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Life Begins to Sprout in Milwaukee's Century City

The former home of A.O Smith, on the city’s north side, stood vacant for years. Now, new construction is helping revitalize the former manufacturing hub.

Credit The Sigma Group
Aerial view of the Century City land.

Five years ago, the City of Milwaukee purchased the 84 acres of land and set out to create the Century City Business Park.

On Thursday, a crowd gathered at the site as General Capitol symbolically broke ground on a 4.5 acre parcel of land.

General Capital plans to begin construction in spring. Manufacturers will be able to rent the new 53,000 square foot building.

A.O. Smith’s original headquarters still stands at the corner of 27th and Hopkins. The company settled there in 1910. And in 1996, Tower Automotive acquired the land.

Credit City of Milwaukee
Century City over the years.

At its peak, A.O. Smith employed 9,000 people. The company even had its own fire station, power plant, and hospital for workers.

Benjamin Timm has been living and breathing the project since its inception. He is project manager for Milwaukee’s Department of City Development. Timm’s Century City assignment has been anything but glamorous. Roofs leaked on him and water lines ruptured under foot.

Credit City of Milwaukee
A.O. Smith factory floor during World War II.

Timm says both world wars kept A.O. Smith humming. “They had a lot of military contracts for airplane parts and automobile parts,” he says. “Many of their records were sealed or put away; so it made it interesting when we were doing our due diligence to acquire the property and to do environmental clean-up. Trying to find some of the information about the buildings was challenging because they were sealed by the War Department at the time for protection.”

Once the City of Milwaukee bought the land, demolition and remediation stretched over two years. Timm says 80 percent of everything teams removed was recycled.

“We were able to fill in a lot of the excavations and old building foundations with crushed concrete material we generated on site,” he says. “About the only thing we couldn’t recycle out here was glass, asbestos and roofing material.”

Timm says the crew unearthed 40 tanks, many of which had held fuel, and discovered evidence of spills. But fortunately, the ground below is a tight clay.

“What the clay soils do, especially for a site like this, is if there is contamination in the soil or groundwater - it doesn’t go very far,” he says. “So it’s very contained and therefore very easy to cleanup.”

Groundwater testing continues; monitoring wells poke out here and there across the landscape.

Credit S Bence
Benjamin Timm standing near the retention pond.

Timm says part of the master plan was to create a parcel-wide storm water management plan. That meant removing 30 separate sewer connections.

“We combined them into the retention pond,” he says. “This pond captures storm water and slowly releases it into the system, so it doesn’t overwhelm the sewer system.”

The city’s plan calls for the creation of fifteen family-supporting jobs for every acre of redevelopment.

“We want to see really good businesses out here that create jobs,” Timm says.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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