As visitors walk through the stone archway of the 40-acre Milwaukee Rotary Centennial Arboretum, they will be greeted by an endangered landscape.
The oak savannah of Milwaukee’s newest park was built from huge piles of earth that had to be trucked and bulldozed into a cluster of wavy grassy berms, topped with newly planted oaks.
The $ 8.5 million arboretum, which opens on Saturday, was designed as a giant outdoor classroom. The Savannah, once widespread in southern Wisconsin, is one of twelve ecological communities that can be found in the park.
“We are not restoring this area to what it once was because we don’t know exactly what we were going to restore it to,” said Ken Leinbach, executive director of the Center for Urban Ecology, which is overseeing the project and will manage the park under an agreement with Milwaukee County.
“The earth has been so manipulated, so what we decided to do is create a learning lab representing what could or should be in this area.”
But the arboretum is also, quite simply, a park, a new green space in a very urbanized district. With the Urban Ecology Center nearby, the Arboretum is Milwaukee’s newest public recreation space.
It includes approximately 4 miles of trails, some of which are accessible to people with disabilities. There is also a canoe boat launch, and a newly constructed wooden bridge crossing the Oak Leaf Trail connects the park next to Riverside University High School to the new park.
People involved in the project say it taps into the growing demand for public spaces.
âPeople are just coming out – they’re hungry for places to go like this,â said Kimberly A. Gleffe, executive director of the River Revitalization Foundation, which participated in the acquisition of part of the ownership of the park.
The cost of the project includes the value of the donated land, in-kind contributions, remediation of properties, construction of the bridge, development costs to build the park and government grants.
The first key funding came from Rotary Club of Milwaukee, which raised $ 400,000 for the project. The group selected the project to commemorate its 100 years in the city. The club will hold its own opening on Tuesday at noon with tours and a lunch for members.
âAs a club, we’ve always been committed to the environment, kids and education, and this project fits that perfectly,â said Kathleen Eilers, president of Milwaukee Rotary.
New parks are a rarity these days.
With the addition of the Milwaukee Rotary Centennial Arboretum, two new parks were built in Milwaukee this year. Both are built along waterways. Rotary’s new park sits along the Milwaukee River, and Three Bridges Park, which opened in July, is on the Menomonee.
Preston Cole, chairman of the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board and director of operations for the city’s public works department, said the new parks signal a revitalization of the greater Milwaukee watershed and a growing interest in the recreational value of rivers.
The DNR Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program provided $ 1.3 million for the project.
âIt’s a win-win solution for the environment and the community, and it highlights improving river resources,â Cole said.
The Rotary Arboretum is a mishmash of existing parks and former industrial land between E. North Ave. and E. Locust St.
A slender finger from the park follows the river. Another east takes the Oak Leaf Trail. The park also includes a wooded portion of Riverside Park.
As the plans for the park took root, thousands of trees were planted. Seventy native species that inhabit southern Wisconsin can be found in the park. A total of 2,500 trees, 5,000 shrubs, 65,000 wildflowers, grasses and sedges have been planted over the past three years.
The designers created what Leinbach calls âimaginaryâ areas throughout the park. There are piles of large logs, rocks and downed trees that children can climb safely. In the fall, large mounds of leaves will be created to jump into.
Under the Locust Street Bridge, there will be murals with drawings of macroinvertebrates, such as dragonfly larvae, which children can associate with samples taken from the river.
The park also serves as the southern gateway to 800 acres of green space, known as the Milwaukee River Greenway, which stretches north to W. Silver Spring Drive and includes Gordon, Kern, Lincoln Parks. and Estabrook.
The City of Milwaukee and Shorewood have approved ordinances in the corridor that protect areas along the river, limit building heights and have setback requirements.
The focal point of the new park is a massive stone arch, crafted from native Wisconsin rocks that the Milwaukee furniture designer Mario costantini designed in a competition sponsored by Rotary. It rises to over 25 feet and at its top the last rock weighs 3,600 pounds.
The arch is a gateway to the rolling savannah – a once ubiquitous landscape known for its lush meadows and canopy of open trees that Leinbach sees as a key tale of the park’s educational mission. Agricultural practices and development have reduced savannahs to about 30,000 acres in the Midwest, according to Madison-based company Savanna Oak Foundation Inc.
The infill was brought in as a protective cap over contaminants left behind by the once sprawling footprint of National Brake & Electric Co., which made air brakes for trains and wagons, and was built right on the water.
âIt was flat industrial land, covered with bricks,â Leinbach said during a recent walk in the park.
The idea for the hills came from Pieter Godfrey, an architect and historical curator, who carved them out of snow one day as he and Leinbach spoke about the future of the region.
Godfrey lived with his family in a restored brick building in Cream City which is surrounded by the arboretum footprint. He died aged 53 in 2011. But before his death, he donated 4.5 acres, worth $ 1.9 million, which includes over 300 feet of frontage on the river.
âI really attribute this to Pieter Godfrey’s vision to protect the river,â said Gleffe, of the River Revitalization Foundation. “It was a catalyst. As the landowner, he wanted to protect the river valley.”