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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Bradford Beach Pavilion Restaurant Expansion A No-Go

Susan Bence
Milwaukee County Park's Sarah Toomsen said Milwaukee County is concerned about the structural capacity of the Bradford Beach pavilion.


The Dock will not be expanding its food service business at Milwaukee's Bradford Beach this summer.

Milwaukee County Parks Manager of Planning and Development Sarah Toomsen shared the news with the Lakefront Development Advisory Commission Tuesday evening.

Last March, the commission issued a series of recommendations and concerns about the proposed project, which included installing a shipping container service bar and more attractive seating on the upper deck of the pavilion.

“It appears that the operations at Bradford Beach will remain the window service that has been provided. Milwaukee County hasn’t issued any permits for construction of anything on site — it would require city and county review before we would issue that permit for construction,” Toomsen said.

Recently, the parks department learned The Dock owners had applied a coating on the concrete roofing of the pavilion. Toomsen said that’s become a complicating factor. “It was done without our knowledge. We have also notified The Dock that they are responsible to submit a remediation plan since it is the coating that is part of the problem," she said.

Toomsen said Milwaukee County is concerned about the building's structural capacity. "Not only for summer conditions but also snow load, winter winds, etc. So, I don’t have an updated plan to review at this time but I can assure you that, that is on my mind," she said.

Toomsen added, "We have to remedy the surface before we do anything that would modify the space."

Original story from March 16:

The proposal would bring restaurant service to Bradford Beach pavilion's upper deck.
Susan Bence
The proposal was to bring restaurant service to Bradford Beach pavilion's upper deck.
Audio from March 16, 2021 story

A plan to add restaurant space at a pavilion overlooking Lake Michigan along the Milwaukee lakefront might sound like a great idea. Food service and tiki huts offering more beverage and eating options are already part of the Bradford Beach summer scene.

But in recent months, plans to expand to the upper deck of Bradford’s 1950s era pavilion are raising concerns, including that the project could drive people apart rather than bring them together.

Tuesday the Wisconsin DNR is meeting Milwaukee County Parks to discuss the plan. Milwaukee’s go-to historian John Gurda describes the lakefront as one of the finest stretches in the entire Great Lakes.

"A majority of Lake Michigan shoreline in Milwaukee County is in the public domain. That's really unusual. We’re lucky to have it," he says.

Gurda says it’s hard to believe that about a century ago, this space was lake and not land.

"That’s fact number one about Milwaukee’s lakefront. This is all landfill and here were little strips of sand along here but in high water, the water would go right up to the bluff," he says. "The first park development starts back in the 1870s and '80s."

People cherish the lakefront, and that’s why Gurda’s not surprised some don’t like the idea of filling the upper deck of the ship-shaped pavilion with a bar and dining area. Even though, for years, the space stood empty.

"Any threat to its integrity is met with fierce opposition and I understand that completely," he says.

But passion usually doesn’t pay the bills. Gurda says Milwaukee County’s struggle to find dollars to maintain even the most cherished spaces in recent years has resulted in beer gardens and other public private ventures.

"So something that allows you to get a beer or a drink and provides revenue for a cash-strapped county, there’s a lot to like about it," he says.

Susan Bence
People walking Bradford Beach on a March morning.

But at least six state and local environmental and conservation organizations don’t like the idea of limiting public use of any part of the beach.

They say because Milwaukee’s lakefront was originally lake, as John Gurda explained, it is specially protected and reserved for all citizens' use under what’s called the Public Trust Doctrine.

Tony Wilkin Gibart with Midwest Environmental Advocates explains: "Wisconsin’s constitution guarantees that navigable waters in the state are held in trust for all people of Wisconsin. That means, you know, in this case we're talking about [Milwaukee] County, the county doesn’t own the beach, in fact the state doesn't own the beach. The beach and all public trust land held in trust for all of us and so that places very severe limitations, when private businesses can operate on public trust lands."

He says the DNR will be discussing those limits with Milwaukee County on Tuesday.

Flyer found on Bradford Beach pavilion wall.
Susan Bence
Flyer found on Bradford Beach pavilion wall.

Bill Lynch is eager to learn the meeting’s outcome. He chairs the Lakefront Development Advisory Commission. It received more than 280 comments when it considered the Bradford Beach proposal.

READ: Milwaukee County Advisory Group Wants More Time To Consider Bradford Beach Pavilion Proposal

"I could only find one who clearly was in favor as it was being presented ," Lynch adds, "279 to 1 is quite an outpouring."Lynch says the commission’s concensus underscores that every visitor has full access to the beach."The menu must have affordable items that are readily avaliable. We’re also recommending that there be no requirement for people to be patrons to use the tables and that they can bring their own food and drink to the tables," he says.

Brenda Coley, co-executive director of Milwaukee Water Commons, understands Bill Lynch’s argument but her opposition to the Bradford Beach project runs deeper.

In 2017, Milwaukee Water Commons held a gathering at Bradford Beach called We Are Water.
Joe Brusky
In 2017, Milwaukee Water Commons held a gathering at Bradford Beach called We Are Water.

"We live in a segregated city, Milwaukee, whether we like to admit to that or not. Bradford Beach, in a segregated city, has become an integrated space. So then, you take that away. What we have seen is that many times they’ll keep public adjacent spaces. But they never look public and they're never any longer welcoming. So we have to, for environmental justice reasons and for lifting up everyone, we have to keep these things public," she says.

Coley understands the predicament the county faces to fund the parks system, but insists fixing it on the backs of vulnerable communities is wrong.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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