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Milwaukee Officials Say Riverwalk has Generated Millions of Dollars in Development

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If you want to see an example of a vision coming to fruition – after years of planning and construction – head to downtown Milwaukee.

The city began building the Riverwalk two decades ago. The project almost is complete, with just a few spans yet to be built.

Milwaukee officials believe the walkway has spurred millions of dollars in development, and has helped people see the river through a new lens.

The riverfront revival is most impressive, if you know a bit of the city’s history. More than 150 years ago, the river was one reason people settled here.

“That was our highway. That was how we got from point A to point B. That’s how raw materials came in, that’s how finished goods and services went out, before there was even a railroad,” says Rocky Marcoux, commissioner for the Department of City Development.

Marcoux says in the city’s early years, factories cropped up along the riverbanks to use the water as a resource.

“Heavy industries, heavy wet industries, such as tanneries on them in particular, because of the proximity to the water and the waterborne traffic,” Marcoux says.

Marcoux says some factories dumped their waste into the river. Sewage flowed into it as well, causing the river to become polluted, and people to “turn their backs” to the water.

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City of Milwaukee
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A Riverwalk map shows the few remaining uncompleted spans of the walkway

As factories went out of business, efforts began to clean the water. Yet Marcoux says some leaders took the river for granted, as recently as the 1980s. He can point through history, while giving a driving tour of the river’s path north of downtown.

“When there was a debate about where a new high security prison should be put, there had been debate from Madison as to whether or not it should go here on Commerce Street or in the Menomonee Valley. That’s how little people thought of real estate in the city and the value of the river itself,” Marcoux says.

These days, people covet the riverbanks as a place to live, work or dine. Condos and apartment buildings crowd the Riverwalk’s edge. Some developers have built from scratch; others have transformed abandoned industrial buildings.

“You have a number of buildings that were well-built, and they have been converted in some cases on the upper floors to offices, in some cases to residential. On the ground floor, usually you see some kind of restaurant, retail, some mixed use,” Marcoux says.

Some who live along the river get a place to dock their boat. Homeowners get the novelty of a special address.

“As your address, you have both a street address and you have a Riverwalk address,” Marcoux says.

Marcoux says the riverfront building boom began in the mid-1990s, after the city constructed the first spans of the Riverwalk. Since then the city has added stretches, bit by bit.

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Ann-Elise Henzl
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Condo buildings near the harbor mouth boast boat slips. The development is among those that got underway in the era of the Riverwalk

“You can get anywhere from the harbor mouth to most of the downtown and the central business district, because of what the Riverwalk has provided,” Marcoux says.

Marcoux says after Milwaukee builds the few final stretches, pedestrians will be able to walk a nearly 10-mile loop, from approximately North Ave. to the Summerfest grounds.

The project has come with a cost: about $42 million. Marcoux argues it’s been a wise investment.

“If you look at valuation increases in the city of Milwaukee on property that is along the river system, over $1 billion of development, including over 2,000 units of housing that have been built along the river,” Marcoux says.

Now, much of the prime riverfront property has been gobbled up. Builders have their eyes on the remaining spaces.

Ann-Elise Henzl became News Director in September 2017.
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