Milwaukee RiverWalk lifts broken, replacement project coming

Spring is a beautiful time to visit the Milwaukee RiverWalk. However, one man wrote to Contact 6 saying he can’t enjoy the full pedestrian walkway because of mechanical malfunctions. The good news is that improvements are on the way. 

After the snow melts, Darrin Malsack likes to head downtown to the Milwaukee River. He used to spend sunny days on his boat, traveling up and down the river. Since a 2017 motorcycle accident left him a quadriplegic and wheelchair user, he’s changed up his routine, enjoying the water from the RiverWalk instead. 

Milwaukee RiverWalk

"I probably come down here four or five times a year," Malsack told Contact 6. "I get outside, enjoy some of the weather and be on the water." 

The Milwaukee RiverWalk winds more than 20 city blocks. It connects three neighborhoods and visitors to businesses, art and leisure activities. 

People with mobility issues can use the RiverWalk’s ramps, lifts and walkways to travel its full length, but when Contact 6 visited the RiverWalk with Malsack on April 11, they found three of the four lifts were inoperable. 

Milwaukee RiverWalk

"That means you have to backtrack all the way to the next elevator and to the next road, go across the river and then continue on your way, so you can’t really do the whole river anymore," said Malsack. 

The Milwaukee RiverWalk exists thanks to a public-private partnership that includes the city and a business improvement district. As Contact 6 found out, they’re aware of issues with the lifts. 

In an email, the management representative for Business District #15, Stacie Callies, told Contact 6, "There are some challenges with maintaining sophisticated mechanical equipment that is outdoors in the public realm continually operating in the harsh Wisconsin weather conditions..." 

Callies went on to say, "The BID has prioritized the operation and maintenance of the lifts to ensure the RiverWalk is maintained as an accessible amenity…" 

Milwaukee RiverWalk

It’s not just a priority, but a requirement. 

Twenty years ago, the United States Department of Justice found the Milwaukee RiverWalk had 28 potential violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. As part of a 2006 settlement, the City, County and BID agreed to install ramps, walkways and lifts. The project began in 2007 with the final ramp installed in 2016. 

Callies said a maintenance company does preventative work and investigates out-of-service lifts. Back in 2020, Callies said the BID board authorized a "significant maintenance project" on the four lifts, which was completed. 

Alyssa Remington, an economic development specialist with the City of Milwaukee, said the BID quickly sends repair teams to investigate inoperable lifts once they’re reported. 

Now, plans are already in motion in 2023 to replace all four lifts on the RiverWalk, which should make future visits easier on Malsack’s arms. 

Milwaukee RiverWalk

"[There’s] just the frustration that you’re not able to do it like an able-bodied person," said Malsack. 

In March, Callies said the BID executed a $148,000 contract with Nationwide Lifts to replace all four lifts. Project drawings are under review. Replacement work is expected to begin by summer. 

Remington said the new lifts will have more advanced technology, better designed for outdoor conditions. 

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"This will allow the lifts to operate more smoothly in the future," wrote Remington. 

On April 18, Contact 6 returned to the RiverWalk without Malsack. One of the lifts that had been inoperable one week prior was working again. The City of Milwaukee also updated its website to state two lifts are out-of-order instead of one.