Milwaukee County Grounds

5 Things You Need To Know about the County Grounds:

  1. The County Grounds is located in Wauwatosa and is divided into four quadrants with Highway 45 dividing it into a western and eastern half and Watertown Plank Road dividing it into north and south. The northeast quadrant is the last remaining quadrant that has yet to be fully developed.
  2. The County Grounds is the largest remaining open space in Milwaukee County and home of the confluence of the Menomonee River and Underwood Creek. The County Grounds also consisted of prairie and oak savanna, which provided important habitat for birds, monarch butterflies, owls and other wildlife.
  3. In 1997, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors proposed selling the Northeast Quadrant of the Milwaukee County Medical Complex to developers. Public outcry calling for preservation of the land quickly forced the County to call a moratorium on development plans.The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources conducted a feasibility study for creating a State Forest on the land and decided 60 to 235 acres could be used as a State Forest, with an emphasis on forestry education. The Commission ultimately recommended preserving 235 acres in the northeast quadrant as a State Forest, and developing 50 acres along Watertown Plank Road.
  4. The County Board approved this proposal in 1997, but the County Executive vetoed the Commission proposal, offering an alternative instead that would preserve only 60 acres as a State Forest. Approximately 60 acres of this quadrant north of Swan Boulevard was ultimately preserved by WDNR as State Forest. The Council also passed an ordinance establishing a new type of zoning called Conservancy, which could be used to preserve land in the City of Wauwatosa. However, the victory was only temporary, as zoning was never applied to any of the proposed sites on the County Grounds.
  5. Within a few years, Wauwatosa and Milwaukee County moved forward on efforts to create an “Economic Development Zone”(EDZ) along Watertown Plank of 70 acres (20 acres more than the Commission recommended). In 2004, the City of Wauwatosa sought public input and created a well-balanced Master Plan to develop 42 acres and preserve 28 acres of high-quality natural area of the EDZ. However, in the last 10 years that Master Plan has been largely ignored. In 2006, 90 acres of the northeast quadrant were converted to flood detention basins, and, in 2010, the EDZ was expanded to sell 89 acres to UWM for an Engineering Campus, which currently exceeds density recommendations by over 40%. Now, the City of Wauwatosa is poised to adopt a new development plan for the northeast quadrant that removes protection for any remaining natural areas and proposes the construction of a “Scenic Parkway” through critical habitat, known locally as, “Sanctuary Woods.”


Why are the County Grounds so important?

The County Grounds consisted of prairie and oak savanna, which provided important habitat for birds, monarch butterflies, owls and other wildlife. It was an important remnant of an ecosystem that has been largely destroyed–99.3% of prairies and 99.9% of oak savannas have been lost in Southeastern Wisconsin (per the SEWRPC Natural Areas Plan, 1997 and 2009). The County Grounds continues to experience loss of habitat associated with construction of flood detention basins (90 acres) and several stormwater ponds, the UWM Innovation Park, the County Research Park, the Wisconsin Lutheran College Sporting Complex, and the Zoo Interchange project (17 acres).

Why is Milwaukee Riverkeeper involved?

Milwaukee Riverkeeper has a long history of working to protect the County Grounds. The organization was originally formed in 1995 as Friends of the Menomonee River and our first campaign was a citizen-led effort to protect the County Grounds from development. More than 20 years later, we continue to fight for the protecting the remaining natural areas of the Milwaukee County Grounds.

Why were the two detention basins installed in 2006?

In April 2006, MMSD applied to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for permits to create a flood management project within the County Grounds. The project included the construction of detention basins on 90 acres of land, affecting 5 acres of wetlands. Construction began in the summer of 2006. To compensate for thedestruction of wetlands, MMSD agreed to remove concrete channel and naturalize a portion of Underwood Creek, upstream from the detention basins to Mayfair Road (encompassing the area where water is bypassed from the Creek to the basins during storms). The final phase of concrete removal will occur in 2017.

Why was UWM's Innovation Park built on the County Grounds?

In 2010, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee proposed building an Engineering Campus (known as Innovation Park) on 89 acres of the Milwaukee County Grounds. At the time, Milwaukee Riverkeeper expressed concern that the development was much larger than the 70 acre Economic Development Zone delineated on the Master Plan for the County Grounds (Kubala Washatko et al. 2004), of which only 42.2 acres were delineated for development and 28.7 acres for conservation.

Milwaukee Riverkeeper asked that the eastern portion of the UWM site (that is outside of the original Economic Development Zone) be kept in a natural state to provide a buffer between the campus and remaining natural areas. Additionally, we asked for the remaining natural areas and open space of the grounds (including a 54-acre parcel between the Campus and detention basins and additional properties adjacent to We Energies) to be protected via a formal conservation easement, as past zoning and planning efforts to protect these areas had been unsuccessful.

Unfortunately, development of this parcel has now exceeded density recommendations by 40%. County Grounds Park was established to the east of Innovation Parkway (approx. 40 acres), but the land to the east known as Sanctuary Woods (north of We Energies and Ronald McDonald House) was never protected. It is now slated for development.

What are the four quadrants of the County Grounds?

The northwest quadrant is now made up of part of the Hansen Golf Course, the Underwood Parkway, and the Wisconsin Lutheran College’s sporting facilities. Most of the southwestern quadrant is made up primarily by the Milwaukee County Research Park and associated developments. The southeast quadrant is made up largely of the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center, including Froedert, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, and the Medical College of Wisconsin.

What happened to the original County Grounds Master Plan that was developed in 2004?

In 2004, a good Master Plan for the County Grounds was developed by Kubala Washatko, with our involvement, to allow for some development in the economic development zone (about 42 acres), while still preserving significant natural areas, wetlands, and drainage features on the site (28 acres). In 2006, 90 acres of the quadrant to the east of the were converted into flood detention basins by MMSD despite significant community opposition, and spoils from those basins was used to create a new 40 acre “County Grounds Park” on the upland portion of the site adjacent to the Economic Development Zone, and graded to be inhospitable to development. Over the last 7 years, the careful plans for the County Grounds were disregarded with sale of a large portion of the site to UWM for “Innovation Park”. The economic development zone increased to 90 acres, and density recommendations have already been exceeded by over 40% from Master Plan recommendations. Innovation Park now includes one UWM “Innovation” building, 6 Mandel condos, ABB (a multinational company), a hotel, and the Milwaukee County Parks headquarters.

What is the Life Sciences District Master Plan?

In late 2016, we learned that Wauwatosa is poised to adopt a new development plan for the northeast quadrant, known as the “Life Science District Master Plan.”This plan would essentially throw out any remaining restrictions on the rest of the land left as natural area, and open up much more of what’s left of the quadrant for high-scale (10 stories or more) and high-density development east of the Innovation Park campus and north of Watertown Plank Road. It proposes theconstruction of a “Scenic Parkway” that would slice off the south side of the quadrant, facilitating development to the south and north of it, as well as several additional roads. The “Scenic Parkway” would go right through an area known as Sanctuary Woods, which provides critical habitat for a number of species of special state concern such as the Longeared owl. Development and roads would fragment the natural area that is left, and dramatically diminish the quality of the remaining habitat. This area is cherished by local residents and has been used by dog-walkers, runners, hikers, photographers, outdoor enthusiasts, and by patients of the nearby medical campus and their families for decades. Essentially, the area has been used as a park for years, although it was never officially zoned park by the City of Wauwatosa or designated as such by Milwaukee County, who owns the property.

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