Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Construction Season: Reframing the Menomonee Valley.

It snowed again overnight. Just east of the 35th Street Viaduct in the Menomonee Valley there is a vacant lot below the curve in Canal Street. This morning the surface of the lot looked as if a sheet had been spread over it with military precision. Or perhaps not so much a sheet as another of those blank canvases that has made the Valley what it is today. Welcome to the new American landscape.

This canvas was primed and ready to paint.

By mid-day a team of caterpillar shovels and bulldozers had clanked their way back and forth across this canvas like so many gargantuan paintbrushes. The brilliant white snow now framed a dark rectangle of exposed earth, like a somberly hued Rothko abstraction. The plans for the site, however, like so much that is happening in the Valley, are far from abstract. They also exemplify the hopeful new attitude that, if it prevails against the winds of pessimism brought on by multiple contemporary crises, has the power to alter human destiny.

That’s a lot to ask of a small, local company that packages tea.

Milwaukee’s own Rishi Tea occasioned this splash of urban renewal. Rishi currently blends, packages and distributes its distinctive teas from a 38,000 sq. ft. building in Bay View. With a subdued private ceremony, ground was broken here recently for an expansive new facility. Initially to be approximately 48,000 sq. ft., the Menomonee Valley site will provide Rishi with the opportunity to add as much as 30,000 sq. ft. in the future. A projection of a nearly 50 percent growth in employees is part of the equation. (For more about this project read the article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal: Rishi Tea to build $4.9 million headquarters in Menomonee Valley.)

Writing of the late 20th century photography movement known as the New Topographics, John Rohrbach describes, “America’s shift from an urban-industrial culture to a service-oriented economy defined by suburban warehouses and standardized tract house neighborhoods spreading out…. This new America was marked by repetition and isolation, a place increasingly dominated by quickly constructed buildings and a culture defined more by corporate commerce than community, where people lived with a modicum of comfort but in an atmosphere of vacant alienation.”*

The Menomonee Valley, I think, signifies another shift, from a sprawl-dominated, suburban-oriented culture to one that has rediscovered the value of urban communities. The new industries that are moving into the Valley are not reestablishing the historic industrial economy. They are, however, being created with a deliberate effort to revitalize urban neighborhoods and to include consideration of the urban natural environment, as contradictory as that sounds.

Kick me if I’m a jinx, but I can’t help seeing in the bare earth and the construction equipment a sign of impending spring, perhaps another hopeful omen. Although winter no longer means the wholesale construction hiatus that it once did, nevertheless the severity of this winter certainly has slowed things down a bit. Now, though, at least in the Menomonee Valley, the hard hats are out in force. Several projects are underway, with several more in the pipeline.

Work on the new hotel being erected at Potawatomi Bingo & Casino continued right through winter. This was possible largely because the structural envelope and subtly faceted glass façade was mostly complete before the onset of our polar vortices. The hotel is projected to open in the fall.

Transformation and renewal constitutes both theme and plot in the new American story of the Menomonee Valley. “In with the new” inevitably comes with “out with the old.”

As a contrast to the gleaming new hotel tower, across the 16th Street Viaduct from Potawatomi similar construction equipment is being used to take down a building. Cargill, the agricultural conglomerate, is demolishing a long-abandoned warehouse. There are currently no plans for re-use of the site. The unsafe structure had become a liability. In just a few days I’ve watched the tired cream city brick structure reduced to piles of rubble and tangles of recyclable metals.

At the east end of the Valley the 17-acre Reed Street Yards remain dormant for now. Before the onset of winter Freshwater Way, the newly renamed west end of Pittsburgh St., was extended through the site. Some intriguing stormwater features also are hidden under the snow. Additional infrastructure improvements are to be completed in the coming season, including a segment of the Hank Aaron State Trail and a water feature that will represent the site’s significance. Not only is it located on the South Menomonee Canal but the Reed Street Yards site also is adjacent to the new Global Water Center, which opened in September. It is hoped that proximity to these assets will attract water related businesses and industries.

Also dormant are the last two undeveloped lots in the Menomonee Valley Industrial Center. This 60-acre business park, long blighted by the ruins of the Milwaukee Road Yards, was rescued with a visionary design competition. The contaminated site was capped with tons of fill from the demolition of the old Marquette Interchange. Runoff from the roofs and roads in the complex is funneled into an innovative Stormwater Park. This swath of green space in the shadow of the 35th Street Viaduct filters runoff, reduces the impact of pollutants on the river, and provides for recreational activities in proximity with the industries. Shepherded by enlightened city guidelines, nearly all of the sites in the Center have been occupied by industrial tenants.

A health care products company named Solaris is eying one of the two remaining sites in the Industrial Center and may break ground in 2014. Charter Wire, a cold rolling steel company that is already located there, has expressed interest in expanding onto the last empty site. If that happens a significant chapter in the story of the Valley will come to completion. But as surely as spring follows winter (yes, it must!), the story will continue.

Within days the snow has thinned. Bare patches have appeared even where there is no earthmoving equipment to push it aside. The pristine white of winter snow has settled and blackened. Puddles replace ice. In an open space between the nearly demolished Cargill warehouse and the new businesses along Canal Street I spot what at first glance looks like a photographic negative of footprints in the snow. This curiously inverted trace of our presence on the land—fresh footsteps striking out across the sullied snow—seems a fitting metaphor for our vision of a renewed Menomonee Valley.

Potawatomi Bingo & Casino

Cargill warehouse demolition
Cargill warehouse demolition
Cargill warehouse demolition
Reed Street Yards
Reed Street Yards
Reed Street Yards
Menomonee Valley Industrial Center site
Menomonee Valley Industrial Center site

This post is one in a series that relates to my Menomonee Valley Artist in Residency. For more information about the residency and links to previous posts and photographs, go to MV AiR.

*Foster-Rice, Greg and Rohrbach, John, Reframing the New Topographics. 2010.


  1. who is the developer.. how you try to hoodwink us under the guise of environmentally correct. this is business and development. real-estate cheap trick Eddee

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