Organizers hoping to breathe new life into dormant harbor district
Nonprofits, civic groups working with city on long-range planning

By DAVE FIDLIN - Special to the Post

October 29, 2016

MILWAUKEE — In a bygone era, it served as a significant manufacturing hub that took advantage of immediate access to the Lake Michigan shoreline.

But times have changed.

A renewed effort between Milwaukee municipal officials and a number of civic and nonprofit organizations has sparked a planning exercise aimed at bringing new development to underused land on the city’s harbor area, which is roughly bound by South 1st Street, the Milwaukee and Kinnickinnic rivers and the lake’s coastline.

This week, several organizations, including the nonprofit Harbor District Inc., city of Milwaukee and Sixteenth Street Community Health Center, held a pair of informational meetings about the proposed redevelopment efforts, which are in the early stages.

“This is an area that has needed a little extra TLC, and we knew it wasn’t just going to happen on its own,” Moranda Medina, community engagement specialist with Sixteenth Street, said. “We see tremendous opportunities here, and we think this is an area that can benefit people from all walks of life.”

Dozens of attendees learn about possible plans for Milwaukee's harbor district at a meeting held Tuesday within the offices of WYMS-FM, 88.9 Radio Milwaukee. The meeting was one of two held this week.
Dave Fidlin/Special to the Post

Medina said Sixteenth Street became involved in the recent talks because its leaders believe there is untapped potential. The organization mounted a similar effort a half-decade ago as efforts to spruce up the Menomonee Valley corridor picked up steam.

Municipal officials have held a similar view, as evidenced by some of the overtures that have taken place within City Hall. The harbor district has been on the city’s radar for a number of years, and efforts to have a future master plan in place began in 2013.

The Common Council is close to minting a planned business improvement district within the harbor district to spur future development in an effort aimed at bringing in sensible opportunities that will co-exist with some of the holdover industrial properties that still dot the landscape.

The council’s Community and Economic Development Committee has backed the proposed BID, paving the way for its introduction to the full council next month for further deliberation and possible adoption.

If plans proceed as planned, the BID through its taxing authority would bring in about $85,000 in revenue annually that would assist in beautifying derelict properties and providing the expertise needed for long-range planning and concrete redevelopment opportunities.

Lilith Fowler, executive director of the Harbor District Inc., said she favors the BID’s creation because it would serve as a meaningful mechanism toward capturing the opportunities available on the property.

Fowler said she began working closely with the city in 2014, when Mayor Tom Barrett began touting his long-range environmental sustainability plan, ReFresh Milwaukee.

“We want to get everyone up to the table and start looking forward,” Fowler said. “This is about looking on to the next horizon and identifying some of the opportunities that are available to us.”

Fowler, Medina and other organizers intricately involved in the planning of the harbor district’s future said their goal is not to conduct their planning in a vacuum. This week’s outreach meetings, Fowler said, were the first in a series of overtures designed to gather public feedback.

Visitors who attended the meetings this week had an opportunity to provide feedback on a number of issues that extend beyond commercial development. For example, participants were asked about increased busing, either through the Milwaukee County Transit System’s traditional routes or the forthcoming bus rapid transit plan.

Attendees also were asked about their ideal land use scenarios and whether additional recreational amenities should be provided within the land.

Persons interested in providing input on the harbor district planning can take an online survey at

Respondents’ information will be tabulated into a report this winter, Fowler said, and a follow-up meeting is slated for this spring.

By the numbers

-1,000 acres of land within harbor district boundaries

-40 percent of land within harbor district publicly owned

-13 percent of harbor district’s land vacant

-9 miles of waterfront access to Lake Michigan

-1 public access point currently available to waterways