How nasty is this industrial site on Milwaukee’s northeast side?
It went through a $14 million EPA-led Superfund environmental cleanup — and still has lingering issues.
“This is one of the worst properties in the city of Milwaukee” from an environmental perspective, said Dave Misky, assistant executive director of the city Redevelopment Authority.
Despite that history, Ben Caya plans to move his brewing equipment manufacturing business, its growth fueled in part by the craft beer boom, to a $9 million building he’ll develop on the 3.7-acre vacant lot — which the city authority is selling for $1.
Spike Brewing Co.’s future home, at 4132 N. Holton St., overlooking the Milwaukee River one block north of Capitol Drive, will require additional fill material, new utilities and continued groundwater monitoring.
Design avoids contaminated soil
Even the building itself has an unusual U-shaped design to avoid digging into a hot spot where some contaminants remain buried despite the extensive cleanup.
And, once finished in late 2023, Spike Brewing’s facility will itself be a showcase for environmental sustainability. It will feature solar panels, charging stations for battery-operated cars and locally sourced construction materials.
Still, why build there when the Milwaukee area has other vacant development sites that don’t come with such baggage?
“There are a lot of cities that would be happy to have us,” Caya told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “And it probably would be a little cheaper from a development and tax side.”
But there are some practical reasons for choosing the Holton Street site, Caya said.
The company is now located nearby at 3866 N. Fratney St. Moving just a half-mile “makes everything a little easier,” he said.
Also, around half of Spike’s 25 employees live in Milwaukee, Caya said. Both the current and future locations are central to a workforce commuting from as far north as Cedarburg and as far south as Oak Creek.
Toss in river views, and an “awesome” experience working with Department of City Development officials, and the Holton Street location feels like “kind of a perfect fit,” he said.
‘We’re staying with our roots’
There’s also an emotional factor, Caya said.
“We’re staying with our roots,” he said.
Spike continues to see strong growth fueled by both the growing number of craft breweries and the growing number of home brewers.
The company now leases 25,000 square feet. Its new building will be 73,000 square feet.
The expansion will allow the company to add three new production lines.
The facility also will feature a test brewery, where Spike will teach about home brewing. The company expects to hire 15 to 20 more people over the next three years, according to the Department of City Development.
Serious environmental problems
The site has a filthy past.
Milwaukee Die Casting Co. built a factory there in 1952, and operated it until 1997, according to a state Department of Natural Resources report.
The company made aluminum and zinc parts for automotive and small engine manufacturers.
Until 1981, the company’s casting operations used hydraulic fluids that included PCBs, toxic chemicals linked to a variety of serious health problemsthe report said.
In 1997, the state Department of Justice prosecuted the company for violations of Wisconsin’s spill law.
A decade later, a crew cleaning a nearby sewer inadvertently flushed PCBs that originated at Milwaukee Die Casting into a network of underground pipes that eventually flow to the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District’s Jones Island sewage treatment plant.
The PCBs contaminated tons of Milorganite fertilizer made at the plant, including some already used at public recreational fields throughout Milwaukee County.
In 2010, DNR officials asked the US Environmental Protection Agency to place the property on its Superfund cleanup list.
By then, the property’s owner had died and her estate tried to transfer ownership of the site to the city through her will, according to the DNR report.
Meanwhile, the former factory “was deteriorating and becoming increasing unstable and dangerous for frequent trespassers,” the report said.
In 2011, the DNR and EPA found high levels of PCBs and other contaminants in the soil and groundwater.
By 2013, the EPA’s Superfund enforcement process found two companies affiliated with past factory operations — New York-based Pharmacia LLC and Marshalltown, Iowa-based Fisher Controls International LLC — which agreed to pay for the cleanup.
City agency took over site
Once that happened, the city Redevelopment Authority agreed to take ownership of the property.
“We ended up taking a flyer,” Misky, said at a recent authority board meeting.
In 2014 and 2015, Pharmacia and Fisher Controls took steps to clean up the site, including demolishing the former factory and removing contaminated soil up to 20 feet below the ground, the DNR report said.
A soil and clay cap was then added to help contain residual contamination.
The Redevelopment Authority last year listed the property for sale as a redevelopment opportunity.
With Spike Brewing surfacing as a prospective developer, Misky said, “The stars aligned.”
The Common Council and Mayor Cavalier Johnson in May approved an agreement to pay the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District up to $400,000 to do additional cleanup of PCBs from district and city-owned sewers near the site.
Meanwhile, the council in July is to review the proposal to sell the vacant lot to Spike Brewing for $1. The council’s next Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee meeting is scheduled for July 6.
That sale price reflects “significant costs to prepare the site for construction,” according to a Department of City Development report.
That includes installing new sewer, water and power lines that were removed during the environmental cleanup.
Spike’s $9 million project financing includes conventional financing, a $2 million loan from a Redevelopment Authority fund financed with EPA grants and New Market Tax Credits — a federal program that helps finance job-creating developments in neighborhoods with higher unemployment and poverty rates.
Caya is looking forward to his company’s new home.
Among other things, he’s anticipating Friday afternoon cookouts for employees during the summer overlooking the river.
“It just kind of fits the fun, care-free kind of mentality of the company,” Caya said about the location. “It just felt right.”