Leader Offers Bold Vision for Renewing Historic Harbor Area

Lilith Fowler says she is “a fixer-upper” type of person. That’s true whether she’s dealing with a home or a neighborhood – or big challenges that can have impact on an entire metropolitan area. A few years ago, she was the first executive director of Menomonee Valley Partners, a non-profit that played a valuable role in the revitalization of a big swatch of land near the heart of the city.

She has taken on a new challenge: Catalyzing a boom in the area around Milwaukee’s harbor, about 1,000 acres that is in large part unused or underused now, with many environmental challenges. The area can roughly be described as lying on either side of the southern stretch of the Hoan Bridge. The goal is to bring to the area the kind of appealing development that has come to nearby areas such as the Third Ward and Bay View.

In an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program in the Lubar Center of Eckstein Hall on Thursday, Fowler, executive director of Harbor District, Inc., a new and still-small non-profit, summarized the state of the area now (pretty used up) and offered visions, both in words and slides, of what the area could be (pretty beautiful, with a lot of river walks and promenades, as well as mixed commercial and residential development).

“This area is so unique and so special,” Fowler said. “This is an amazing asset.” As down as the area is now, it offers a lot of land with long stretches of waterfront, close proximity to downtown and the freeway system, easy access to cultural assets, and appealing locations for development. Very few cities in the United States have opportunities of this kind in locations such as this, she said.

It won’t be easy to get there and large results won’t come quickly, she said. The effort will require a lot of involvement and help from different levels of government and private owners and investors.

“It’s not like one magic path forward, right?” Fowler said. The role for the organization she heads will be “getting all the little pieces and nudging them along and getting them to move in the same direction.” But she said small positive steps are underway, such as building a public plaza at the end of Greenfield Ave., with a kayak and canoe launch and a play area that will available by this summer.

The reason Milwaukee exists is because of the harbor area, Fowler said. It was where the first settlers found hunting and fishing opportunities and then built a port that, at one time in the 19th century was one of the busiest in the world. The area still offers reminders of Milwaukee’s heritage, both environmentally and economically, she said, and it can again become a destination for business, residents, and visitors.

In introducing Fowler, Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy, said the area could provide “the next great urban step” for Milwaukee. Fowler offered visions to support that thought, along with the caution that it will take a lot of get there.

To view the hour-long program, click here.  

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