Brewing a Sustainable Neighborhood in Milwaukee

A visit to the past can sometimes be a look into the future. That’s what we found on a behind-the-scenes tour of The Brewery Saturday during the Doors Open Milwaukee tour of hundreds of architecture notables. The Brewery is a developing community of apartments, offices, a hotel, restaurants and university buildings created on the former site of the world-famous Pabst Brewing Company just north of downtown. 

Pabst was established in 1844 and won fans with its Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Pabst shut its doors suddenly in 1996, beer bottles stopped in their tracks on production lines, workers wentImage home for good. The sprawling complex was already old and seemed destined for total destruction until visionary developer and lover of all things Milwaukee, the late Joseph Zilber, stepped in with a plan.

Mike Mervis, our guide Saturday and a retired vice president of Zilber’s firm, made no attempt to mask his high admiration for Zilber’s tenacity and ability to think big about the future of what is now known as The Brewery. This geological high point in the city is also becoming an environmental high point with its far-reaching set of sustainable strategies throughout its development, construction and operation. According to its website, “by implementing the United States Green Building Council, LEED for Neighborhood Development Rating System, The Brewery has achieved Platinum Certification and is destined to be one of urban America’s premier sustainable neighborhoods.”

What does that mean? Mervis pointed out the bioswales along the sidewalk – deep, plant-rich ditches to catch, clean and recharge runwater – good for the environment and pretty too. He had the crowd look high up to the top of the massive grain elevators where someday a bar and restaurant will give patrons views as far as Holy Hill. Landscape and underground reservoirs collect and clean rainwater runoff. Cream city bricks from structures that couldn’t be saved were crushed for hardscape. Grey-color ballast bricks used in ships became sturdy pathways. The gleaming copper kettles once used in brewing now shine in the lobby of the Brewhouse Hotel. 

Today the once-crumbling and polluted industrial site is coming to life, thanks to see-ers like Joseph Zilber and those who became believers. The historic cream city brick buildings are being repurposed, living their history and making it too. 

You can see a video of a bioswale at


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