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UW-Milwaukee - Center for Economic Development

Policy Research Working Paper Abstract

Preserving Our Industrial Land: Industrial Zoning in Milwaukee, 1998-2011

Executive Summary

This study examines changes in industrial zoning and land use in the city of Milwaukee during the 13-year period from 1998 to 2011. During this time, the city's inventory of industrial-zoned land fell from 11,984 acres to 10,798 acres, a loss of nearly 1,200 acres. This amounts to a 10 percent reduction in the city's supply of industrial land. On average, the city rezoned 91 acres of industrial land per year for non-industrial uses during this period. If the current pace continues, the loss of industrial land in Milwaukee since 1998 will exceed 2,000 acres by the year 2021.

Experts disagree about the emphasis that contemporary cities should place on manufacturing as an economic development strategy. However, most acknowledge that manufacturing should continue to play a role in urban economic development. Manufacturing jobs offer the promise of living wages for workers with limited formal education. In a city like Milwaukee with one of the highest poverty rates in the country, maintaining and rebuilding the city's industrial base could play an important role in boosting worker incomes and putting unemployed residents to work. Preserving the city's supply of industrial-zoned land is an important component of any strategy that seeks to retain manufacturing jobs.

While the pace at which industrial land in Milwaukee has been rezoned in recent years is cause for concern, we find that city officials have developed a set of procedures to inform and routinize recommendations regarding industrial rezoning requests. These procedures ensure that the rezoning of industrial land takes planning into account. Decisions are not made on a purely ad hoc basis. However, we suggest that two additional actions in particular be given consideration.

First, we recommend that the City move quickly to complete a detailed, site-specific inventory of industrial land in the city's officially designated industrial corridors, mapping areas that should be preserved for industrial use as well as areas that, under the right circumstances, could transition to non-industrial uses. Such a map would serve as a key decision-making tool in evaluating future requests to rezone industrial property.

Second, we recommend that the City consider adopting stronger planning tools for preserving industrial land to complement those currently in place. Chicago and other cities have had success with Planned Manufacturing Districts, a special zoning designation that places significant restrictions on the rezoning of industrial land. We suggest that the City of Milwaukee undertake an analysis to determine whether certain industrial areas of Milwaukee might be best protected by the creation of such districts.


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