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What Is Not But Could Be If

August 2, 2009

The downtown Milwaukee USPS headquarters along the Menomonee River

Michael Rosen’s piece in Saturday’s Journal Sentinel should be required reading for everyone concerned with the development of UWM’s freshwater research institute on public land along the lakeshore.

I think there are clear positives to locating the institute at the former Pieces of Eight location, but as tempting as it might be to simply forge ahead without considering alternative sites we must begin to make sober assessments of all potential options. The lakefront site appears to be a wonderful choice on aesthetics alone, but what about the land along the Menomonee River currently occupied by the Post Office? What about the Fifth Ward land along Water Street in the inner harbor? Either of these options would provide the opportunity for dramatic redevelopment in the area.  The USPS land would appear particularly attractive since the confluence of MMSD, the intermodal transit station and a future freshwater research institute could arguably stand to become the hub of green technology in Milwaukee. And if the USPS land does not become available due to the consolidation of USPS offices, what about the land across the river?

Locating the freshwater research institute on lakefront space would prevent the development from having any continuing catalyst in the area.  Since all adjacent land is public space, the building would not spur new development in any significant way. On the other hand, building the institute in either of the two options above would allow for the neighboring land to be redeveloped. That would expand the tax base and provide the city with much-needed additional revenue, not to mention allow companies specializing in green technology to cluster around the institute.

Rather than point to the option we want and ignore other possibilities, we need to consider all potential options and make our decision based on what would provide the most return on our public investment, not the most return for private cheerleaders.  In today’s rocky economic climate, that means the efficient leveraging of our public dollar should take precedence over the superficial. Our margin of error is extremely thin these days, so let’s at least study all options available to us before we commit significant taxpayer money to this exciting project.


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