By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Sep 23, 2013 at 5:02 AM

In recent years, the land between the Urban Ecology Center, 1500 E. Park Pl., and the Milwaukee River has been growing greener and greener as a result of the vision of Pieter Godfrey.

Godfrey donated four acres of his industrial land adjacent to both the river and the UEC to the center to help create the Rotary Centennial Arboretum, which officially opens this week.

Sadly, Godfrey will not see his vision in full blossom. The architect, preservationist, salvager, urban ecologist and craftsman died in 2011 at age 53.

But the result of his gift is a 40-acre stretch of land that encompasses Riverside Park, the UEC, a piece of the Oak Leaf Trail and river frontage, that is a refuge for wildlife, nature and urban green space.

"Pieter had this vision," says Kathie Eilers, president of the Rotary Club of Milwaukee, which donated $400,000 and countless man-hours to creating the arboretum. "Pieter has this friend that said that he rode down Oakland with Pieter on a bicycle in the 1980s and Pieter pointed over there and said, ‘Someday, that will be a park.’ ... Boy, it’s a great legacy."

That’s an understatement. The rolling landscape is covered in native plants, like winter rye, and stocked with a wide variety of Wisconsin trees – more than 70 species – creating gorgeous vistas.

In some cases, you’d hardly know you’re in the city, especially down by the river, where the rush of the water and the twitter of birds blocks out all but a bit of white noise from the traffic up on the Locust Street bridge.

On my visit I saw a cooper’s hawk circling above before taking refuge in a tree across the river.

In some areas, though, you can see the city peeking above the treeline. Near the southernmost portions there are still some cream city buildings standing. These buildings, owned by Godfrey, were once home to a woolen mill.

Along the Oak Leaf Trail are urban vegetable gardens and the paths through the woods serve up copious wildlife sightings, as well as an old stone staircase that led down to the river from a pavilion up on the bluff decades and decades ago.

By the time the arboretum officially opens – folks have already been using it for hiking, launching canoes, walking dogs and jogging – a new stone archway will be in place, opening onto a new oak savannah, 3.7 miles of trails, 2,700 newly planted native trees, 4,300 native shrubs and more than 60,000 native grasses and wildflowers.

Additionally, the area boasts three outdoor learning areas, numerous "imaginature" stations, a new pedestrian bridge, a wheelchair-accessible canoe launch and expanded UEC parking.

"This land basically went from how this piece of land looks next to the parking lot," says Forbeck, pointing to a fenced-in industrial space, "with the piles of bricks and rubble, that’s what it looked like. So this is certainly dramatic change."

The Rotary Club and UEC’s combined fundraising work has also seeded an initial endowment of more than $600,000 to help carry the work into the future.

"Seven past (Rotary) presidents have worked on this," Eilers tells me as we walk the site. "This has been in the works a long time. We put out a request for Proposals for Centennial Project, and Ken Leinbach from the Urban Ecology Center, they submitted this proposal. So we we raised $400,000 for this project, and we have actually leveraged that. The seed money we have provided has really blossomed."

While the money has been key, of course, the project has come to fruition thanks to more than just greenbacks. UEC’s Senior Land Steward Kim Forbeck says that a lot of hands have worked the soil to create the arboretum.

"Over the last three years, we’ve been working, we’ve had interns during the summer. We hired some extra staff during the project, and we’ve had well over 12,000 volunteer hours spent on the land," Forbeck says.

"One of our missions is always to engage the community on the land, and hands-on restoration to connect people with the land to have more appreciation for the land. We’ve had a lot of help. It’s been ongoing over time, and it will continue to go on into the future. So there’s always continued management, we don’t just get to wipe our hands and say, ‘There, we’re done!’

"We still have lots and lots of herbaceous stuff that will be planted throughout the rest of this year into next year. Especially down along the river, we will have a lot of additional work to do next year."

Even at this week’s opening festivities, UEC hopes volunteers will chip in to keep the project moving forward. So, wear your work clothes to check out the arboretum at its public grand opening on Saturday, Sept. 28.

"The grand opening will begin at about 10, and there will be a ceremony at 10:30, and then it will go on through the day until around 4. There will be lots of fun things to do for kids, there will be a volunteer opportunity where people can help with some work in the Arboretum if they’d like," says Forbeck.

Eilers adds that Rotarians, will be the first to celebrate the fruits of their labor with a meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 24 that will include a luncheon in which many project partners and local politicians will participate.

"People have been really supportive and cooperative," says Eilers, "and in the end, it all worked out. His family knew that he had this vision, and they were very supportive."

"We had a lot of different partners to work with," adds Forbeck. "And there was a lot of support from public and private entities, and it came together nicely."

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.