County Grounds 2009

An open letter to County Supervisor Weishan and the County Board

In an op ed published last Sunday in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel I wrote that whether or not to locate the UWM College of Engineering and Applied Science on the county grounds was the wrong debate. The right debate should have been how to use the precious amount of open land we have left in Milwaukee County. At the board meeting yesterday I realized that this issue is broader and more critical than I had thought.

During the approximately two hours of debate over whether to sell 89 acres of the county grounds there was much talk about UWM and the quality of the development that would result from this sale, but only once did I hear the larger question addressed. Although the rest of the debate was not without merit, Supervisor Weishan cut to the bone when he observed that this question was not about economic development, not about UWM, not even about the county grounds: it was about balancing the budget. Because the board has found itself in a financial pinch, once again it has decided that selling off irreplaceable county land is the best way to balance the budget. If the emails I received after my op ed appeared are an indication, we are rushing into a proposal that most of the public opposes and about which even the UWM community is deeply divided–simply because the county grounds was “the easiest thing to sell.”

In fairness, the county board certainly listened to the environmental community and went to great lengths to add language that restricts the proposed development in a number of ways as well as proposes protections for the monarch migration habitats. I appreciate the time and effort that went into these deliberations and I do not doubt the sincerity of the board’s intentions. Unfortunately the urgency of closing this sale seems to have won out over making certain the language is enforceable. William Domina, the corporation counsel, made it clear that the proposed language was ambiguous and could be interpreted in different ways. I thank Supervisor Weishan for the request that this decision be delayed until the language was clarified and strengthened. As you know, that request was rejected on a 15-4 vote.

Since the vote on this sale is now history, we must work together to ensure that the board’s good intentions become reality and that development at the county grounds meets the high standards intended. This includes:

  1. Low density development. The resolution stipulates that buildings may not exceed 30% of the land area. Verbal testimony supports minimizing surface parking as well.
  2. Mixed use construction. There should be no stand-alone commercial buildings, such as restaurants, big box stores, or gas stations.
  3. High quality “green” building. Although not explicit in the resolution, the board expressed its expectation that UWM would willingly comply with the board’s intentions, be the best possible partner, and use state-of-the-art sustainable construction.
  4. Monarch habitat protection. The sale of the land is contingent upon the creation of a landscaping plan in consultation with UWM, Milwaukee County Parks, Milwaukee Public Museum, and Friends of the Monarch Trail. The resolution unwisely suggests that the existing habitat may be replaced, which is impossible ecologically. It also specifies improving and enhancing the habitat, which can’t be done through replacement.

Because of the low density requirement, the overall footprint of development is also still in play. The size and location of buildings, roads, parking, and storm water retention within the development zone will impact the character of the landscape significantly. The board and UWM seem to agree that this project should be environmentally exemplary. Who would disagree with that?

However, a disturbing policy lies at the heart of this deal: When there is a fiscal crisis the county sells land assets to meet annual operating expenses. In recommending a yes vote on this sale, one supervisor exclaimed “we must sell assets; what better place to sell than a development zone?” Never mind that this development zone, a compromise hammered out ten years ago in equally contentious debates in order to meet similar county budget shortfall, was established at 66 acres and not 89 acres. The more important issue is the policy of land sales to balance a budget. It is not a new policy; it predates the current county board members. We simply must do better!

I do not envy the county board their responsibility for this budgetary dilemma. I have no doubt that this takes an enormous amount of their time and involves painful decisions. But we cannot continue to sell off our children’s inheritance to pay for our current needs. Milwaukee has a park system that most cities can only dream about, one that has been nominated* for a national award despite years of declining budgets. The county grounds may yet prove to be a jewel in the crown of this park system and a vital part of our community’s urban wilderness. We must not squander this treasure. Let’s create the exemplary development scheme that will accomplish this, one that will continue to provide unparalleled opportunities for county residents to enjoy nature in the years to come.

*Update: The Milwaukee County Park System won the National Gold Medal for Excellence in Oct. 2009.

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Eddee Daniel - Fine Art Photography