Award-winning brownfields project created vibrant green space, jobs center

Former rail yard and industrial site, image from the city of Milkwaulkee

Ten years ago, the Menomonee Valley in Milwaukee, Wisconsin was dead land.

Today, after many years of clever ideas, careful planning, and hard work, people are fishing in the Menomonee River  — which runs right through the heart of Milwaukee. Commuters and recreational bicyclists are using the new bike paths. There’s a soccer field and even a canoe launch. The land hasn’t merely been cleaned of environmental hazards.  It’s been transformed into a place where people want to spend their leisure time.

The Menomonee River Valley was once a Milwaukee industrial center, but all those industrial plants left behind large amounts of pollutants and toxins in the soil and river. It was one of the area’s most notorious brownfields. In 1998, public meetings, design charettes, and collaboration among many organizations that work in and around the valley coalesced into a plan to rehabilitate the Menomonee Valley. After years of inspecting the land, which had been laying fallow and undeveloped, the city bought the land in 2003 and began the rehabilitation process.

The Menomonee Valley revitalization was an enormous undertaking, requiring careful oversight from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to deal with the many challenges that arise with working with former industrial land — like the careful demolition of a wastewater treatment center and six miles of sewers that led there, and building stormwater management facilities for the new business center.

When it came time to clean up an old former rail yard, they made a horrifying discovery: the area had 4 feet of oil on top of the groundwater table.

“We attempted to recover the area by pumping it out of the ground, but this was very inefficient. We needed to do something else,” said Dave Misky, who heads the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Milwaukee (RACM), which oversees real estate and over 100 properties within the brownfields program. “ The Department of Natural Resources said we could leave it there, as long as we put an interceptor trench there in case the oil wants to move at a later date, because the oil had already been degrading there for 40 years.”

Similarly, when the RACM found an unexpected stash of asbestos, they decided on an innovative solution: instead of paying millions of dollars to remove it to a landfill, where it would simply be buried, they let it onsite, covered it, and made it part of a green space.

To take the area out of the floodplain — the Menomonee River Valley used to be a marshland — they had already planned to build up the soil an average of 8 feet. “We were able to take on 70,000 yards of dirt from nearby road construction project to build the site up and to cover contaminants,” said Misky. “We saved the state millions of dollars on the road construction project, and saved us money since we only needed one source for the dirt.”

Currently, six companies employing over 700 people have relocated to Valley’s business park. The site has transformed into a center for jobs, beauty, and recreation. The Menomonee River Valley is no longer an eyesore or an environmental problem spot – it’s an asset to the whole city.

And yet another brownfields success story.