What Once Stood On The Vacant Acres In Milwaukee's Harbor?

Mar 17, 2017

For this week's Bubbler Talk, we look into a question submitted by Scott Wimer, who asked: What used to be located on the land south of Greenfield Ave., west of the Kinnickinnic River and east of the old Chicago/Northwestern tracks?

Perhaps you'd recognize that big, vacant plot (actually it's two distinct parcels) in the Milwaukee Harbor as formerly holding gigantic coal piles and dilapidated buildings.

Although WUWM's Susan Bence wasn't able to connect with Scott (Scott, where are you?), she did meet up with two people in the know at UWM's School of Fresh Water Sciences. It overlooks the harbor as well as the two parcels of property in question.

Larry Sullivan, the Port of Milwaukee's chief engineer, has seen many changes to this area - he's been with the Port for more than 50 years.

Aerial view of the 14-acre parcel.
Credit The Sigma Group

When Sullivan's career started, the Solvay Coke & Gas Company owned both pieces of land. It used the smaller, 14-acre, pie-shaped plot to store materials. "It originally was a coal storage site and later coke storage site," Sullivan says. "Eventually it was sold to the city." (For reference, when Sullivan talks about coke, he's not talking about Coca Cola, but rather an important raw material for steel-making.)

"There was a U.S. Coast Guard lifesaving station back in the corner and, for a number of years, that's where they would launch boats to try to rescue people," Sullivan adds.

Dave Misky, who works for the Milwaukee Redevelopment Authority, says harbor activity along Greenfield Avenue stretches back to the 1800s. "There used to be a tank farm on the property. These were large, 50,000-gallon tanks that stored fuel. They were brought in on ships and distributed via rail or truck," Misky explains.

Photo of Solvay's administration building taken around 2005, years after Solvay closed.
Credit Substreet.org

VIEW: More Substreet.org Photos Of The Abandoned Solvay Site

The neighboring and much bigger chunk of property - 44 acres, experienced a parade of industrial use, from leather tanning to furnace companies. But people might recognize the land as being occupied by the Solvay Coke & Gas Company's buildings and manufacturing plant.

Aerial view of the Solvay Coke & Gas Company 44-acre parcel. This image was taken prior to 2016, when the land was cleared.
Credit Tetra Tech EM Inc.

Solvay ceased production of gas and coke in the 1980s, but its graffiti-adorned buildings didn't come down until 2016, and not without careful oversight of the removal of its hazardous waste.

The Solvay site has been an EPA Superfund site.

Port Engineer Larry Sullivan looks at the land with a glass half-full attitude. "It's full seaway draft - 27 feet, ("draft" referring to the depth of a ship's hull below the waterline), and it has a dock wall that the city has put a lot of money into that will take ships right up next to the wall. So its a unique area where you can handle deep-draft vessels."

Right now, Milwaukee is accepting proposals for the 14 acres the city owns. "We are hoping we can find a mixed-use that works for everybody, that takes advantage of that unique site," Sullivan says.

As for the larger, 44-acre former Solvay parcel, it is on the auction block.

UWM Architecture Professor Jim Wasley has been dreaming about the property's potential for years. He has even had his students formulate visions of the harbor's commercial and ecological restoration.

READ & LISTEN: WUWM's Coverage On The Revitalization of Milwaukee's Harbor

"The big vision we ended up settling on, and have developed through subsequent studio, [is that] people want the harbor to be publicly accessible," he says. "There should be a public harbor walk. People want the harbor to be densely developed economically, an engine for this neighborhood and successful. So, there's a certain amount of density that's needed. As we see all over the world, harbors are being redeveloped."

And, to our question-asker Scott, whenever you are - we hope this quenches your curiosity.

Before the empty Solvay buildings were demolished, the site was a popular area for graffiti and photography. This image was taken in 2014.
Credit Courtesy of Thomas Hank

VIEW: Additional Thomas Hank Solvay Coke & Gas Photos

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