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Oak Creek eyes 250 dirty acres on lakefront

Sean Ryan
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Two hundred and fifty acres of contaminated land stand between the city of Oak Creek and a usable lakefront.

It can seem like a mile-high brick wall, said Doug Seymour, city director of community development.

“It seemed that once every 10 years it was, ‘We’ve got to do something about the lakefront, we’ve got to do something about the lakefront,’” he said. “But once you uncovered what really needs to be done, it becomes a daunting process.”

The contaminated property is between the South Shore Wastewater Treatment Plant and the We Energies power plant. The land includes a glue factory that’s been vacant since 1985, a fertilizer factory that closed in 2001 and a chemical manufacturing campus that has been vacant since the 1950s.

“The lakefront has really been walled off from the community,” Seymour said, “for the life of the community, pretty much.”

The city has made a few attempts to assess the contamination on the site, but the scale of the problem can be discouraging, Seymour said.

But Oak Creek, he said, will take another shot at scaling the wall by working with the owners of the land to get access for environmental testing. In an effort to push current planning past the point where previous efforts fizzled, the city next week will welcome development experts from around the country for a planning session.

The Urban Land Institute, a 73-year-old organization of developers and planners, is sending a team of five development specialists to Oak Creek to interview area professionals, walk the site and tell the city how much and what kind of potential the property has.

“The suburban location of this is a little different than some that we’ve dealt with in the past,” said Tom Eitler, vice president of advisory services for the institute, based in Washington, D.C. “Certainly there’s pluses if you can get rail access.”

A railroad through the western portion of the site could become the line of choice for the proposed Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter-rail project. The possibility of commuter rail and a lakeside location are two factors that give the site potential despite its contamination, Seymour said.

“The challenges are transportation-related because it is kind of removed,” he said, “and the challenge is going to be, frankly, with the market.”

The city is relying on Eitler’s team to give the site an outsider’s review to see what kind of projects the land could attract and whether it will compete well against other available properties in the area.

“What you can capture with this is going to determine how it is used,” Eitler said.
Seymour said the study results will dictate how many steps it will take for Oak Creek to reach the lakefront.

“I think we’re all very excited about the opportunities,” he said.

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