Patti Wenzel

Selling O’Donnell Park is the best idea yet

By - Sep 23rd, 2010 04:00 am
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A panel is removed from the O’Donnell Park parking structure following the fatal accident in June. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee County.

I grew up in Milwaukee. I’ve been going to Summerfest since 1975, enjoyed a few dinners at Pieces of Eight, remember when 794 ended as stubs of concrete and rebar and fished for smelt off the seawall at Veteran’s Park. But for the life of me, I couldn’t remember what stood on the corner of Michigan and Lincoln Memorial Drive before O’Donnell Park was constructed.

I know the Chicago/Northwestern train depot used to stand there, but it was razed when I was three.  I had to look at some historic photos to recall it became a slope with a small parking lot at the bottom– until 1991, that is.

When county officials decided to construct a parking structure and park pavilion in an attempt to tie Lincoln Memorial Drive and Wisconsin Avenue together, it was met with mixed reviews. As the construction was riddled with mishaps, cost overruns and corruption, the mood worsened.

But upon completion, it did provide some green space and needed parking at the end of the city’s main avenue and over the next two decades it faded from the public’s eye.

Then a concrete panel fell off the structure on June 24, 2010, killing a teenage boy on his way to Summerfest. Investigations are ongoing and initial reports show the panel and 98 percent of the other decorative panels on the structure were improperly attached to the building. Another inspection of the structure found over 140 instances of cracked concrete walls, platforms and stairwells, water leakage and faulty, rusted railings.

Milwaukee County’s Department of Public Works and INSPEC/CTL group completed the inspections of the structure, the pavilion and connecting bridge to the Milwaukee Art Museum. Of seven options, they have recommended three to the county board and Scott Walker – remove the precast panels from the structure and leave them off; demolish the parking structure, leaving the pavilion on top and reconfiguring the bridge to the museum; or demolish the entire structure including the pavilion while reconfiguring the museum bridge. The final two options would also include constructing some type of pedestrian bridge from Wisconsin Avenue to the museum.

The potential costs of these options range from $3.9 million to tear the entire structure down, $5.4 million to simply take the panels down to $6 million to just remove the parking structure and preserving the park. Add the cost to make the other structural repairs and  annual maintenance and taxpayers are looking at a chunk of change we can’t afford.

County Supervisor Lynn DeBruin has floated the idea of selling or leasing O’Donnell Park and the Milwaukee County Transit Center across Michigan Avenue to a private developer.

“As we move forward, the discussion should not be limited to demolishing O’Donnell Park or removing defective façade panels,” she said. “From a more long-term perspective, we need to look at the big picture at this location and at the Downtown Transit Center across the street. Together, these parcels could fuel a massive economic boom in downtown Milwaukee.”

I like DeBruin’s thinking. The cost to taxpayers to repair or demolish any or all of the structure is something that is cost prohibitive. Milwaukee County has other priorities that need cash – the mental health facility, the restoration of transit and parks, etc.

Instead, let’s open this up to a developer who can buy the structure for the market rate, tear it down and replace it with condos, restaurants, studios, and shops. Put some height restrictions on any development to not block the beautiful views from Wisconsin Avenue and ensure a place for Betty Brinn Children’s Museum and public green space within any development.

Walker has come on board with the idea of leasing or selling the property and using some of the proceeds to set up a park system endowment fund. I’m liking this idea better and better. Get an albatross off the taxpayers’ neck and put some much needed funds into our award winning park system that could use a little more love. Plus the increased property tax collections from new development at the property would more than offset the $1 million raised from current parking fees in the structure.

O’Donnell Park has never quite worked and now it has become a tragic reminder of the incompetence of our leaders in the early 1990s. It’s time to move on and add some more value to Milwaukee’s most valuable natural asset.

Categories: Commentary, Urban Ideas

0 thoughts on “Selling O’Donnell Park is the best idea yet”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Patti, thank you for this article. Very well thought out; very well written; and right on the money. And THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart for not making this article a political issue.

  2. Anonymous says:

    It’s going to need to be repaired, or a new structure will be needed (which will be paid for, as most are downtown, with some form of city financing). It’s probably a better idea to keep the revenue generating structure, repair it, and sell the air rights above it. You’re not going to be able to sell a damaged structure for top dollar.

    As for the Transit Center, that’s probably the more valuable piece of land. There is an open space in front of the facility itself that could fit a hotel.

    The city’s new downtown plan draws out a vision for a better connection with the lakefront with private investment.

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