At long last, the new downtown Milwaukee state park, an island in Lake Michigan, is opening to the public. It gets generally good reviews from Whitney Gould. [UPDATE: And from Jim Rowen, too.]

A couple of quibbles, however: It's already cost $17-million, and there no money to put in any benches? And it's porta-potties for a few years until a visitors center and rest rooms will be provided? Those omissions do not make it sound very visitor-friendly, especially for the aging and families with young kids.

A park with no trees and no shade?

No trash barrels?

Those problems are minor quibbles, and relatively easy to fix. But there's a bigger concern, too.

Gould says the park "[laid] the groundwork for resolution of a long-running battle with Summerfest over public access to that stretch of lakefront."

As someone who was involved in fighting for public access to the lakefront along Summerfest, I think that battle has been lost. Lakefront access along the Summerfest grounds themselves is still closed during much of the summer, and even the state park will be closed off to the public and used as a launching pad for Summerfest fireworks.

The Dept. of Natural Resources (DNR), responsible for enforcing the Public Trust Doctrine that gives the public the right to lakefront access, has signed off on the new configuration. And the state no longer has a public intervenor to look out for the public's rights. So that battle would appear to be over, unfortunately.

Gould explained the issue well in her 1998 column. But a lot of public access has been negotiated away since plans for the park were announced that year.

For example, this walkway -- intended to allow access on the shore as well as on the island -- has disappeared:

The island is now connected to the shore on its south end by a spit of land just south of the Summerfest grounds. A map of the proposed project made public Wednesday has the island connected on its north end, at the Municipal Pier.

The wooden walkway would resemble the Port Washington municipal boardwalk. It would extend the length of the Summerfest grounds, providing year-round access to the shoreline. The walkway would jut out into the lake about 10 feet outside the Summerfest grounds, allowing year-round traffic but not threatening the security of the grounds.

So, while the new park is a welcome addition to the city's lakescape, and will offer some striking views, it is considerably less than what might have been. And that's a shame.

Submitted by xoff on