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Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2012

The Menomonee Valley Comes to Life

The new Urban Ecology Center and passageway reclaim the city's industrial center

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It's just a typical day in the Menomonee Valley.

Just a few steps from Canal Street, crickets, birds and cicadas hidden in the native plants along the Menomonee River drown out the man-made noise of trucks driving past the light industrial facilities of Ingeteam, Helios and Derse.

Jesse Pliska, who bikes from his job on Canal Street to his home on the near South Side, stops to point out the great blue heron standing on a dry bank in the Menomonee River. Pliska knows just how close one can get to the heron—not very—before the big bird gets skittish and takes off.

Pliska has spotted a coyote on the old train tracks, along with rabbits and other wild creatures, on his way to and from work.

It's gotten easier for Pliska and other Milwaukeeans to get close to nature—and jobs—in the Menomonee Valley with the rehabilitation of the historic passageway leading from Canal Street over the river and up a new pedestrian bike path to Pierce Street.

History buffs know that this path follows the original “Silver City” tunnel and pedestrian bridge that gives the near South Side neighborhood its name. More than a hundred years ago, workers would earn good paychecks at the Milwaukee Road and other factories in the valley, the “engine” in the “machine shop of the world,” as the city was known in the early part of the 20th century. Then they'd walk up the path to spend their silver in shops and taverns along National Avenue.

Eventually, as production in the valley shrunk and jobs dried up, the Silver City tunnel and footpath turned into a neglected ravine between buildings on 37th and Pierce streets.

Now, though, that's changing.

'From the Ground Up'

The transformation of the valley is one of the great success stories not only in the city, but in the state as well.

As part of a broader redevelopment project led by the Menomonee Valley Partners, the blighted valley has been cleaned up and transformed into a 21st-century economic and recreational corridor that includes historic and new companies, a state-owned bike trail, a rehabbed urban river and acres of improved greenspace.

Most commentary on the valley focuses on the 4,700 jobs that have been created as a result of the redevelopment, along with the Hank Aaron State Trail, which runs along Canal Street and beyond, and the improvements made to the river.

But more changes are coming this fall, when the $26 million “From the Ground Up” project will begin to bear fruit.

In September, the Urban Ecology Center will open its third facility in a shuttered tavern at 3700 W. Pierce St. Later this month, the Urban Ecology Center, the Menomonee Valley Partners and their allies will break ground on a 24-acre brownfield just east of the passageway, which will be turned into greenspace for the community.

Laura Bray, executive director of the Menomonee Valley Partners, said the challenge posed by the valley was the valley itself—the physical barriers of the high bluffs and few access points. But one of the goals of the redevelopment plan was to improve connections to the valley, not only to get to jobs, but to enjoy the river and natural spaces, too. That's where the Chad Brady mural-adorned passageway, the trail, the greenspace and the Urban Ecology Center come in.

“For so long, there was no reason to go to the valley unless you worked there,” Bray said. “So part of the redevelopment plan was not just creating businesses, which is really important, but to claim some of that as public space that the entire community can use.”

Community Engagement and Environmental Education

Ken Leinbach, executive director of the Urban Ecology Center, sees the new facility, passageway and greenspace as a way to link the valley's industrial capacity to the South Side's vibrant, multi-ethnic community.

“The valley isn't just about jobs and economic development,” Leinbach said. “It's about community engagement and environmental education, too.”

Leinbach said a Menomonee Valley location had been on his radar for a while, but the center hadn't been able to make it a priority until recently.

When it officially opens its doors in September, the Menomonee Valley branch of the Urban Ecology Center will be instantly familiar and yet provide unique programming for kids and adults in the neighborhood. It will adopt schools within a 2-mile radius of the center and will add bilingual staff, a response to the Latino community in Silver City.

Like the Urban Ecology Center's facilities in Riverside and Washington parks, the tavern-turned-education-center on Pierce Street is using recycled and repurposed materials to lessen its energy footprint. Designed by Uihlein Wilson Architects, the center is using the tavern's original bar as its reception counter, topped with donated granite. The tavern's original stained-glass windows are featured on the first floor and its original floors have been buffed and polished for the center's visitors.

New features include green heating and cooling sources, skylights, two green roofs and solar hot water and solar panels.

Artist Leann Wooten and about 60 neighborhood kids have assembled a mosaic mural depicting the valley, which will be hung in the new center's main room.

Beth Fetterley Heller, senior director of education and strategic planning, said the center hopes to add a climbing wall to the exterior of the building when it's able to raise the final $3.5 million of its $26 million capital campaign.

The future climbers will have a one-of-a-kind view. To the west, there's Miller Park. To the east, there will be more natural habitat for the great blue heron that Jesse Pliska checks in on when he bikes to work in the valley.