By Doug Hissom Special to Published May 11, 2007 at 5:19 AM Photography: Zach Karpinski

Treating the Milwaukee River as some sort of natural wilderness area could be a contradiction in terms for most who have spent a lifetime watching its meanderings through the city. A coalition of environmentalists, however, sees a scenario of scenic solitude that could soothe the soul of anyone venturing to the valley from North Avenue to Silver Spring Drive. They’re calling it Milwaukee River Central Park.

A group including Friends of Milwaukee’s Rivers, the River Revitalization Foundation, the Urban Ecology Center (calling itself the Milwaukee River Work Group) and Ald. Mike D’Amato will pitch the City Plan Commission on Monday a vision for the valley that would prevent high-rise intrusion, invasive development and any other changes to the view we can see in the valley now. They say the city can achieve this through a creative zoning strategy known as an overlay district.

The district would set height standards, setback requirements for buffer zones and screening rules to keep any building projects from intruding on the natural views. It would not affect current landowners, but only new development proposed for multi-lot projects. The target is essentially high-rise buildings and other plans that would attempt to abut the river bluff or cut down trees and vegetation.

Their idea is similar to building restrictions on the Lower Wisconsin River that preserve scenic qualities from the onslaught of concrete and buildings. In a converse way, the city did the same thing to create the concrete Riverwalk Downtown, preventing private landowners from building on the river. 

“Many residents and visitors of Milwaukee alike marvel at the beauty of our river corridor. We don’t need to go to northern Wisconsin to have a nice hike or a nice paddle down the river, but can enjoy the ‘wilderness’ in our own backyard,” reads the 12-page proposal, which is largely full of lofty visionary language. “However, this experience is substantially degraded when adjacent buildings encroach not only physically but visually into the river corridor.”

Essentially the plan would permanently protect public land, establish design guidelines and encourage land uses that would take into account the green qualities of the valley. Long-term, a Milwaukee River Central Park Trust Fund would be established to buy adjacent properties for water and land protection. The Plan Commission will hold a public hearing on the idea Monday and consider temporary zoning restrictions while the Riverway Group can put together a more detailed plan.

Preliminary drawings show the restrictive development zone reaching as far as three blocks west of the river but mostly about one block in from either bank of the river, mainly covering bluff areas.

One advantage to the plan is that most of the land from North Avenue to Silver Spring is already Milwaukee County parkland. But the report warns that the county can’t be trusted to not sell off its parkland to the highest bidder, something it recently attempted when trying to pitch Bender Park to developers.

If Milwaukee sees the light of this idea, the coalition hopes other cities along the river adopt similar strategies.

Beer Bash: Two Madison lawmakers have gotten on the vice tax bandwagon and want to raise the state tax on beer.

Democratic state Rep. Terese Berceau and Sen. Fred Risser are tapping the public pulse on raising the tax to 3 cents per 12-oz. bottle, up 2.4 cents from 0.6 cents -- a foamy percentage increase by any mathematical account. The two say the increase could raise $40 million for alcohol abuse programs and alcohol enforcement (which means, of course, that the money would go mostly to fund the state patrol and law enforcement). It would be the first increase in the tax in 37 years and only the second increase in 74 years, perhaps indicating what a sacred cow this beer tax really is.

“We have an exorbitant hidden bar tab that we cannot ignore. Currently, all Wisconsin taxpayers are footing the bill for the annual $825 million in state alcohol-related health care costs, and the $2.7 billion in state criminal justice and societal costs,” says Berceau in a statement, as if beer was solely responsible for the state’s crime rate. She also whips out one of those classic statistical “studies,” which are manufactured to prove one’s point. “Studies have shown that between 40 percent and 50 percent of all alcohol is either consumed illegally or pathologically.”

The usual temperance suspects have signed on as well: The Wisconsin Prevention Network, the Wisconsin Medical Society, the Mental Health Association of Wisconsin, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

The two will hold a press conference Monday

Math Plan Doesn’t Add Up: Gov. Doyle’s proposal to require a third year of math and science in high school doesn’t add up to future success for everyone involved in the education business. In an address at UW-Madison, state Secretary of Workforce Development Roberta Gassman said the extra math “would better prepare future workers and better prepare our students to analyze, problem solve and work more efficiently, creatively, whatever their career.”

Not exactly, responds Dennis Redovich, a long-time education analyst and numbers crunching research director at the Milwaukee Area Technical Director. Redovich is also a skeptic of intense math education and has devoted his retirement to spreading the word. He says there is no rationale for the extra year of math.

“Higher mathematics, except as an extremely important college entrance requirement, may be the most insignificant academic subject taken by students in elementary and secondary schools,” he says.

Why? The jobs of the future won’t need it. “Higher mathematics proficiency is not important for everyday living nor is required for more than 90 percent of jobs,” he says. About 21 percent of the jobs might require a bachelor’s degree or higher and a mere 5 percent of jobs might require higher math or science course work.   Not only that, but tougher math standards just serve to keep kids behind when it comes time to advance from grade to grade, he contends.

Aldermanic Crime Assault Continues: It seems that every time crime sneezes in Milwaukee, Ald. Bob Donovan is there to wipe Mayor Tom Barrett’s nose in it. Donovan has become the Energizer Bunny when it comes to bashing Barrett on this issue. It’s gotten to the point that the paper cost alone of his press releases should force him into running for mayor himself.

This time Donovan faults Barrett for the increased violence in Milwaukee Public Schools, highlighted in a report by the daily newspaper.

“I point out that during the campaign the mayor made a big deal of calling for the city to take over the schools -- what happened with that?” he says.

Perhaps realizing that he’s starting to sound like a stuck record, Donovan admits that dwelling on crime statistics “is sometimes difficult, but it’s still the right thing to do.”

Back to Banter in County Government: It’s good to see there’s still some acrimony about between Milwaukee County Exec Scott Walker and Board Chairman Lee Holloway over who did what first. It gets county government in the news from time to time. Walker took the occasion of his fifth anniversary at the helm of county government to give his administration a pat on the back, and at the same time offer himself up to run for another four-year term in 2008.

Among the accomplishments he chose to highlight:

  • Five consecutive budgets without a tax hike.
  • Reducing the County Board from 25 to 19.
  • Eliminating waiting lists for seniors enrolled in Family Care.
  • Improvements at the Zoo.

Holloway sought to clarify some of those accomplishments, however. In a statement promptly released after Walker’s, Holloway pointed out:

  • The County Board reduced itself.
  • The board had to save county government from self-destructing under Walker’s zero tax increase proposals by adding much-needed funding back into the budget.
  • The $30 million in improvements at the zoo were started before Walker was elected.
  • That the County Board took the lead in the economic development of the Park East Freeway by overriding Walker’s veto of a community benefits package that guaranteed living wages and job training for workers involved in area construction projects.

“Scott Walker is improving as county executive thanks largely to the help and assistance provided by (the board),” Holloway says. “I’m just trying to keep him honest in reference to the actions that were initiated by the board.”

And, by the way, amidst Walker’s list of successes he also slipped in that the county government will start the next budget process between $26.6 million and $39.8 million in the hole.

Doug Hissom Special to
Doug Hissom has covered local and state politics for 20 years. Over the course of that time he was publisher, editor, news editor, managing editor and senior writer at the Shepherd Express weekly paper in Milwaukee. He also covered education and environmental issues extensively. He ran the UWM Post in the mid-1980s, winning a Society of Professional Journalists award as best non-daily college newspaper.

An avid outdoors person he regularly takes extended paddling trips in the wilderness, preferring the hinterlands of northern Canada and Alaska. After a bet with a bunch of sailors, he paddled across Lake Michigan in a canoe.

He lives in Bay View.