How To Fix O’Donnell Park
It's a complete failure of a park, here is how to fix it.
I took a detour through O’Donnell Park yesterday on my way home from work. It wasn’t much of a detour, I walk by the park nearly everyday as I traverse Prospect Ave. on my way to and from the office. Yet, it felt like I had entered a different world.
O’Donnell Park suffers from a truly unfortunate grade difference from the sidewalk on Prospect Ave, it’s elevated and private – exactly like you would want your front porch, but just about the worst thing possible for a public park. Compounding the height difference is a short wall and a formidable line of trees and shrubs.
Once you finally access the park you’re treated to the inverse problem you have outside of it. You can’t see much of anything outside of the park without going to the far edges. Sometimes the feeling of isolation is a welcome surprise, such as the hidden Waterfall Garden park in Seattle, but O’Donnell Park is just lonely. Unless you’re headed to the parking garage, there is no reason for being there.
If the goal was to create a public park no one intentionally visits, O’Donnell Park seems to have the essentials down. Invisible from the street, no programming, lackluster views.
What if the situation could be fixed though?
Why Now to Fix the Park?
A perfect opportunity has arrived to make O’Donnell Park the park it should be. Northwestern Mutual, as part of their construction of the new Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons (just across the street), has negotiated a deal with Milwaukee County to buy the parking garage and rooftop park. They’re an company with deep pockets that is engaging in a once-in-a-generation investment to solidify their place as a key Milwaukee institution.
If that deal falls apart, and it still could with the bitter divide between the board and county executive, don’t expect much to happen to the park. O’Donnell Park deserves to be a better park, but the Milwaukee County Parks Department has a long list of deferred maintenance projects before that happens.
For the sake of brevity, let’s ignore a discussion about improving the actual parking garage. I think we can all agree though that it’s strange to have a world class building (the Quadracci Pavilion) across the street from a barebones parking garage.
Now what can be done do to fix the park?
How to Redesign O’Donnell Park
Any changes to O’Donnell Park need to be focused on making the park more inviting. I’ve prepared a list of changes I think would significantly improve the park, making it a place people would feel encouraged to run or walk through, stop for food or drink, or spend a few hours at an event.
- Replace the western edge of the park with terraced steps down to Prospect Ave. Out goes the wall and a number of the western trees and shrubs. In comes a wide, but short staircase and ramp that allows people to see in and out of the park and go in and out as they please. This is the single most important change.
- Strategically remove trees to open site lines of the War Memorial and Quadracci Pavilion, while re-orienting benches and tables to face them. Almost all of the benches face inward today, which is rather awkward as there is literally nothing to look at but grass. People need to be able to take in the lake and the Milwaukee Art Museum.
- Add a water feature. Be it a fountain, waterfall or some other off the wall idea. The space is eerily quiet unless someone honks a horn on the street. The sound of running water has a very calming effect and wouldn’t make you feel like you need to whisper while you’re there. Seattle’s Waterfall Garden is the perfect example of this, but we have many good examples locally like the fountain at the Marcus Center and at Catalano Square. They draw people in. It’s also important that the water feature be visible from Prospect Ave and the plaza at the end of Wisconsin Ave, so people are drawn to walk up into the park.
- Replace the drab parking garage entrance at the north end of the park with a glassy coffee shop and bar. This step is meaningless unless the park is opened up, but it’s perhaps the most logical next step once the park is accessible. Imagine Estabrook Beer Garden or a coffee shop with a view, and within walking distance of so many downtown workers and residents. Tourists will stop there before heading to the art museum or Discovery World. Workers will schedule meetings there. People coming and going from the parking garage will hang out there. A glass facade would allow you to see through the building from multiple angles.
- Make the area around the proposed coffee shop hardscaped or gravel. If we’re going to have a new amenity that draws people in, let’s not surround it with dirt and trampled grass.
- Re-orient the pathways to maximize available space in the middle. Encourage use of that center space by recreational groups/classes (yoga, frisbee, futsal/soccer, etc, etc).
- Remove as much as possible from the structures at the south end of the park. I can’t figure out what purpose they serve, other than to enter and exit the park.
- Better connect the end of the Oak Leaf Trail. The trail leaves the lakefront and climbs up to Prospect Ave at the south end of Juneau Park. One it reaches Prospect it just terminates into Mason St. though. O’Donnell Park should either extend the trail (to encourage more cycling to Wisconsin Ave) or provide a worthy terminus (indoor bike parking, a repair station).
Newaukee is holding an event at O’Donnell Park October 1st to solicit ideas on how to improve the park. The organization is under contract with Northwestern Mutual to find ways to improve the public use of the open space above the parking structure. If you’re unable to make the event, submit your ideas on their online form and make sure to leave a comment here as well.