Now, it is a tangled, brushy bluff strewn with trash and rubble. It is also one of the world's most treasured geologic sites. And someday, if Wauwatosa and some private developers have their way, it could become a celebrated public site.
It is the Schoonmaker Reef, a fossil formation created in the depths of time and responsible for a good deal of our understanding of the history of our continent.
It is a bit of a waiting game before pieces now in place come together for Tosa to protect, and possibly to own, the historic outcrop in a bluff that is the backdrop to more modern day development on West State Street.
But a few more months, give or take, scarcely would register on a timeline that dates back 425 million years to when Schoonmaker was a thriving coral reef in 100-foot-deep tropical waters.
Developer David Israel said he expects to come before the city within 90 days to present new plans for a residential development on the 10-acre site he owns just below the reef, on the former Western Metals site just north of W. State Street. And it is development on this site that will trigger the pulling together of the pieces to protect the reef as public land.
As of this moment, the reef is protected by circumstance. It is on private land and is as inaccessible as it is nearly indiscernible to the public, buried beneath brush, trees and other overgrowth on the bluff.
Israel pledges to keep a buffer between his development and the reef, and the city has provided him with $185,000 to do so, as part of a $1.9 million tax incremental financing (TIF) package the city approved to assist with site development. To date, about $600,0000 of that TIF funding has been used, to demolish the former Western Metals plant, according to city attorney Alan Kesner.
The $185,000 in TIF funding for future development on the Israel site is intended to cover the costs to put in sidewalks, security fences and security lighting between his development and the reef, Kesner said.
Another critical piece in place is a pledge to donate to the city a 2.44-acre slice of land that runs between Israel's property and the bluff, creating access to the reef. The property is owned by Derse Inc., which plans to donate the property to the city, to protect the reef, said Bill McNamara, a co-owner and vice president with Derse.
"That would be our contribution to the city," which Derse called home for 28 years before the firm relocated two years ago to new headquarters at 3800 W. Canal St., in Milwaukee's Menomonee River Valley, McNamara said.
"We want to give something back that would be beneficial to the city and the community as well," McNamara said. "That is a nice piece of property ... to restore as an environmental area, a park, a nice atmosphere, if done peacefully, for foot traffic."
Details of accepting the Derse offer, Kesner said, have yet to be worked out.
Schoonmaker Reef is significant as the first ancient fossil reef identified in North America. In 1844, Increase Lapham, the legendary Milwaukee naturalist, visited Schoonmaker Quarry and found the rock full of fossils, some of them unfamiliar.
Lapham's discoveries brought others to examine the rock, and nearly 20 years later, in 1862, its geologic significance was established by James Hall, who recognized it as a fossil tropical reef from the Silurian geologic period, 425 million years ago.
In 1937, it became the birthplace of the National Association of Geology Teachers, the premier organization of geology teachers in the world.
The reef earned National Historic Landmark distinction in 1998. Now, the city and the private landowners whose properties abut the reef say it is merely a matter of time before the geologic treasure becomes a protected piece of public property.
More essential than the timing is that the reef gain preservational protections from the city that its designation as a National Historic Landmark does not provide, said Donald Mikulic, a geologist who has studied the reef since the 1960s and who helped secure its national historic designation.
Although destructive quarrying practices exposed the reef nearly 170 years ago, allowing for its discovery, Mikulic is concerned new development in this century could bury or destroy the reef.
"There is nothing imminently threatening it," Mikulic said, as private landowners are respectful of the reef and there is no public access to the bluff.
The reef, however, is of "unique and of historic importance (as) a way of looking at life on the planet," and Mikulic hopes that pledges to protect the reef soon will be formalized to withstand the test time.
The reef is exposed in a 600-foot outcrop in the lower 20 feet of the nearly 70-foot bluff. Atop the bluff are private homes within a network of neighborhoods just south of Washington Highlands, on the south side of Milwaukee Avenue. Beneath the bluff is the Derse land and Israel's 10-acre site.
Nancy Welch, city community development director, said the city is interested in accepting Derse’s generous offer to donate the land, so that the city has the needed oversight to control public access and preserve the reef.
Under city ownership, Welch said, conservancy zoning is among the options the city could consider to protect the reef. Although precisely which option is best has yet to be decided, Welch said, "there is no dispute that people want this a protected, no-build area."
"Working through the legalities would take a few months to a year to finalize," Welch said, adding that there is no urgency until Israel presents new plans that gain approval and proceed to construction.
"It's good to hear from people who have support for the project, recognizing that we have a lot of things to puzzle through," Welch said. "The council tends to think it is cool, but where does the money come from and how do we do it? Taking on a property like that involves some fiscal responsibility."
Welch can dream, though, and her vision for the reef is that the city might take ownership of the it, find a way to clean it up and make it something of an interpretive historical site. She is looking into outside funding sources for such a project, through the National Parks Service, Riverkeepers and other environmental preservation groups.
The reef's geologic significance makes it a candidate as a city landmark, regardless of who owns it, which also would extend legal protections for the reef, according to Ald. Dennis McBride, who represents the district and sits on the historic preservation commission that recommends landmark status for city sites.
"We have extraordinary properties in Wauwatosa; some are homes and some are geological features," McBride said. "Who would know that the most significant geological site in Wisconsin is behind a foundry and a grocery store?"
McBride said the commission is considering landmark status for the reef, to highlight its significance and to ensure it is protected.
"It's a fragile resource," McBride said, adding that the reef itself "is not going to be open to the public. It can be opened to scientists from around the world, who will be careful."
Welch said she is working with the commission to gain protection for the reef, as the commission "seems to be the logical choice to oversee the reef and to look at what is best."
Mikulic has provided the city with a draft preservation plan, Welch said. The plan includes clearing the area in line with preservation practices and installing fencing so that amateurs don't attempt archeological digs at the site.
"It is not our intention to open it up as a park to use on a daily basis," Welch said. "It is essentially vertical, so you need ... enough space on the bottom to run a trail on it to give people access."
"We don't want to clear and open it up until we have a way to determine how to control the access," Welch added. "Our goal is to open it only to school kids, scholars and, occasionally, the public," in a controlled way.
Israel's original proposal, in 2005, for a 224-unit condominium project, fell through when the economy and the condo market tanked. His proposal for elderly housing in 2009, which received a lukewarm reception from the city, fell through when the project failed to get needed tax credit support from the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA).
"We are now working on another game plan, as the financing market improves," Israel said.
And that game plan, he said, includes ensuring that any new development on the property does not encroach on the reef.
"All of the developments we have ever proposed have always protected the Schoonmaker Reef," Israel said, adding that "anything of that nature will only benefit the area and benefit our development."
Watch a special educational and interpretive video presentation on Schoonmaker Reef: A Wauwatosa Treasure House.