Lakefront looking South, about 1866. Image taken from UrbanMilwaukee.com.

Lakefront looking South, about 1866. Image taken from UrbanMilwaukee.com.

This particular question is currently causing a debate in Milwaukee, and it may end in a court battle between local group Preserve Our Parks and developer Rick Barrett’s Couture high-rise. As touched on briefly in my previous post about the saddest building in Milwaukee, these two parties are fighting over whether or not Milwaukee County can legally sell the land occupied by the Downtown Transit Center in order to build the super-modern Couture. To say this spot, at the corners of Michigan/Clybourn and Lincoln Memorial Dr downtown, is prime real estate is an under-estate-ment.

Image from Google Maps.

Image from Google Maps.

So how did such a perfect space, with uninterrupted views of our great lake and proximity to cultural attractions, get saddled with a near-useless eyesore? Because that choice land was, indeed, once water.

Approximate location of Downtown Transit Center in 1872.

Approximate location of Downtown Transit Center in 1872.

Preserve Our Parks’ main argument to block the sale to Rick Barrett is not to rescue the Transit Center (nobody wants that), but to save the land for public use only. It goes back to the beginning of our state: Article IX, Section 1 of our constitution, better known as our Public Trust Doctrine, protects all waterways as public resources which must forever be maintained as such.

Milwaukee’s scenic bluffs didn’t always cascade into our lake shore parks; instead, they crashed directly into the lake. The south end of these cliffs sloped slowly into a marshland. When our state was founded, Lake Michigan creeped past what is now Lincoln Memorial Dr. However, as the city grew the near-lake shore was filled in with all sorts of rubbish, extending the city’s land footprint. We’ve stayed loyal to the constitution, as most of this land is indeed used for public purposes (parks, museums, a private restaurant?). Preserve Our Parks points to old maps showing that this now-land was once-water and is therefore protected.

However 3 years after our state’s founding, this land was essentially given to a railroad company for their use as a “public good.” This company’s 1913 maps were legally recognized as our city’s official land borders by the City of Milwaukee in March 2014, though government divisions had reportedly been using them for decades.

Preserve Our Parks is asking for Milwaukee’s definition to be overthrown, arguing they can’t supersede the constitution. Rick Barrett can’t secure the Couture funding with lawsuits looming. Milwaukee’s trying to get the Supreme Court to decide for us. This is what we do best: obfuscation instead of progress.

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