Jeramey Jannene

Parks Plan Has Problems

Cathedral Square / Juneau Park plan created with little public discussion and no design competition.

By - Sep 7th, 2012 11:47 am

A proposed redesign for Cathedral Square Park and Juneau Park has the potential to improve both parks, but it also raises a lot of red flags. Frankly, the whole thing needs more discussion.

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.

Two Parks

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?

In addition, the plans for Juneau Park include paying for a number of items that have traditionally been County Parks Department functions: tree pruning, erosion control on the bluff, and pathway repairs. The operating plan mentions that Milwaukee County may pay for other improvements, but why not get the County to take care of the park before creating a special levy? The plan includes a number of improvements that will certainly turn a largely forgotten park into something more fetching, but who will really benefit from a green space with few programmed uses? The nearby residents.

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.

The legislative process for the proposal begins on Monday, September 10th at the City Plan Commission. Please take the time to contact your Alderman.

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7 thoughts on “Parks Plan Has Problems”

  1. Jesse Hagen says:

    I really enjoy many of your articles & you bring up many good points. However after reading through the article, the first words to come to mind are “paralysis by analysis”.

    I’ve looked over the plan as proposed, it’s not perfect but is a great step forward. It’s unfair to have this area pay for improvements that we’re already paying for through the county, but the need for improvement is real.

    I will personally benefit from this plan going forward & I will also be personally paying additional taxes when it does. This project should move forward because it’s a big step up & perfection doesn’t need to be the enemy of good.

    Milwaukee needs more projects like this to get done period, we don’t need to obsess over the details to the point of inaction. Let’s chalk this up as a win & work out getting McArthur Square improved…

  2. Dan Cody says:

    I’m curious why you think Juneau Park should just solicit private donations for it’s park improvements while Cathedral Square shouldn’t?

    Why hasn’t East Town Assoc. ever held any kind of fundraising campaign for improvements at CSP? They certainly have the capacity and ability to do so, why do they need public financing to provide capital improvements that will be beneficial to a private organization?

  3. Frank says:

    “Rushing a design through is a recipe for regret.” – Describes many of the new developments here in Milwaukee. I blame it on “bottle-popping” politics.

  4. dh says:

    Nice article- but quite frankly not critical enough, Jeramey.
    The design environment in architecture – and particular Milwaukee -has become stagnant. One may argue buildings like the North End or Moderne are trend setters, but really they are nothing more than a copy of any recent Dwell Magazine or 90’s rehash.
    While this is more likely a function of the economy as designers scramble to protect their jobs- the environment has become stagnant none the less.
    Many other youthful professions and vocations are re-energizing themselves thru ‘collaborations’ with multiple associated disciplines. Cathedral Square is burdened an mediocre corporate minded architect at best whom is not seeking out an opportunity with brilliant landscape architect. Bow-ties and expensive corbu eyeglasses won’t develop humanistic spaces, and politicized selection committees blunt creativity and reward mundane-ness out of the need for political security.

    Urban design is a tough nut to crack- the once over doesn’t cut it, and Architect’s contracts just don’t have the time built in to work these things out.

  5. Greg Jay says:


    Thanks for your thoughtful suggestions and criticism, which will doubtless be of help as we move forward.

    As I understand it, the first year of funding for the NID would only be partial, allowing for the hiring of professionals to review design ideas and come up with a set of final options. The full fee would not be levied until the second year. I do not think we are committed to any of Jim Shields’ design ideas, though obviously they will be influential. We can’t sell this proposal for a NID without showing people what COULD be done, and why. I agree that some backers may be assuming too much about the inevitability of the Shields plan. I don’t, and at least at the one public meeting I attended, many had other ideas to contribute.

    For planning and political purposes, and for creating a NID that can sustain itself, joining the two parks makes sense. It also makes sense to consider this an opportunity to treat this area more coherently, to link the parks, greenways, and public areas more thoughtfully, including better streetscaping and lighting throughout Yankee Hill. You raise a good point about the ratio of funds dedicated to the parks. I agree that it would be a mistake to lock this into any kind of fixed formula.

    As I have said before, the financial and tax/fee aspect is double-sided. On the one hand, relatively prosperous residents would be able to improve their own local community, which may seem unfair to people living elsewhere. On the other hand, the businesses and residents of our area already pay massive property taxes that go towards paying for the parks, schools, and streets in those other areas, effectively subsidizing them. Is that fair? Since there is no prospect of a tax increase across the board, why not let the residents and owners of our area take this step if that is what they desire? We are the stewards of resources used by the whole metropolitan area, and it is, by one perspective, generous of the people of this area to tax themselves additionally to improve public areas that are largely used by people from elsewhere.

  6. Bill Sell says:

    In this column, Jeramey, you should be getting a wide array of suggestions. The only thing missing is a public hearing, in which citizens listen to each other. I have been to such meetings where another citizen changed my mind. I believe it’s important not just for decision makers to hear us, but for us to hear ourselves, sift through what we learn, and collaborate on a vision. Sunshine, in a word.

  7. Dave Reid says:

    @Jesse I initially thought this was a good plan as well, and am totally open to a NID for Cathedral Square. But the design is quite frankly pedestrian, and will do nothing to make the Square better. If anything the design quite possibly makes events less likely, and removes what should be a key component of the Square, the fountain. I do hope this one is stopped in its tracks, until a better process, design, and involvement can come together.

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