Bradford Beach proposal stirs controversy over public access
Editor’s Note: This is a two-part post about a proposal that would create a destination restaurant on the upper deck of the Bradford Beach pavilion, which would result in reduced public access to a facility on the Public Trust land of Milwaukee’s lakefront. Part one is by WUWM environmental reporter Susan Bence. Part two is excerpts from a letter addressed to DNR Secretary Cole, County Executive Crowley, and others; signed by representatives of six environmental protection organizations, including Preserve Our Parks.
Bradford Beach Pavilion Project Faces Public Scrutiny
By Susan Bence
A plan to add restaurant space at a pavilion overlooking Lake Michigan along the Milwaukee lakefront might sound like a great idea. Food service and tiki huts offering more beverage and eating options are already part of the Bradford Beach summer scene.
But in recent months, plans to expand to the upper deck of Bradford’s 1950’s era pavilion are raising concerns, including that the project could drive people apart rather than bring them together.
Milwaukee’s go-to historian, John Gurda, describes the lakefront as one of the finest stretches in the entire Great Lakes.
“A majority of Lake Michigan shoreline in Milwaukee County is in the public domain. That’s really unusual. We’re lucky to have it,” he says.
Gurda says it’s hard to believe that about a century ago, this space was lake and not land.
“That’s fact number one about Milwaukee’s lakefront. This is all landfill and there were little strips of sand along here but in high water, the water would go right up to the bluff,” he says. “The first park development starts back in the 1870s and ’80s.”
People cherish the lakefront, and that’s why Gurda is not surprised some don’t like the idea of filling the upper deck of the ship-shaped pavilion with a bar and dining area. Even though, for years, the space stood empty.
“Any threat to its integrity is met with fierce opposition and I understand that completely,” he says.
But passion usually doesn’t pay the bills. Gurda says Milwaukee County’s struggle to find dollars to maintain even the most cherished spaces in recent years has resulted in beer gardens and other public private ventures.
“So, something that allows you to get a beer or a drink and provides revenue for a cash-strapped county, there’s a lot to like about it,” he says.
But at least six state and local environmental and conservation organizations don’t like the idea of limiting public use of any part of the beach.
They say because Milwaukee’s lakefront was originally lake, as John Gurda explained, it is specially protected and reserved for all citizens’ use under what’s called the Public Trust Doctrine.
Tony Wilkin Gibart with Midwest Environmental Advocates explains: “Wisconsin’s constitution guarantees that navigable waters in the state are held in trust for all people of Wisconsin. That means, you know, in this case we’re talking about [Milwaukee] County, the county doesn’t own the beach, in fact the state doesn’t own the beach. The beach and all public trust land held in trust for all of us and so that places very severe limitations, when private businesses can operate on public trust lands.”
Bill Lynch chairs the Lakefront Development Advisory Commission. It received more than 280 comments when it considered the Bradford Beach proposal.
“I could only find one who clearly was in favor as it was being presented ,” Lynch adds, “279 to 1 is quite an outpouring.” Lynch says the commission’s consensus underscores that every visitor has full access to the beach. “The menu must have affordable items that are readily available. We’re also recommending that there be no requirement for people to be patrons to use the tables and that they can bring their own food and drink to the tables,” he says.
Brenda Coley, co-executive director of Milwaukee Water Commons, understands Bill Lynch’s argument but her opposition to the Bradford Beach project runs deeper.
“We live in a segregated city, Milwaukee, whether we like to admit to that or not. Bradford Beach, in a segregated city, has become an integrated space. So then, you take that away. What we have seen is that many times they’ll keep public adjacent spaces. But they never look public and they’re never any longer welcoming. So we have to, for environmental justice reasons and for lifting up everyone, we have to keep these things public,” she says.
Coley understands the predicament the county faces to fund the parks system, but insists fixing it on the backs of vulnerable communities is wrong.
Dear Department of Natural Resources Secretary Cole, Attorney General Kaul, Board of Commissioners of Public Lands Secretary German, County Executive David Crowley, and Lakefront Development Advisory Commission Chairperson William Lynch:
It has recently come to our attention that there are current development proposals on Public Trust lakebed areas of the Milwaukee waterfront that raise concerns about potentially improper commercial development. It has also been expressed that current proposals raise social justice concerns since some of the areas affected are currently used by a broad spectrum of Milwaukee County and Wisconsin residents and that these proposals will potentially make these public resources less available to all users.
We urge you to investigate the concerns under your respective responsibilities related to these public resources. The current proposals that have been brought to our attention relate to the development and operation of the Bradford Beach Pavilion and the Roundhouse at McKinley Marina.
There has been a long history of proposed commercial developments of Public Trust Lakebed Grant lands in Milwaukee and elsewhere on Wisconsin lakebeds. Due to the significant value of these lakefront lands and their desirability for commercial development, it is not surprising that developers have sought, through time, to use these public lands for restaurants, bars, hotels, condominiums, and retail facilities.
The State of Wisconsin has historically been vigilant in assuring that the “public” nature of these lands is preserved so that the general public reaps the full benefits of these resources.
In a letter to then County Executive Ament from the DNR in June 1996, when Milwaukee County had before it a number of proposals for commercializing portions of the lakebed grant areas, the DNR, after conferring with the Attorney General’s office, stated: “We continue to object to the development of “destination” restaurants, bars or similar commercial facilities on lakebed or riverbeds around Wisconsin. These developments are clearly not consistent with the provisions of our Constitution. We have conferred with the Attorney General’s office at great length concerning the issues above and they concur in our position relative to these types of developments in our public trust waters….”
The issues raised by the current development proposals are similar, and the law on these issues remains unchanged.
Historically, issues of social justice relating to proposed lakebed developments were not recognized as significant considerations, but we believe social justice considerations are very relevant to the protection and use of these public resources. For many years, beaches in Milwaukee were racially homogenous spaces. As the Shepherd Express article notes, “Bradford Beach became a racially integrated space within a mostly segregated Milwaukee.” Professor Arijit Sen, quoted in the article, elaborates further, “This happened, in part, after the county closed nearly all the swimming pools that previously served Milwaukee’s predominantly African American neighborhoods. The lakefront became the only place for many people to cool off in summer and enjoy water-based recreation.” The Public Trust Doctrine protects the public’s right to access the lakebed, and the waters of our state more generally. The public means all of us, and, therefore, principles of equity and inclusion should guide how Public Trust lands are used.
Thank you for your attention to these issues.
Signed: Fred Clark, Executive Director Wisconsin’s Green Fire, George Meyer, Executive Director Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, Tony Wilkin-Gibart, Executive Director Midwest Environmental Advocates, Brenda Coley, Kirsten Shead, Co-Executive Directors Milwaukee Water Commons, Jim Goulee, President Preserve Our Parks, Cheryl Nenn, Riverkeeper Milwaukee Riverkeeper.
Related stories: Will Bradford Beach’s Pavilion Be Privatized? By Virginia Small
DNR: No ‘Destination Restaurant’ on Bradford Beach. By Virginia Small
Contributors: WUWM Environmental reporter Susan Bence. Story originally aired on WUWM 89.7 radio on March 16, 2021. Reprinted with Permission. Photographs by Eddee Daniel, board member of Preserve Our Parks, except as noted. The letter, dated Oct. 21, 2020, was provided by Preserve Our Parks.