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Troubled waters, continued

In his current capacity with Sixteenth Street, McAvoy continues to be involved with the Nelson Institute. In May, McAvoy and Ben Gramling, the agency's sustainable development program manager, hosted students from the Nelson Institute's Culture, History and Environment (CHE) graduate certificate program for its annual place-based workshop, a several-day field trip with a cohort of CHE graduate students and faculty.

CHE place-based workshop
Sixteenth Street hosted Culture, History and
Environment students and faculty for a place-
based workshop in May. Credit William Cronon.

This year's workshop was built around the theme Landscapes of Health in Wisconsin, providing a place-based perspective on the diversity of populations, health care issues and landscapes that have been shaped by past and present economic, social and environmental conditions. While visiting Sixteenth Street, students toured the Kinnickinnic River corridor and the Menomonee River Valley, where revitalization efforts have been more than a decade in the making.

Once the backbone of Milwaukee's historic industrial sector and its urban economies - in 1920, more than 50,000 people were employed within the Menomonee River Valley - its role as a commercial hub faded dramatically through the second half of the 20th century with interstate highway development and the economic recession.

Most businesses closed or left and the Valley became a wasteland of abandoned buildings, standing vacant for more than two decades. Debris, sand, salt, coal and junked vehicles were stored in the Valley, making it not only an eyesore but an environmental hazard. It became the largest brownfield site in Wisconsin.

"If you were here ten years ago, it looked like something out of World War II in Berlin," McAvoy says. "It was these old buildings, the groundwater was contaminated, the soils were contaminated; it was just a mess."

Smart growth

Adjacent to the city's downtown, the Valley forms the northern boundary of Sixteenth Street's service area. Even though neighboring families were the most affected by the area's decline - and would have the most to gain from its restoration - McAvoy says it was a challenge to generate community interest in reclaiming the area. It had been so long neglected that few people had any connection.

"Nobody, except for the few people that were left working there, ever ventured in," McAvoy says.

The neighborhood not only suffered from the earlier exodus of jobs, but no new jobs were coming in. Meanwhile, the housing stock and the overall condition of the neighborhoods adjacent to the Valley were quickly deteriorating, contributing to further environmental and health problems. To support the long-term public health needs of those living in poverty near the Valley, this trend would need to be reversed.

"One of the things we pointed out was it's not just about cleaning up the environment; it's not just restoring it," McAvoy says. "We needed to get new employment centers developed that would provide good family-supporting jobs accessible to the people who live around the Valley.

"Sustainability for us was connecting the environment, the economy and the community in this effort to restore and then redevelop and create jobs. That became our focus."

Artist rendering of the revitalized Menomonee River Valley
The winning design for the Menomonee Valley
included a linked system of public spaces and
natural experiences.Credit Wenk Associates.

But there was still a disconnect with the community, he says. "Most people were thinking, 'You're going to do what in the valley? How is this going to work? How would it look?'"

Taking a creative approach and armed with support from an EPA grant, McAvoy initiated a Sustainable Development Design Charrette - a hands-on workshop model that brings people from different disciplines and backgrounds together to explore design options and solutions.

Renewed vision

More than 140 southeast Wisconsin design professionals participated in the charrette, collaborating with the community and local governments to develop visuals for how a sustainable Menomonee River Valley could look in the 21st century.

From this effort - the first design charrette held at this scale in Milwaukee, McAvoy believes - a unified vision for a revitalized Valley emerged. Community consensus began to tip toward redefining the Valley as a space that would hold significance for the city.

"It was the first time people thought, 'Wow, you could do that? It could look like that?'" McAvoy says. "People need to have a vision of how it will be, not how it is."

Support from community members, the local philanthropic community, government agencies, private firms and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts took the remediation and redevelopment efforts - and the design charrette - to the next level. A national design competition was launched in 2002, with 25 firms from around the world participating.

The competition required teams to present a design that would address environmental challenges and bring employment and recreational opportunities for the surrounding community back to the site. The community provided feedback on four finalists and a panel of nationally acclaimed landscape architects chose the winning design.

Proposed by the team of Wenk Associates of Denver, Colo., Applied Ecological Services of Brodhead, Wis., and HNTB of Milwaukee, it included a linked system of public spaces and natural experiences that draw upon the site's history and the city's diverse ethnic communities, a "working" landscape to cleanse pollutants, and a cutting-edge stormwater park to treat water naturally through a terraced system of native plants and woodlands.

The city of Milwaukee began to implement the design in 2003. Today nearly 40 firms are located in the Valley, bringing in thousands of new jobs, and more developments are underway that embrace sustainable design principles. New bridges, pedestrian paths and an extension of the Hank Aaron State Trail provide off-street access through the Valley to adjacent neighborhoods and commuter routes for Valley employees.

"People are using it a lot," McAvoy says. "You see all of these changes that have been happening; it's really incredible."

The nonprofit organization Menomonee Valley Partners, Inc., a private-public collaboration that Sixteenth Street helped to develop, continues to promote and sustain development of the Valley.

Building momentum

These efforts in the Menomonee River Valley have received national honors for both the design, recognized by the American Society of Landscape Architects, and the strides toward sustainability.

Bikers in the revitalized Menomonee River Valley
New bridges, pedestrian paths and an extension of
the Hank Aaron State Trail provide off-street access
through the Menomonee Valley. Credit Nancy Aten.

The Sierra Club named the Valley's stormwater park one of America's best new development projects in 2006 and the American Trails Board recognized the Menomonee Valley Partners in 2010 for their work with the Hank Aaron State Trail, citing its expansion in the Valley.

McAvoy's efforts have also been recognized and have become a model for working with partners to maximize and leverage resources to restore properties and attract new development.

In 2008, Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Milwaukee, an organization that mobilizes corporate and philanthropic support to help build sustainable communities, presented McAvoy with its Navigator Award for his collaborative approach to helping revitalize Milwaukee's south side neighborhoods.

"In my career, I've noticed that oftentimes the parts of a community and the people that live within a community are not well connected, where if you could forge certain connections, you could really begin to make something happen," McAvoy says. "If you're going to sustain [a project], you need to keep people at the table, enlist them and keep building on it."

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