Jeramey Jannene
Eyes On Milwaukee

How To Fix O’Donnell Park

It's a complete failure of a park, here is how to fix it.

By - Sep 24th, 2014 12:10 pm
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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.

I could tell you anything you wanted to know about the condition of Juneau Park. How the paths work, who is in the park at what time of day, where a little trimming could yield a much better lake view, I can see it all when I walk by. Yet, despite being separated by a single street from Juneau Park, I can tell you next to nothing about O’Donnell Park. It might as well be in New Berlin for as often as I even see what’s going on in it.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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).
  7. 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.
  8. 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).

Photo Gallery

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.

Categories: Eyes on Milwaukee

35 thoughts on “Eyes On Milwaukee: How To Fix O’Donnell Park”

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more! Great, constructive ideas. I especially like 6. “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). “This space has so much potential.

  2. Tyrell Track Master says:

    Bravo… another great article. I hope the guys trying to stop the NML takeover read this. I like preserving parks, I can’t stand it when people can’t see the forest for the trees!

  3. Frank says:

    No mention of DiSuvero’s “The Calling?” These are great ideas, but the remade park should imaginatively errace down to the plaza level where the DiSuvero stands and not ignore it the way OD currently does. It seems like it’s just parked there. A proper park would celebrate not just the view east but also fulfill it’s potential as a vantage point on the DiSuvero.

  4. Begonia says:

    Good points. I see you have read your William Whyte. And, in true William Whyte style, don’t forget: movable furniture and chairs, like Memorial Union in Madison.

  5. Dave Reid says:

    @Frank. Good point.

  6. @Begonia – Absolutely.

    @Frank – I actually did, but it’s in the photo captions. I can understand how you would have missed it. I’m a big fan of the sculpture. I tend to believe people would like it more if the park provided better views of it.

  7. A couple things I missed in the piece that warrant a mention.

    1. I ruled out a farmer’s market in this space because it would just cannibalize the two great farmer’s markets we have downtown. Westown and East Town. They’re both in the heart of the grid, not the edge, making them much more walkable/accessible. The focus should be on improving, not relocating, those (better park infrastructure to support them).
    2. The Night Market is great on Wisconsin Ave. Let’s keep it there.
    3. I picked a coffee shop/cafe/small bar for a number of reasons. NM employees could access it as they enter/exit the garage. It would be the only coffee shop for a number of blocks (the US Bank Center one is a cafeteria coffee shop). It provides a good reason for sitting/hanging out in the park.The beer garden concept gets you more happy hour/evening users, without creating an actual bar that might be hostile to traditional park uses.
    4. Improving access to and from the park is the single most important thing. This needs to be reiterated as I believe everything else would struggle without it. I see people doing all kinds of things in Juneau Park, I never see any hints that people use O’Donnell Park.

  8. John G. says:

    Having an Estabrook style beer garden would be a fantastic traffic driver to the site. Currently there is one location accessible by non-members where one can enjoy a beer and a view of the Lake within 10 miles of downtown. With the Art Museum providing additional viewing enjoyment, this seems like a no brainer. You have zero establishments to enjoy a beverage within 2 blocks of the US Bank tower. In the summer this place would be bursting.

  9. Dave Reid says:

    @Jeramey #3 I see no reason it just has to be a beer garden. A full service bar with tables and umbrellas could be great… I’ve seen them work in all sorts of parks / plazas (just not here in the US!).

  10. PMD says:

    Yes if there is one thing Milwaukee lacks, it’s places to drink alcohol.

  11. John G. says:

    Well, as someone mentioned earlier, the Union Terrace in Madison is a fantastic traffic driver due to view and ambience in a town with no shortage of watering holes. This site has room for this and many other uses in tandem, which could likely be funded by putting such a venue here.

    One could make the same comment about Munich, but anyone who has been to the Englischer Garten and the beer garden there by the Pagoda can tell you it is an amazing place to visit, and a tourist draw in and of itself.

    Having unique venues that incorporate our natural amenities will draw tourists and locals alike to downtown. This is a good thing.

  12. Dave Reid says:

    @PMD People said the same about Estabrook. The truth is has brought people, activity, and funding to a park. Further, I’ve seen these simple ‘umbrella’ bars activate amazing central squares, historic plazas, and grand parks.. why not here?

  13. PMD says:

    It just seems lazy and uninspired to me, to automatically say “beer garden,” as if there aren’t enough places to drink in Milwaukee as it is. Why does everything here have to involve alcohol? There’s no other way to make these spaces inviting and draw people in?

  14. Paul Bachowski says:

    Let’s clarify and discuss what the top of the parking structure should be called if the site were to be sold to NML. “Temporary public access on someone else’s roof” is a more accurate description than public park. A public park its owned by the citizens, not a private company. A public park can be invested in and enjoyed in perpetuity by the public. A privately owned rooftop can only become whatever that private company wants it to become and is willing to pay for at that time. All the deed restrictions in the world still restrict future uses to the will of the private company, not the public and their representatives. NML spin doctors are trying to change our public perception of the park until we no longer trust ourselves managing this public asset. We have other and better options.

  15. MKELover says:

    PMD, this is Milwaukee. This is Wisconsin. We love our beer here and it’s a huge point of bringing people together, to socialize, to enjoy a beverage deep-rooted in Wisconsin’s makeup, and to network. We’re known for that. Why not capitalize on it? I get that there are enough places to drink in Wisconsin as it is, but a venue like this is limited in the area. This would still be incredibly unique I believe. It could be executed in a way that’s refreshing. It doesn’t have to be about JUST beer. I think having some live music would be a great addition from late Spring until early fall.

  16. PMD says:

    Thank you for the history lesson. I was born and raised in Wisconsin so I am fully aware of our state’s love affair with alcohol. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing when you consider the state’s rate of binge-drinking, DUIs, accidents involving alcohol, wrong-way drunk drivers, etc. But I also realize I am in the minority on this, and I am perfectly comfortable with that.

  17. Jeff Jordan says:

    I like many of your suggestions, but I want to emphasize the water feature. As the “Fresh Water Research Capital of the World”, we should have at the center of one of our gateways to the city not just a fountain, but a water feature on the level of the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Certainly our water capital partners could work out a subsidy to NML, so they would not have to foot the bill for maintenance and operation all by themselves. Go Big or Go Home.

  18. MKELover says:

    PMD, What school did you go to? If you thought that was a history lesson, then I feel bad for you. I was simply emphasizing the importance of beer in this city and state. Perhaps you’ve been having a couple of beers yourself? And because sometimes people binge drink and get DUI’s, we should just not at least consider the idea of a beer garden in this space? Well that sounds silly and a bit presumptuous.

    Jeff, I really, really like your idea, especially tying into our nickname as “Fresh Water Capital of the World”.

  19. Dave Reid says:

    @Jeff Interesting you bring up a water feature idea… I’ve wondered if “The Calling” should really be set ‘floating’ atop a reflecting pond… just an idea

  20. PMD says:

    I am well aware of beer’s importance in Milwaukee and Wisconsin. I’m not much of a drinker. I did not say that because of DUIs, a beer garden should be off the table. I said that due to a slew of alcohol-related problems in our state, I don’t think the love affair with alcohol is anything to be proud of. Quite the contrary.

  21. MKELover says:

    PMD: Well, I certainly can’t agree with you there. But again, you are aware that you are a minority in your stance.

  22. PMD says:

    And maybe you’re aware that you are part of the problem. It’s pretty pathetic that someone would be proud of something that is so destructive in Wisconsin.

  23. Nice discussion….

    That I think overlooks the fact that it is first and foremost a parking structure.

    Several of your ideas would result in less parking, which was the problem of
    original conception. It should be lower, on the north side for example.

    PS. I think putting the Di Suvero in a pond of water could result in a lawsuit.

    anyways….. lots to think about.

  24. Andy says:

    Beer Gardens are the quintessential place in which we can fight the culture of over indulgence and abuse of alcohol. These are not the rowdy bars on water street, they are family friendly spaces that encourage social interaction in a way that allows us to appreciate an important pastime that has mostly passed from our city and also combats the idea you need to get inebriated to enjoy alcohol. If one dislikes the drinking culture of Wisconsin, as backwards as this may seem, a beer garden is the exact kind of establishment you’d want to promote.

  25. Jeramey Jannene says:

    @Tom – I don’t think any parking spaces would be lost with anything I proposed. Terracing the park down to the street with stairs (for lack of a better description) wouldn’t lower the top of the garage, it would just use the unused space around edges of the structure.

    All that said, I’ve never understood why Milwaukee has a highly visible parking garage in that location. As I said in the article, “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.” It encourages the auto-dominance of that area, which you’ve written about.

    It just doesn’t seem that is going to be changed now or anytime soon. As the garage ages, its removal or replacement will become more and more likely. The availability of capital for a better park does seem there, so I thought I would weigh in.

  26. MKELover says:

    PMD: I can’t tell if you’re serious, or you’re just choosing to misinterpret me. Why would I be proud of a negative statistic? I’m proud of having deep-rooted history and being from this great city and state. Get it together.

  27. MKELover says:

    Andy: Great post; however, PMD can’t comprehend that idea. I think it’s a great idea to incorporate a beer garden into this space. Think about the other ones the city has had. They’ve generally been successful all across the board.

  28. MKELover says:

    PMD: I can’t tell if you’re serious or just choosing to misinterpret what I’m saying. I’m not proud of a negative statistic; I’m proud to be from this great city and state and I’m proud to celebrate Wisconsin’s deep-rooted history.

  29. Michael James says:

    I’m thinking lots of small tables. Some beer would be fine, but the ability to have a coffee would be good too. I’ve traveled around Europe and Asia, and it seems outside of the US there are many cafes that serve both alcohol and coffee… I don’t know why there are not many places like that here.

  30. L T III says:

    I have no ideas, but whatever you do, make O’Donnell Park better for families. That’s what he would have wanted. He was a great man and one of the few ‘honest and for the people’ elected officials in Milwaukee.

  31. Cheri Briscoe says:

    Jaramey, Admittedly, the existing O’Donnell park is a poorly, designed non welcoming area. And it truly has the potential to be an important part of our progressive visions for Milwaukee. Many of your ideas are actually incorporated in NWM’s sketch of potential changes to “the park”. I laud those ideas of opening the spaces, making them more active for today’s more active individuals. I also would advocate for integrating the Oak Leaf Trail into the new park design along with sculptured bike racks. And the improved parking garage should include lockable bike “boxes”. (like they have in Indianapolis and other progressive cities.) I also support an outside garden restaurant concept.
    Take a look at Millennium Park (built over a parking garage) in Chicago, or the High Line Park in New York, and numerous others. The land is owned by the public, and the large capital investments have been made by corporations, philanthropic organizations and citizen groups; thus insuring the space, the land, will always be a park. With vision and cooperation we can insure the park for the next NEWaukee and improve it together. It is not good public policy to sell our parks.

  32. Dave Reid says:

    @Tom hmmm reading this old MLaw makes think changing the area around the Di Suvero might not be a problem.. Sounds like it was already altered

  33. Mookie says:

    Jeramy: Both your diagnosis of what ails O’Donnell and your prescriptions for how to fix it are superb. But if we’re going to maintain our city’s integrity–and follow the law–we need to keep O’Donnell a public park. It’s a distinction of our city that our best, most prestigious piece of land is devoted to public use and enjoyment. Only if it remains in public ownership will we be able to pass it on to coming generations, who will need it even more than we do. Let’s try to persuade Northwestern Mutual to work out an agreeable parking deal at O’Donnell and drop its bid to buy the park. In the best of all possible worlds, the company would join with the city and county and generous citizens to make O’Donnell the lively, inviting place it can be. Maybe one day we can replace it with the beautiful green park that would be the ideal.

  34. CarolV says:

    I submitted my idea for Newaukee and hope someone reads it fully. Check this out for inspiration: it has water features and much more. Audio tour via free app. Really cool and…get this…it has another diSuvero there. I think the concept could work. Interactive art experiences for all, a new tourist and city-dweller attraction, a great place to grab lunch and sit with art – or have kids climb. I visited it in St. Louis – it is really a great experience in the middle of their downtown.

  35. Virginia S. says:

    I agree with all the comments about the difference between parks and privately owned property. Selling a park to a private entity means it is no longer a public park, even if access is temporarily granted (up to 20 years as proposed). It’s the prerogative of private owners to do whatever they want with their property.

    Jeramey, I like a lot of your ideas about design and perhaps the folks in city or county planning might pick up on some of them in the long term. Perhaps Zilli, the vendor with the restaurant and banquet hall at O’Donnell, could extend its operation to include coffee etc. on the terrace near Coast.

    As for why there’s a parking garage across from the museum, it was built to cater to people coming to three museums (including one at O’Donnell), Summerfest etc. as well as those who work downtown. Also, the number of people in the park varies now depending on events in the pavilion, traffic to the museum and events like watching fireworks. But surely there will be more daytime activity than ever when the NML, Irgens, and other planned construction is complete.

    Milwaukee scored points recently for adding public park space. Abdicating a prime downtown park seems like a regressive, bankrupt idea.

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