The city of Milwaukee is throwing its weight behind a movement to promote green building on the south side.
The Public Works Committee on Wednesday is expected to approve a resolution designating a 3-mile section of South Sixth Street as the Green Corridor. The designation would cover Sixth between West Howard and West College avenues, giving partnering organizations the authority to pursue grants for construction projects.
The corridor modestly began as a green parcel when landscaping contractor Bryan Simon developed a water neutral building on Sixth Street, but the movement now includes the Garden District Neighborhood Association, the Gateway to Milwaukee, the Energy Exchange, several colleges and American Rivers, a national environmental organization.
“My mission was to stop the release of raw sewage into Lake Michigan and into our rivers,” Simon said. “Every time we get a rainstorm, they open the floodgates, and raw sewage is released. I wouldn’t want to swim in there.”
Simon said he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars creating a permeable pavement parking lot, a rainwater harvesting system, a green roof and other elements designed to ensure no water seeped from his property into the city’s sewage system.
Simon’s example caught on with other nearby businesses, colleges and nonprofit organizations that wanted to emulate his project, said Milwaukee Alderman Terry Witkowski, who sponsored the Green Corridor resolution.
“It was decided we may well have something more here,” Witkowski said. “It was a green street, and then it changed to a green corridor with 39 people from organizations sitting at a table to look at what could be done in this area.”
The coalition has struggled, though, to convince neighborhood businesses it is financially viable to make the same investment Simon did.
“Obviously, people want to see a monetary benefit from doing this,” Simon said. “They’re not just going to do this because it’s the right thing to do.”
Milwaukee agreed to offer that financial incentive. The city charges commercial property owners a storm-water management fee that can cost upwards of $20,000 a year, but agreed to cut that fee by 60 percent or more for property owners who cut down on water runoff. The city would inspect runoff from a property to determine how much to cut from the fee.
“We’re seeing a break-even point on investments around seven to 10 years,” Simon said.
That’s a much shorter amount of time, Witkowski said, than it takes for homeowners and business owners to recoup their investments on solar panel installations, for instance. Nonetheless, he added, Milwaukee businesses haven’t been leaping forward en masse to eliminate storm-water runoff, nor have all of them been asked to do so.
“Have we hit every business up and down the street. No,” Witkowski said. “Basically, what we have to show is this is a savings to you. It’s an initial expense that results in a savings. If no one works on it, it won’t go anywhere.”
Among the neighborhood companies that have approached the city, Witkowski said, are Lindner Logistics Inc. and General Mills Inc. Lindner President Greg Lindner did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Large-scale buy-in will take time, but the city’s Green Corridor designation will help, said Tom Rave, executive director of The Gateway to Milwaukee, an organization that promotes urban development.
“Milwaukee in a lot of ways is just getting started in doing this,” Rave said. “Business is ultimately about cash flow, so they may or may not have the money to make investments.”
Simon’s leadership, Rave added, is how trends get started.
“He’s paid for it out of his own pocket,” Rave said, “so he can show people.”
The 3-mile section of Sixth is ripe for millions of dollars in new investment, Witkowski said. Although the city will not directly spend money on development, Witkowski said, he expects businesses to find many new grant opportunities once the plan officially has the city’s support.
“It adds more credibility when looking for grants, and officially makes the group that has been meeting the Green Corridor Committee,” he said. “Collaborative efforts are usually looked on as a higher level of organization.”
Already, Simon said, the group is planning to build an 11,000-square-foot farmer’s market on the north side of West Howard Avenue. It’s just one more step toward reinventing Sixth Street and, perhaps, the rest of the city, he said.
“We’ve set this up as a model,” Simon said, “for other businesses throughout the city of how you can achieve the same goal of water neutrality.”