha is granted an exception to pipe water 15 miles west from Lake Michigan.

First, however, the plan will need to be approved by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. It has already received the approval of Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.

These decisions could open up vast new stretches of the Great Lakes region to the type of land-devouring development that already characterizes Waukesha. And it could signal more bad news for nearby rural areas, the city of Milwaukee, and other Great Lakes regions that can scarcely afford any more outward sprawl.

Proponents of Waukesha’s diversion plan point out that it has some environmental benefits. All water consumed by the community will be treated and then pumped back into Lake Michigan, so as not to lower water levels. The proposal would also allow the aquifer to begin its long recovery and would put an end to homeowners’ use of water softeners, which add chloride to the water, said Mike Hahn said, chief environmental engineer with SEWRPC.

But watchdogs say the plan will fuel sprawl and weaken the region’s urbanized areas. The most controversial portion would create a new water service territory extending beyond the boundaries of Waukesha into surrounding municipalities.

“That’s where many of us in the environmental community look at that and think, ‘That is just to allow sprawl in the western suburbs,’” said Emily Green, senior field managing organizer with the Wisconsin Sierra Club. “That’s not what the Great Lakes Pact was intended to cover.”

Local environmentalists are working to ensure that communities from outside the basin seeking Great Lakes water are held to a very high standard.

Hahn of the Planning Commission says much of the new service area is already developed and all environmentally significant areas are precluded from development. SEWPRC has officially stated that the new service area would allow for only 1,500 new homes.

James Rowen, author of the local blog The Political Environment and a former Milwaukee mayoral staffer, thinks that estimate is low. Rowen says that, given the diversion, Waukesha is likely to use its abundance of clean freshwater to lure new businesses and residents. And the likely loser in the whole scenario is Milwaukee, which for decades has been declining relative to its western suburban neighborhoods.

“The compact is a water management and conservation document first and foremost,” Rowen said, and should not be used to give “one municipality an economic advantage over another, or one state over another.”

As Milwaukee has lost manufacturing jobs, suburban Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington counties have beckoned to businesses and residents from the city. As the region sprawled in the nineties, its population grew only two percent, but 18 percent of its farmland was lost to development.

David Rusk of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago examined the insidious pattern of low-growth sprawl in his report “Sprawl, Race and Concentrated Poverty in Southeast Wisconsin” [PDF] in 2001. He found that between 1950 and 1990, the footprint of the Milwaukee-Waukesha metropolitan area grew at eight times the rate of its population.

New greenfield developments have had a particularly strong pull for the region’s middle- and upper-classes. The “secession” of affluent residents from the city of Milwaukee was the subject of a 1999 report by Marc Levine at the Center for Economic Development at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The report noted that exurban regions of the metro area saw a 60 percent increase in their share of people with incomes greater than $100,000 between 1987 and 1997. Meanwhile, the city of Milwaukee’s population of high earners fell by 19 percent. At the time, Waukesha County contained 44 percent of the region’s affluent residents.

In turn, low-growth sprawl has widened the chasm between rich and poor, Levine wrote. The Brookings Institution recently named it the most segregated area in the country.

“Metropolitan Milwaukee has already become a highly polarized region, with growing exurban pockets of affluence more and more disconnected from an increasingly impoverished central city,” Levine wrote. “The exodus damages the city’s tax base and weakens its consumer markets, and hinders urban revitalization efforts.”

Further growth in Waukesha is likely to come at the expense of the rest of the region, said Rowen.

“Even if the city of Milwaukee were to sell Lake Michigan water to the city of Waukesha, the economic benefit would be a pittance, compared to the economic benefit transferred in terms of jobs and development,” he said.

That’s why local activists have been adamant that Waukesha control its growth and its impact on the environment and find another way to secure safe drinking water. The suburb has been making do by pulling water from a combination of deep and shallow wells and using a special filtration process. Activists say they should continue to explore alternatives like these, rather than import lake water.

It’s not just urban contingents that have raised concerns about Waukesha’s potential growth. Residents of the nearby town of Waukesha — a rural community that borders the city of Waukesha — aren’t happy about the expanded water service area either. Angie Van Scyoc, chairman of the town of Waukesha, said the plan, as it is currently written, threatens the rural character of her community, raising the threat of annexation.

“Many communities feel like the towns around them are there for their consumption,” she said. “We don’t want to be consumed by them. We want to be independent.”

This post was originally written for Streetsblog Capitol Hill.

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Filed under Great Lakes, Headline, sprawl

Is Your City ‘Water Sustainable?’

From The Nature Conservancy via the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

“Americans are collectively moving from the places that are best equipped to deal with climate change to those that are least equipped,” (a Nature conservancy blogger) writes.

The five cities at the bottom in water sustainability (Las Vegas, Phoenix and Mesa,  Tucson, and Los Angeles) grew by an average of 37 percent from 1990-2000.

But among the five most water-sustainable cities, only Chicago grew. The other four cloudy and water-rich towns Cleveland, Milwaukee, Detroit and New Orleans — all lost population.”

The article also has information about climate change impacting the Great Lakes, especially Lake Erie.

-KG

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Filed under Economic Development, Great Lakes, the environment

Rust Belt Tops List of Poorest Cities

This shouldn’t surprise anyone, but nevertheless:

#1. Detroit

#2. Cleveland

In chart form, if you prefer--via the Plain Dealer.

In chart form, if you prefer--via the Plain Dealer.

#3. Buffalo

#4. Milwaukee

#5. St. Louis

#6. Miami

#7. Memphis

#8. Cincinnati

#9. Philadelphia

Poverty workers in Cleveland blame the increase on unemployment.

This should send a message to the federal government. If we’re serious about addressing poverty in this country, we need to address the way the economic restructuring has affected Rust Belt cities. Taking tax dollars from the people in these cities and giving it to bankers in New York isn’t much of a solution.

-AS

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Report: Investment Needed to Solve Great Lakes’ Sewage Crisis

Billions of dollars of infrastructure investment are needed to stop untreated sewage from Great Lakes cities that flows into the Lakes, according to a study released earlier this month.

From January 2009 through January of this year, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Milwaukee and Gary, Indiana, discharged 41 billion gallons of untreated sewage and storm water into the Lakes, according to data analyzed by the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.

“The Great Lakes are under siege from sewage overflows,” Jeff Skelding, campaign director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, said in a statement. “This report underscores that we have solutions to keep our beaches open, our people healthy and our economy growing. Inaction, however, will exacerbate a problem that is already very serious.”

These sewage overflows are one of the most serious problems facing the Lakes, the report states. Among the problems this pollution can cause- beach closures, harm to wildlife and damage to the tourism industry.

It recommends a two-pronged approach:
– cities must separate miles of combined sewer pipes into sanitary and storm sewers and
– installing “green” infrastructure — such as rain gardens, vegetated roofs and pervious pavement — to capture and cleans this storm water and reduce the volume of storm water flowing off the landscape.

The bad news? “Communities in the Great Lakes basin (are) facing a $23.3 billion tab. Reducing the incidence of (combined sewer overflows) to a level the EPA considers acceptable would collectively cost the cities of Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Milwaukee and Gary, Ind., about $3.7 billion.”

The good news? This investment would be good for public health and the economy, with thousands of jobs created, according to the group.

Read the detailed, 40-page report for more information about sewer overflows and to see what different cities are doing to fix this problem.

-KG

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Filed under Economic Development, Editorial, Green Jobs, regionalism, the environment

The Newest Rust Belt Investor…China?

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Take a look at this CNN article about a Chinese firm with plans to build a “Chinese-style mega shopping mall” in Milwaukee.

“The cost of doing business there is very low,” Wu Li, president of Toward Group told CNN. “The people are friendly, the environment is peaceful and the pace of living is slow. It is a good place for Chinese enterprises to go abroad.”

The story explains Wu’s company recently purchased a dormant shopping complex in northwestern Milwaukee that was built in the 1970s, for $6 million. It will  open the mall, renamed AmAsia, in August, according to CNN, part of a growing trend of Chinese investment in US real estate. That trend has mostly been in cities outside the Rust Belt –until now.

But not so fast- according to the story. Japanese investors did the same thing a few decades ago and it didn’t work out very well.

Why not?

“You go into a place like Milwaukee, and you have a country that has no clue what people in Milwaukee want in a mall and when they buy it the first thing they do is change it to run like a Japanese mall or a Korean mall or a Chinese mall,” according to an international business attorney quoted in the story. “Well nobody wants to go and then they bail.”

While the firm does plan to have a US company run the mall, it the story says it is recruiting retailers from China. “Two potential candidates include Beijing Wu Yu Tai Tea Company Ltd. and Tong Sheng He, a shoe shop. The goal, he says, is to help Chinese brands boost their image in America while enabling American businesses to connect directly with Chinese wholesalers without having to go through a middleman.

‘It is only a matter of time for the U.S. to recognize Chinese products are high quality,’ he told CNN. ‘[The mall] will represent the highest levels of Chinese manufacturing.'” The mall will also have Chinese cultural exhibits like painting or dancing.

Is this a concept that could succeed in your city?

I’m skeptical. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel points out that this mall is not near a highway interchange, as most malls are. The city had planned to demolish the site and put homes there, according to the paper.

Furthermore, while I know we as a country buy billions of dollars worth of Chinese-made products, I just can’t imagine people really embracing this concept.

On the other hand, if they want to invest here…why not?

What do you think?

-KG

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Filed under Economic Development, Headline, Politics, Real Estate

Lake Access: Chicago and Milwaukee vs. Cleveland

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After spending a few days in Chicago and Milwaukee recently, I noticed how great a job both these cities do of utilizing their lakefront.

In both Chi-town and Milwaukee (pictured above) people have tons of direct access to Lake Michigan: miles of beautiful lakefront parks and trails for biking, walking, or just general enjoyment of the water.

It especially made me notice how poor a job Cleveland does at utilizing a similar space.

What’s on Cleveland’s lakefront? There is the beautiful Edgewater Park, but there’s also a power plant, highway, the shipping port, industrial areas, a secondary airport, and Cleveland Browns’ Stadium- which is used for eight Browns games a year? There’s a large marina with little public access, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Great Lakes Science Center.

The Port Authority of Cleveland, however, has been making plans to move the port from the mouth of the Cuyahoga River, near downtown, to a location on the east side.

The plan is to use soil from the dredging of the river to create an entirely new shoreline complete with parks, entertainment and housing.

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“This is potentially one of the great waterfronts in the world,” said Stanton Eckstut, a consultant, who met Tuesday with the port authority board’s real estate and development finance committee.

The Cleveland City Planning Commission last year voted to approve a new port off the East 55th Street lakeshore, northeast of downtown Cleveland. The port would displace a state-run marina and popular fishing pier. The relocation is expected to cost about $500 million, but it will make way for the port to expand and begin container shipping.

But overall development will take years, officials said. Cities have seen waterfront buildups play out for two and three decades.

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Growing Power

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All you members of GLUE – Great Lakes Urban Exchange– may remember hearing (and seeing!) Will Allen and learning about his amazing urban farm, Growing Power, in Milwaukee.

In fact, we at Rust Wire featured some photos from Growing Power back in March.

Now, The New York Times has noticed Allen and the work he is doing.

For those of you not familiar with the project, Growing Power is  “14 greenhouses crammed onto two acres in a working-class neighborhood on Milwaukee’s northwest side, less than half a mile from the city’s largest public-housing project.” It advocates safe, healthy, affordable food for everyone.

-KG

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