SAVED: Milwaukee’s Sanctuary Woods

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Landslide

SAVED: Milwaukee’s Sanctuary Woods

SAVED: Milwaukee’s Sanctuary Woods
Dec 05, 2019

On Tuesday, December 3, the Wauwatosa Common Council voted unanimously to rezone some 52 acres of the parcel known as Sanctuary Woods as a conservancy, thus affording it a considerable measure of protection against future development. Located on the outskirts of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, within an area known as the Milwaukee County Grounds (one of the largest remaining open spaces in the county), the landscape is both rich in history and a haven for wildlife, from northern flying squirrels to long-eared owls. It is also a place of respite for the myriad joggers, bird-watchers, dog-walkers, and visitors who frequent the wooded site in search of quiet and closeness to nature.  

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Sanctuary Woods - Eddee Daniels

The tract lies in the shadow of the large complex of buildings that comprises Milwaukee’s Regional Medical Center, and development has inched ever closer to the southern and western edges of the green space in recent decades. Tuesday’s vote was the culmination of years of advocacy and controversy, which reached a crescendo in 2017 when the City of Wauwatosa announced plans for a major real estate development on portions of the site, which included a “scenic parkway” that would have cut through the middle of Sanctuary Woods. TCLF then included Sanctuary Woods in Landslide 2017: Open Season on Open Space, its annual report on threatened cultural landscapes.

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Sanctuary Woods - Eddee Daniels

On October 8, 2018, the Wauwatosa Life Sciences District Master Plan was approved, but in an amended form that spared the wooded landscape from development. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently reported, the plans for a new development, called The Watertown, near Sanctuary Woods, promise to be sensitive to the newly established conservancy area. The Wauwatosa Community Affairs Committee is slated to hear the proposal in January 2020. Plans such as these are nonetheless a reminder that future threats may yet emerge and zoning can be changed, spurring local reports that advocates may ultimately seek to protect Sanctuary Woods further by establishing a conservation easement on the land, which would cement its status as a protected natural area.

Wauwatosa alderwoman Nancy Welch told TCLF that work to establish a conservation easement has already begun: “The recent rezoning was a great step forward, but we need to finish the job by establishing a conservation easement for Sanctuary Woods—and we’re already moving in that direction.”

Sanctuary Woods was once the site of the Milwaukee County Asylum for the Insane, the area’s first hospital for the care and treatment of persons with mental illnesses, which opened in 1880. The landscape surrounding the asylum was a precursor to today’s healing gardens and contained features designed to help patients relax and recuperate, such as an artificial lake and waterfall, sunken gardens, and a “women’s grove” for the repose of its women patients. Many of these features, including remnants of fieldstone and curbed woodland pathways, stone staircases, a walled patio, a segment of the former sunken garden, and other elements, were built by the patients themselves as a therapeutic activity. The last remaining structure was torn down circa 1994 and replaced with a parking lot.