A city committee resists heavy lobbying and forestalls a special taxing district for Juneau Park and Cathedral Square.
“This is big, this is really big,” declared Ald. Willie Wade at the October 11th special meeting of the Community and Economic Development Committee. Wade, a committee member, called the issue “a major thing not just for the aldermanic district, but for the city.”
At issue was the proposal to create a special taxing district, a Neighborhood Improvement District, to generate funds to improve Juneau Park and Cathedral Square. Developer and political heavyweight Gary Grunau has led the way to create the NID, and there has been heavy lobbying of city officials to go along. But so far, the two aldermen representing this area. Nik Kovac and Bob Bauman, are opposed to the NID. Both attended the committee meeting though they are not members.
“This is a very significant policy issue that the city is considering,” noted Bauman, who argued that the proposal was “privatizing” our public parks, whereby the parks are controlled by a select few, not elected officials.
The question before us, Kovac suggested “is do we want to open this can of worms.” The city has never had a special taxing district for parks. Instead of creating a new tax, Kovac noted, groups such as Juneau Park Friends could privately raise money much like North Point Lighthouse Friends and Lake Park Friends, which together have have raised millions of dollars for improvements to public parks.
The proposal in question is called the 2 Parks Juneau Park / Cathedral Square Neighborhood Improvement District. The NID would create a new tax on the area bounded by the Milwaukee River to the west, Ogden Avenue to the north, Lake Michigan to the east and Clybourn Avenue to the south. The tax collected will fund about $4 million in capital upgrades primarily to be split between Cathedral Square and Juneau Park, though Burns Park and Burns Triangle have been added to the NID area as well. Additionally, it will underwrite approximately $200,000 a year in maintenance and administration. During the first year the tax would work out to about $10 for a $200,000 home and in the second year would increase to about $50 per year in additional taxes.
The proposal calls for creation of a NID board to control these tax dollars as well as the operation of these parks. Proponents of the plan have incorporated changes since the Sept 27th proposal, in particular to alleviate concerns over its limits on who may serve on the board. The proposal still specifies that six commercial property representatives and three residential representatives shall serve, and still specifies that there shall be a seat for a representative of Northwestern Mutual Life and a commercial operator with more than 100,000 square feet of office space (that sounds like it has a particular company in mind), but some of the other specifically designated commercial representatives were deleted from the plan. Meanwhile, Bauman noted the plan would significantly change the operation of these parks in that the new board would become responsible for the hiring of contractors, and choosing which events would or wouldn’t take place in the parks.
The plan calls for significant infrastructure improvements: in Juneau Park the plan seeks to create a new plaza, benches, pavers, restoring the eroding bluff, and even adding up-lighting on trees within the park. The Cathedral Square Park design calls for adding a small stage, the removal of the fountain, new pathways, a bench wrapping the park, and permanent bathrooms. In response to criticisms raised during the process and here at Urban Milwaukee, Grunau has responded that the designs “are not final” and will need further public input.
Ald. Joe Davis, who chairs the Community and Economic Development Committee, called for approval of the plan, but couldn’t get any votes. Ultimately, the committee voted 4-0 to hold the proposal and will take it up again at a special meeting of the committee, to be held just prior to the next Common Council meeting. It was held in part because the alderman who represent the area don’t support the proposal, and also because Martha Brown, representing Mayor Tom Barrett, asked for it to be held until a written action was provided by Milwaukee County (which runs the parks system) in support of the proposal. The mayor, Brown said, is “not yet at a comfortable level that the county is on board.”
As Wade noted, its a really big change in how Milwaukee does things.