Dave Reid

Power Play

A city committee resists heavy lobbying and forestalls a special taxing district for Juneau Park and Cathedral Square.

By - Oct 14th, 2012 06:39 pm
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“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 Park. 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 Park 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.

17 thoughts on “Power Play”

  1. Jeff Jordan says:

    as much as applaud the efforts of local citizens in the proposed NID for caring about the parks in their neighborhood, the truth is these parks are not their parks , they belong to all of the citizens of the county. Handing over control of these parks in this neighborhood is a bad precedent.
    The more difficult action, both legislatively and politically, is to secure the sales tax that Milwaukee voted for in the advisory referendum in 2008 than fix our parks, save our bus system and fund our EMT’s.

  2. Dave Reid says:

    @Jeff I will add that they have put in the NID documents something to the effect that it will disband if/ when that sales tax is ever created.

  3. Greg Jay says:

    If you attended this meeting you saw the raw politics at work. Bob Baumann began by claiming (with much drama and little credibility) he had never heard about this meeting before the day before, so Alderman Davis had to bring in the County Clerk, who swore Baumann had received at least three formal notifications. It appeared Baumann was just trying to cover the fact that supporters of the NID had packed the room and he hadn’t gotten his troops together. But aldermen are treated as the mayors of their districts, so the NID got tabled. Baumann and Kovac are good people, but they have yet to present any credible alternative to the NID. These parks are in their districts, and have declined on their watch. Raising private funds for the parks is suggested, but I don’t see how this isn’t a worse form of privatization than the NID, which at least has a diverse Board accountable to the neighborhood and the city. It would be nice if County Executive Abele’s office contacted Mayor Barrett’s office and discussed some way of moving forward on the improvement of these parks and a joint response to the NID proposal.

  4. blurondo says:

    This smacks of nothing more than the very well heeled turning publicly owned land into their private party space. Once again, the 1% is determined to have its way by buying public representation.
    The fair, honest and only way to resolve this issue is to put it on a referendum.

  5. Patty Thompson says:

    I’d like to know how the County Parks stand on this move. Is is possible for the County to create an equivilent to the NID instead of transfering control of this financing to the City?

  6. flyonthewall says:

    Yeah, we know how many 1%ers live in Milwaukee. With their $200,000 condos, obviously they’re wealthy beyond any normal measure, how dare they tax themselves to improve parks in Downtown Milwaukee!

  7. Dave Reid says:

    @flyonthewell The group pushing the NID are in fact some of Milwaukee’s wealthy. Just to do the first notice cost $14,000 most people couldn’t pony that up I’m pretty sure.

  8. Greg Jay says:

    Could you explain the class politics behind your comments? Some of our better-off citizens want to tax themselves to pay for improvements for parks that are predominantly used by other people. There is no guaranteed return on their investment, they won’t own anything, all their plans will have to be approved by the city and the county. Sounds more like socialism than a diabolical plot by the 1% to privatize our parks. Perhaps this is actually a movement by citizens who have been blessed by this city and who want to give something back to it?

  9. The issues facing Cathedral Square and Juneau Park are almost the direct opposite of each other. Cathedral Square has become a destination park, with Bastille Days, concerts, and the farmers market. Its problem is overuse. Juneau is just the opposite, a semi-forgotten corner that is in danger of irrelevance. Both need help, and Gary Grunau’s proposal is the only plan I have heard (other than a dedicated tax which seems far away at this point).

    There is also an equity argument to be made in favor of the proposal. A lot of the benefits of parks, particularly if they are well-maintained, accrue to those living and working and owning property nearby. Numerous studies, for example, have quantified the positive effect of parks on surrounding property values. So why shouldn’t those enjoying the greatest benefits contribute to their improvement, particularly if they can do so?

    One alternative, I suppose, would be to include Cathedral Square in the county parks capital budget, presumably displacing needed repairs to other parks. But doesn’t collecting taxes from people of modest means to support parks in better-off neighborhoods create problematic equity issues?

  10. Rob says:

    I’m not for or against the proposal, but I am impressed by its ingenuity, both good and bad.

    It solves the financing problem for these two parks that will never be resolved via a new county-wide sales tax while Walker is governor. In that respect it’s great. No one outside of the city can derail it like we’re seeing with the streetcar (pun intended). But the end run around city and county government is likely the reason it’s being held up for now.

    While commercial owners are definitely contributing a reasonable amount of the money via the assessments, the board is equally stacked in their favor due to the application of property values in determining board composition. Residential growth may occur in the near future, but the residential property value generated will never catch up with commercial property in the area even if residential growth far exceeds the number of new office workers in the area. And even if it did, the high value of this future residential property would likely just reaffirm the commercial property owners’ majority.

    In essence, the commercial property owners will have bought two parks with taxpayer money. Good things may come from that, but it doesn’t change the fact that the rest of the city and county will have very little say in what happens to these parks in the future. Keeping the area’s aldermen and county supervisors on the board in a non-voting capacity seems like a bad first step by the commercial owners and parks groups that stand to gain the most by this district.

  11. Dave Reid says:

    @Greg Jay I was responding to @flyonthewall’s comment, because I take it he didn’t know the players involved.

    “Some of our better-off citizens want to tax themselves to pay for improvements for parks that are predominantly used by other people.” Lets be clear, this tax will impact literally thousands of renters, myself included.

  12. flyonthewall says:

    This debate reminds me of this article, why can’t Milwaukee have nice things?


  13. Dave Reid says:

    @flyonthewall If anything my personal feeling is if we are going to go so far as to create a tax to improve Cathedral Square, then let improve Cathedral Square. I mean lets do it. Go big. It should be this great urban public central square. Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen that’s just not what we’re getting with the current plan. So if we’re not then eh..

  14. Sam says:

    I have issues with the fact that Grunau & friends already have a mediocre design for Cathedral Square picked out. There needs to be a major public outreach effort to come up with a design, and it needs to take into account all of the users of the park, not just the ones who will show up for a city committee meeting in the middle of the afternoon.

    @Dave: You left too early from the initial plan commission hearing to learn about the Washington Park NID that looks like it is going to pass. You should do something on that and the new trouble with the development at 27th and Wisconsin. It would be nice to see you guys report some of the pretty big development/planning related stuff that’s happening in the rest of the city outside of the areas along the lake and Riverwest…

  15. Dave Reid says:

    @Sam Yes I’m 100% with you on the Cathedral Square design, and how it seems to have been chosen already… We’ll see on that.

    And you’re also right, I really should have paid more attention to the Washington Park NID, that was definitely poor of me. To be clear I’ve now gone through the documents and it is completely nothing like the 2park NID. It has a grant program for home owners, a jobs component, and some small improvements. Very interesting effort to improve the neighborhood. I don’t know about the new issue on 27th? Just the office building and the road redesign stuff. And we will definitely continue to expand our coverage, watch for it soon!

  16. Sam says:

    @Dave: Bauman is trying to stop the sale of the block at 27th and Wisconsin because they cheapened the design: http://www.jsonline.com/business/alderman-seeks-to-stop-land-transfer-after-building-design-changes-uo78bhc-174499161.html. While I don’t really enjoy walking/biking past a vacant block on the way to work in the morning, I have to agree with him. This is one of the busiest corners in the city and the new design is worse than nothing. I thought the boulevard project was dead? Sorry for straying so far off topic..

  17. Dave Reid says:

    @Sam Thanks, I’m just getting up to speed on it today…. Funny, I take one day off and all sorts of stuff happens! ha

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