A Field of Dreams
Competing visions for housing and river restoration
“I THINK FOR YEARS ONE OF THE REASONS WHY THERE WASN’T MUCH WORK DONE ON THE KK WAS THAT THE PROBLEMS WERE SO ENORMOUS,” NENN SAID. “IT SEEMED LIKE THE SOLUTIONS WERE DAUNTING.”
A scrubby patch of unused land
on the banks of the Kinnickinnic River in Bay View has become a
sought-after parcel seemingly overnight. The nearly 4-acre site on
Sixth Street and Rosedale Avenue, surrounded by industrial and
commercial enterprises, with an abandoned railroad track running
through it and a freeway overpass as its neighbor, may become home to a
new “supportive housing” development for those with special needs, such
as mental health issues or substance dependence.
The development, called Empowerment Village, is a partnership between Cardinal Capital Management and Our Space, a social service agency currently located on Lincoln Avenue. Empowerment Village would include 48 living units, plus expanded offices for Our Space and the Red Cross. A coffee shop may be added to provide occupational training and a social outlet for residents and neighbors.
The facility is an example of the “supportive housing” concept, which is designed for low-income people who are vulnerable to homelessness, due to mental illness, substance abuse or other factors. The units are small—usually a studio space—but the building is also home to social service staff and case managers who can help residents achieve stability, by providing counseling, transportation, social activities or occupational training.
Martha Brown, deputy commissioner for Milwaukee’s Department of City Development (DCD), said that supportive housing developments such as Empowerment Village are being sought by the city and county to alleviate a shortage of safe and affordable housing units for those who are vulnerable to homelessness.
Brown said that about 1,000 additional housing units are needed. To address this need, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker launched a 20-member Special Needs Housing Action Team in November 2006. In the group’s final report, supportive housing was recommended by the group as “an exciting alternative to the far less adequate residential choices available to many persons with mental illness.”
Three other supportive housing developments are also in the works: The Guest House is partnering with Heartland Properties to build at 1218 W. Highland Blvd.; United House is being developed by United Christian Church and Cardinal Capital at 2500 W. Center St.; and Mercy Housing Lakefront is purchasing a former Johnston Community Health Center at 1230 W. Grant St.
DCD’s Brown said that supportive housing is often the best solution to problems that stem from residents who aren’t quite independent and typically live on Supplemental Security Income, which is about $700 a month, “tenants of last resort” for many landlords. “When you move into a supportive housing unit, you know that you are going to need some help to stay housed in your own living unit and not have to go back on the streets,” Brown said. “The whole package of services will help you stay housed.”
Carol Keen, asset manager for Cardinal Capital, said that while the semi-remote location on the KK River may seem undesirable at first glance, it would well serve the residents of Empowerment Village. “It’s on a bus line, and it has the linkages that we need for the site—it’s close to medical care, grocery stores and pharmacies,” Keen said.
Joan Lawrence, executive director of Our Space, said that the new development would allow her organization and the Red Cross to provide residents with unique services. “I think we have an enormous opportunity to create a brand-new national model,” Lawrence said. Keen said that Cardinal Capital would begin applying for a zoning change and the purchase of the land from the city in the next few weeks. Public hearings would then be scheduled to gauge neighborhood support or opposition to the proposed development.
This visionary development has already come up against some opposition from residents and environmental groups, who have been working on saving the KK River from further deterioration. The KK River has long been neglected, and last year the Washington, D.C.based environmental group American Rivers named it one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the country. About 95% of it is urbanized, and much of it has a concrete basin, which affects its natural flow and aquatic life. Debris and garbage flow quickly through this section of the river, and trash tends to get stuck where the river returns to its natural state, near the proposed site of Empowerment Village at Sixth Street.
“This is one of the last green spaces on the KK,” said Cheryl Nenn, Milwaukee riverkeeper for Friends of Milwaukee’s Rivers (FMR). Neighbors and river rescuers have been attempting to return the KK to a more natural, cleaner river, to reclaim it for South Side residents, canoeists and wildlife enthusiasts. As part of that effort, FMR and its allies have helped to clean up the river with volunteers and, in recent years, a crane as well.
“For last year’s cleanup, we had about 500 people and we removed about 14,000 pounds of trash,” Nenn said. “It’s a crazy amount of trash.” Nenn said the river could also be improved by removing the concrete basin, a proposal she said is being studied by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD). Nenn said that the proposed change would positively impact fish life, water quality and safety. Nenn said that even thinking about removing the concrete is a huge victory for the river.
“I think for years one of the reasons why there wasn’t much work done on the KK was that the problems were so enormous,” Nenn said. “It seemed like the solutions were daunting. People didn’t think that much could be done. But even studying whether the concrete channel can be taken out is such a sea change from a few years ago.”
In addition to the river rescue efforts, many residents also support the transformation of the abandoned rail corridor into a bike path, an extension of a bike path that currently runs through Downtown, the Third Ward, Walker’s Point and the South Side. The city of Milwaukee has received federal funds to make this conversion, and part of the proposed path would run through Empowerment Village.
Nenn said that these efforts, as well as the community’s input into the still-inthe-works Southeast Side Comprehensive Plan, could be stymied by the siting of Empowerment Village on the proposed location. “It’s frustrating, because if the development does go forward, there’s a lost opportunity,” Nenn said. “There was a lot of community excitement about doing something with that area, for open space and public recreation.”
Alderman Tony Zielinski, who represents the area, said feedback from his constituents has led him to oppose this site for Empowerment Village, even though he acknowledges the need for supportive housing projects. “I would be happy to help [the developer] find a suitable location,” Zielinski said. “But I don’t think that now is the right time to proceed. We need to work together and take our time to find the best location for a much-needed project like this.”
Keen, of Cardinal Capital, said that her company has been meeting with neighborhood representatives to discuss compromises that would lessen their concerns. Keen said her company is willing to cover the costs of building and maintaining the bike path; the city has suggested that the facility be moved farther away from the river to provide more of a buffer between the building and the river. A final plan is still in the works.
Keen said Empowerment Village would be an asset to the community. “If we were a neighbor and put in the bike path and maintained it, it would only enhance the area,” Keen said. “I think it’s a way to expedite the process. If we were to put it in, instead of waiting for the city to do it, then you’re going to have the bike path in a much shorter time.”
Lawrence, of Our Space, said that Empowerment Village’s residents would benefit from the bike path and natural surroundings as well, and, in turn, help to build bridges with the community. “The biggest problem faced by people with mental illness is not mental illness— it’s stigma,” Lawrence said. “But letting people ride bikes as part of our wellness program, or having people work in the coffee shop and serve people, that natural flow of social interaction would do more for people with mental illness than all the money you could throw at them.”
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