Parks Plan Has Problems
Cathedral Square / Juneau Park plan created with little public discussion and no design competition.
Under a plan proposed by a handful of area residents, the two parks would be part of a neighborhood improvement district. Unlike a traditional business improvement district, this kind of district would be authorized to levy a property tax on all area properties, not just commercial properties. The district would use the tax revenue to cover capital upgrades and ongoing maintenance of the two parks. It’s a bold idea, but has some problems, beginning with how its design was selected.
Project Architect & Plan Selection
Let me preface this section by noting that Jim Shields is easily one of Milwaukee’s best architects. But whether it’s Shields, Santiago Calatrava, Jeanne Gang or a recent UW-Milwaukee grad doing the design, the process is wrong.
The plan is being presented as if Jim Shields and HGA have already been selected as the architecture team for the two-park project, and the plans are nearly complete. Given that a governing board has yet to be elected (and the district itself created) this seems a tad presumptuous. What about a design charette or competition? How about a UWM School of Architecture and Urban Planning class to envision a variety of concepts? I understand the desire to get things moving, but flushing out the design and generating community buy-in over the course of the next year seems wise.
Who decided Cathedral Square should be ringed with benches? That the stage building should look as it does? That a grove of trees would be created at the northern end? That the fountain would be removed? That Juneau Park would get elegant paths with brick pavers? These may or may not be good ideas, but this process could certainly use some sunshine.
The notion that a single tax would be split evenly between two very different parks also raises a red flag. The contrast between the two parks is stark, as are their needs. Cathedral Square Park is Milwaukee’s town square, hosting a number of weekly events and is bordered by a high school, university, church, offices, condominiums, bars and restaurants. It’s as urban as a park gets in Milwaukee. Juneau Park is on the edge of downtown with very little event programming and only a couple non-residential uses near the park. Serving as a transitional space between the lakefront and the residences along Prospect Ave, the park is overlooked and often empty. There are only a handful of non-residential uses near the park.
The proposed district would split the tax revenue evenly between the two parks, without regard for the number of users. In fact the proposed operating plan goes as far as to mention that “events in Juneau Park are not anticipated to occur as frequently as events occurring in Cathedral Square.” Then why does Juneau Park get half of the operating budget?
And who are they? They’re residents of some of Milwaukee’s most expensive properties in University Club Tower, Kilbourn Tower, Cudahy Tower, and the Regency House. Not surprisingly, a number of the backers of the tax district are residents of those very buildings. Juneau Park is their front yard, and it would be a very nice park if it received 50 cents of every dollar from a neighborhood tax district that extends west to the Milwaukee River.
The solution? Separate the two parks, and consider a district for each on its own merits.
Personally, I think Juneau Park is most logically served by the Juneau Park Friends soliciting donations and partnering with the county to push through a modest improvement plan. Giving Juneau Park half the tax revenue is a recipe for everyone in East Town to pay for a gold-plated front yard for some of Milwaukee’s wealthiest residents. Juneau Park should be a lot better than it is, but is this the right way to get there?
Role of County
What is the long-term role of Milwaukee County with Cathedral Square and Juneau parks? The operating plan includes a number of references to county government, but no concrete guidance as to how the county will interface with the park long-term. Will the county still contribute financially to maintenance of the two parks in any way? Will the district, which is proposed to take over park maintenance, contract with the county to provide those services? Long-term, should the county transfer ownership of the parks to the residents? Does Milwaukee County have any say in what events are allowed in the parks?
Beyond these two parks, a number of questions are raised regarding the future of the Milwaukee County Parks system. If residents want capital improvements to their parks, has the only real solution become a plan to tax themselves? Will this create a situation where the parks more drastically reflect the wealth of their host neighborhoods? Could a district for each park be created and the county simply do away with the parks department? These aren’t necessarily questions the proposers of the Juneau Park / Cathedral Square Neighborhood Improvement District need to answer, but they are issues that elected officials need to debate before approving the district.
More Vetting Needed
Milwaukee could use a better town square. As the case has been made in recent articles, there is no question that improvements could be made to Cathedral Square Park that deliver a lot more value to the community. A neighborhood improvement district offers an avenue to achieve just that, but only if it is designed properly. Using one governing board and one tax for two parks with radically different uses and needs is a bad idea. Rushing a design through is a recipe for regret. We, as a community of Juneau Town residents, business owners, and property owners, need to take time and get this right.