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Proposal for expanding building in historic Milwaukee park sparks land-use debate

By ANALISE PRUNI of Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service

MILWAUKEE (AP) — A local ecology group’s proposals to expand its buildings in Milwaukee’s Washington Park are coming into conflict with separate plans to give the park a permanent historical designation, giving rise to a wide-ranging debate about how public land should be used.

Washington Park, on the city’s west side, was designed in the late 1890s by the renowned American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead. Now the Urban Ecology Center, a nonprofit group that works with nearby schools and residents in a variety of ways, is proposing to expand the building it has leased in the park since 2007.

Having obtained county supervisors’ tentative approval in July, the Urban Ecology Center is proposing to raise $12 million to renovate and expand its building, originally a boathouse. Separately, it is seeking $2 million for other improvements such as repairing a lagoon footbridge and putting in a new parking lot.

Terry Evans, UEC branch manager at Washington Park, said the boathouse building is not just for the Urban Ecology Center. Expanding it, he said, would let the ecology center increase the number of schools it works with from between 14 and 16 to close to 40.

Those plans, though, are being complicated by a separate push to have Washington Park deemed a historic site. Michael Carriere, an urban historian who submitted that proposal to the Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission in December, said he is seeking to honor Olmsted’s vision for the park and draw up guidelines to govern projects there. That means that, if the park were eventually granted permanent historic status, the Urban Ecology Center may find itself having to change its plans.

At the Historic Preservation Commission’s meeting in December, members of the Urban Ecology Center noted the proposed historical guidelines would set limits on the height and “footprint” of expanded structures. For that reason, they said they were concerned that such a designation would prohibit them from expanding their boathouse building.

Carriere countered that a historic designation could help ensure the park’s future. He said local officials have publicly stated the county hasn’t got enough money to keep Washington Park as well maintained as it should be.

“I’m not suggesting that historic designation is a silver bullet,” Carriere said. “But it does provide some stability for a park and it also can be used as a fundraising mechanism.”

Carriere said his preference would be to find a way to work with the Urban Ecology Center.

“I love Urban Ecology Center,” Carriere said. “My intent was never to stop UEC’s efforts in Washington Park.”

At the same time, he said the Urban Ecology Center’s lease contract for its building was “very open ended, and my concern was that it would become a template for other potential groups to offer partnerships with the park system and do things that may not be as nice.”

Ken Leinbach, executive director of the Urban Ecology Center, said he and others at the ecology center took the time on one occasion to walk Carriere through the park and explain their plans not only for the old boathouse but also to bring back some once-native species and repair the lagoon footbridge.

“I wanted to make sure that the history of the park was present during all of these discussions,” Carriere said. “That doesn’t mean that I think UEC disparages that history. I’m talking with them now about ways we can do this collectively.”

The park’s state of disrepair has not gone unnoticed by neighbors. Mike Howden, a retired social worker who has lived with his wife across from Washington Park for 50 years, called the park’s neglected paths and bridges “break-a-leg walkways.” He said he wants to see repairs made and doesn’t know if a historical designation would help or hinder that goal.

“I know some of the people who are historians and history buffs on the Olmsted Parks and I can certainly agree with them and a lot of what they do,” Howden said. “But it would be very sad if the UEC would leave because they couldn’t come to terms.”

Leinbach noted that the 20 acres managed by the Urban Ecology Center make up less than one-fifth of the park. That’s not to say, though, that he sees no merit in the other side’s arguments.

“We would like to be able to support this (historic designation) concept because we are proponents of Frederick Olmsted,” Leinbach said, “because we feel like we’ve been honoring his work.”

For now at least, the Historic Preservation Commission is postponing a final decision on a historical designation to give those with an interest in the park more time discuss ways to best meet their goals. But there’s one thing that virtually no one contests: That Washington Park is deserving of a permanent historic designation.

According to Leinbach, the Urban Ecology Center is merely looking for the best way to make Washington Park “sing in a way that it accomplishes both social and ecological good and honors the history: the whole history.”

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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