Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Oak Creek Transforms Industrial Brownfield Into Greenspace

City of Oak Creek
There was still snow on the ground in April when this photo was taken. Here's one of two picnic shelters overlooking Lake Michigan.

It took 10 years and over $7 million to create Lake Vista Park in Oak Creek. The project is far more than a facelift of the 98-acre parcel overlooking Lake Michigan. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, a chemical plant operated there, leaving behind arsenic and other contaminants.

The City of Oak Creek has gradually transformed the lakefront property, featuring tall grasses and native plants. But first crews had to carefully cap most of the site with two-feet of clay.

Oak Creek environmental engineer Susan Winnen, who oversaw the project, says aggregate materials - like soils for example - brought onto the site to fashion the park had to carefully monitored. “Imported soil has to be tested. We took borings to test the clay. When they loaded trucks at quarry, drivers were given a ticket. If they arrived without a ticket, they were turned away."

Credit Susan Bence

A stately stone tower now overlooks Lake Michigan. Winnen calls the beacon structure the park’s centerpiece. “It’s meant to reference a lighthouse structure and the lake’s history. It’s a place for people to view the lake and take pictures. We’re about to install a solar lamp at the top that will glows.”

Paths, designed to accessible for all visitors, radiate from the tower throughout the park.

Walk south and two picnic shelters offer equally magnificent views. These aren’t your run-of-the-mill structures. They’re wooden roofed with slatted walls anchored to cement foundations.

To the west – in the middle of the park - a glass-walled pavilion and whimsical playgrounds await their first visitors.

Two bioretention systems, or large raingardens with engineered soils, slow down and store stormwater that eventually feeds into a meandering stone-studded ditch designed to mimic a river.

Credit Susan Bence
This stand of trees was never touched and survived the site's heavy industrial use. A path now weaves through the spot.

Nearby the trail system weaves through a stand of mature trees, including hickory and birch.

Winnen says the trees and the adjacent bluff stand out for more than one reason: “This area was never developed; it was always woods. And this (bluff) area was not developed; it was always just bluff. And so it does not have any cap and the trees have survived.”

A unique program - called Voluntary Party Liability Exemption - administered by the Wisconsin DNR was key to remediating and reimagining the parcel, she explains.

“It’s a way to ensure old industrial owners can clean up their site and walk away – rather than fencing off the property without public use. The DNR oversees the proces." Winnen continues, “The future liability is removed from company and assumed by the state.”

Nearly 200 of these projects have been completed throughout Wisconsin, and 100 additional sites are in the works.

She says bonding and grants also helped cover the more than $7 million cost of transforming the land.

Winnen, along with others, is eager to see the park come alive with native plants and people when it is officially christened this summer.

Credit City of Oak Creek
Aerial view of the 98-acre park in Oak Creek.

Have an environmental question you'd like WUWM's Susan Bence to investigate? Submit below.


Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
Related Content