Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Tragedy of O’Donnell Park

The proposed sale to NML suggests the city has yet to learn from its folly in building this eyesore.

By - Oct 30th, 2014 01:10 pm
O’Donnell Garage

O’Donnell Garage

The story goes that architect Jordan Miller met with business leaders in the Greater Milwaukee Committee to get their approval of his proposal to build a parking garage at the end of Wisconsin Ave. and the rendering he provided showed it would not impede the view of Lake Michigan from Wisconsin Avenue. In fact, it did just that, effectively severing the lakefront from the city’s most important street, and missing the opportunity to create something beautiful befitting its setting. Reviewing the completed building in the early 1990s for Milwaukee Magazine, Stephen Filmanowicz wrote that when viewed from the lake, the dour concrete garage looked like “Fort O’Donnell.”

To add insult to injury, the building Miller’s firm erected turned out to be a structural disaster, whose beams and column joints, and even the pilings underneath, were too weak to support the structure. It required a $1 million fix and some 10 train cars of lava rock shipped from Colorado to fix the problem.

It was a classic case of old Milwaukee at work. The idea of erecting a parking garage on the lakefront seemed remarkably retrograde, and the choice of who to build it represented county cronyism at its finest. Miller had long been a county insider and its favored architect: his firm built the Mitchell International Airport terminal and the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex, among other county buildings, in addition to the downtown post office and the Milwaukee Area Technical College Student Center.

Some were acclaimed for their design. But the buildings often had faulty workmanship. The airport terminal had leaky roofs and skylights. The mental health complex later needed a $2.3 million roof replacement. A library the firm built in Broward County, FL  had leaky terraces and required $150,000 for a new drainage system. The county was suing Miller’s firm and its contractors and suppliers for $1.8 million over the mental health complex’s problems, which was undoubtedly why his firm wasn’t on the short list of architects considered for the lakefront parking garage.

But Miller had supported then County Executive William F. O’Donnell going back to the 1970s and regularly contributed to his campaigns. “O’Donnell liked them,” recalled George Mitchell, who was project coordinator for the building, in a story on Miller for Milwaukee Magazine.  And so Miller was added back to the list of architects considered and he got the job. The irony is that the man for whom the O’Donnell parking garage is named is as much to blame as anyone for its faulty construction.

The building’s problems have since been well-documented in legal suits arising from the 2010 tragedy, when a concrete slab fell from the entryway of the garage, killing a 15-year-old youth and injuring two others.

For Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, the situation was a nightmare he was surely glad to leave behind. For his successor Chris Abele, it’s something to unload, and so far, county board members seem to agree. The County Board’s Economic and Community Development Committee voted 4-2 to sell O’Donnell Park to Northwestern Mutual Life for $14 million, minus $1.3 million for roof repairs. Milwaukee County would net around $5 million for its parks fund from the sale, after paying off debt owed on the facility, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Tom Daykin has reported.

No, that doesn’t seem like much of a payoff. Parks advocate Virginia Small wrote an op ed for the JS estimating the county could earn $30 million over the next 20 years in revenue from the garage.

But just how much will the county have to spend in future repairs for a structure that seems so cursed? “If the County hangs on to the building, we will need to come up with an estimated $57-$76 million to rebuild it in 20 years, not the mention the yearly upkeep and outstanding debt and maintenance,” Abele’s spokesperson Brendan Conway notes. The county comptroller, he adds, found that over the next 40 years the net present value of continued ownership would be a negative $1.6 million in today’s dollars, compared to a positive $5 million the County will realize from selling the garage. Private ownership would also move the garage to the tax rolls, generating tax dollars.

All of which may make sense if the sole concern is to run a parking garage for the fewest tax dollars possible. But as Tom Bamberger has documented, there is a veritable sea of parking lots near this part of the city. It’s hard to imagine a less inspired use of so valuable a parcel of land.

Yes, NML is building a new high-rise building downtown and it needs parking, but the company also owns other property nearby that might be used for that purpose. Both Conway and Pat Curley, spokesperson for Mayor Tom Barrett, tell me that NML was given no assurance it could buy the O’Donnell parking garage if it built Downtown instead of in Franklin.

It’s really the city that guides development downtown, but it’s the county that owns the land under O’Donnell. (The divided government has also slowed development in the Park East corridor.) Still, this is probably the first time in history Milwaukee has a mayor and county exec who work together well, so you might think there’d be a discussion about replacing Fort O’Donnell with something more appropriate. But of course both the city  and county are fiscally constrained and always looking to save tax dollars.

The very idea that two parks advocacy groups, Preserve Our Parks and The Park People, are rallying to save us from privatizing O’Donnell Park tells us how dismal the choices are here. This is not a park, it’s a poorly built garage with a dismal rooftop plaza. Yes, I understand the site also includes some green space and the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum, and that part of the property makes more sense in a lakefront setting.

But the central part of this site, the parking garage, was a bad idea in 1990 and a much worse idea today, now that it’s surrounded by some of the city’s most beautiful and valuable real estate, including the Calatrava addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, Discovery World, the University Club Tower, Kilbourn Tower and, soon to come, the new NML tower, and perhaps The Couture. Not to mention the U.S. Bank building, the only structure there when the O’Donnell was erected.

The reason all these high rises make sense in the market place is because they are located on the most valuable real estate in the state, with spectacular views of Downtown and the lakefront. This is land that deserves the highest and best use, not a deteriorating parking garage.

Imagine, for a moment, that Juneau Park was remodeled to gently slope to the lakefront and connect city and lakeside. Imagine that a smart designer also considered how to connect that to some beautiful plaza or urban setting that replaces Fort O’Donnell and maximizes the beauty of this spectacular site. Yes, this would cost money, but it would also generate money, by raising the property value of the surrounding buildings.

More importantly it would finally knit together Downtown and the lakefront in a powerful way that tells the world this is a city that cares about urban beauty. The fact that there is no governmental or private sector leader insisting on such an approach is troubling, suggesting that old Milwaukee hasn’t changed as much as we’d like to think.

Short Takes 

-The full county board will vote on whether to sell the garage on November 6. County Supervisor Gerry Broderick had predicted there would be a huge public resistance, but so far that hasn’t occurred.

-Northwestern Mutual has also said it would spend over $6 million on repairs, better lighting and other improvements at O’Donnell. That’s nice, but when you consider this will really be the front yard for its new high rise, maybe something more beautiful would better serve the company and the city.

17 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Tragedy of O’Donnell Park”

  1. Dave Reid says:

    Just thought I’d point one consequence out. The unfortunate truth is that if NM doesn’t purchase this garage, then downtown Milwaukee will actually see an increase in structured parking. As they certainly will build new garage(s), effectively killing off (hopefully not but…) more East Town streets.

  2. Joe Powell says:

    As Dave Reid pointed out, NM is going to need parking one way or another. If you don’t want more parking structures built in East Town, then you’ll need better and more available public transportation. Unfortunately, the only public transport being considered right now is a streetcar that does nothing to get NM (or any other company’s) workers to their office (anyone on the line could easily walk/bike the entire length). The fact is the vast majority of workers cannot get to their workplace downtown without a car, and those cars need to park someplace. I’d love for that space to be better public green-space, but not at the expense of another East Town city block. Better to get what we can out of existing eyesores (and off-load them from the government’s books) than create new ones.

  3. Andy Smith says:

    Great article … near total dysfunction of both city and county as property owners, and disgusting, nearsighted “Milwaukee-ism” in play– lack of vision, combined with astoundingly DUMB decisionmaking, combined with a powerful good ‘ol girls and good ‘ol boys wired-in network, combined with a lazy electorate that re-elects the same idiots for DECADES at a time . . . “Milwaukee-ism.” (Forward this article to every thinking person you know– it is HIGH TIME to replace the failed and impotent old guard in this town.)

  4. Tom Bamberger says:

    Dave, ask yourself this question— if that spot land with best views in milwaukee right in the middle of the most valuable real estate in Wisconsin was privately owned and up for sale would anyone buy it and put up a parking garage?


  5. Dave Reid says:

    @Tom, the answer to that question is yes… sorta. If a residential tower went there, it will come with a garage, if an office building went there, it will come with a garage. But that’s beside the point. If NM does not buy the garage we will not see a decrease in the number of parking stalls in East Town, we will see an increase. They will build a new garage, or likely multiple, in the neighborhood and likely demolish multiple buildings (they’ve bought a few lately – I’d hate to see an entire city block shift over to parking garages… talk about killing street life) to do this. Lovely.

  6. Steve says:

    Anything is better than a parking garage and a bus depot on the lakefront. I hope they vote to sell it so they can tear this eyesore down.

  7. Gary Rebholz says:

    As a long-time apartment dweller in the neighborhood I’ve regularly used the park, but not the garage, of O’Donnell Park for reading & relaxing; I’ve served picnic lunches and dinners to Chicago visitors who admired the remarkable setting; conducted bike maintenance; spent several hours over 2 days working at the lone picnic table during our latest spate of sunny October weather.
    My only complaint is that I’ve never had any opportunity to see (hear) if the performance space functions effectively for music or theater performances. (2nd complaint: electrical outlets don’t accept standard plugs for recharging a laptop)

    The horrible freak tragedy due to poor design and construction notwithstanding, a parking garage covered with a really beautiful little park seems to me to be a really good practical use of the difficult site. It’s too bad the top deck (or more) was not extended over that major blight of a freeway on Milwaukee’s lake front. But that’s just a neighborhood resident’s opinion.

    P.S. Why doesn’t somebody pick on the MacArthur Square parking structure and long derelict park?
    In the 1970s I attended huge public events there.
    P.P.S Did anyone ever write about the granite panels that were popping off the building that NML recently demolished? The evidence was plain to see from the number of riveted panels that were not part of the original design or construction.

  8. Casey says:

    @ Gary I would really love if there was a constructive conversation about Mac Arthur Sq. It’s one of my favorite places in Westtown. Even did my wedding pictures up there because of the view. I really wish it would somehow connect better to 7th and a sweeping staircase to connect to Kilbourn almost as a pedestrian extension of Kilbourn.

  9. Casey says:

    unappreciated view- lost opportunity:

  10. Cheryl Nenn says:

    I like the idea of tearing down the parking garage and making that whole area a nicer gateway to the lakefront. I worry that once it sells to a private company (any private company), we totally lose that option in the future. The County’s study did include an option to make money for the next X years on the garage, and then to tear it down instead of rebuilding it. I think that is also a valid option. Once the County sells the land and its no longer a park, we lose all control. Also, not a great precedent to sell of a park–regardless of the condition. If you don’t think the County/City would think twice about selling off Cathedral Square or Juneau if they could just get rid of all the deed restrictions so easily (as proposed with the O’Donnell deal), then think again. The current compromise deal largely gives the City of Milwaukee control of the zoning of the site to ensure the public can still access the site after an NML buy. So are we supposed to trust Rocky who was quoted at an LDAC meeting saying that Milwaukee was 99 square miles and we couldn’t afford to not develop all of it? Again, zoning can be changed easily and often. Once the deed restrictions are removed, that area could become a high-rise, which I don’t think is the highest and best value for that land oersonally. That land has one of the the best views of the lakefront and MAM, and I know I won’t be able to afford a condo there to assure my continued view. Neither O’Donnell parking garage or that bus parking garage should have ever been built. If those former lakebed properties were green areas that only provided access to the lake right now, we would not be having these conversations about why we need to gut our public trust protections so the County can make a buck. At least I’d hope we wouldn’t. Allowing development on former lakebed opens up additional development on other filled lakebeds (every green space west of Lincoln Memorial). Would you be OK with a condo going up across from Collectivo on the tennis courts? Because that’s also filled lakebed like O’Donnell is. It’s a slippery slope and those who say nothing will happen have something to sell you (like a park).

  11. Andy says:

    There’s a lot of land that used to be lake bed that isn’t covered by the public trust doctrine. If we held to your rules Cheryl that any land that used to be lake bed, we’d have to tear up the harbor and businesses on the south side of Jones island, we’d have to tear down anything on the eastern edge of the Menomonee valley, and more. I think the 1913 boundary is a good precedent that has been set and we can follow that rule with confidence. I don’t think that conversation really comes into the mix with the O’Donnel Parking garage.

  12. Virginia Small says:

    What’s really sad is that a city that supposedly takes pride in its parks might let its leaders declare the very park with the most prime vista a “surplus” property that should be offloaded.There’s still plenty of land overlooking the lakefront to develop skyscrapers (including some of those surface parking lots) but the public will never in 100 years be able to get back the priceless real estate that O’Donnell sits on. Location, location, location.

    As for the parking structure, I’m neutral on the issue. No one ever describes Chicago’s Milennium Park as “a rooftop garden built above a parking structure.” But that’s what it is (and so vastly much more, because some inspired citizens and civic leaders made it happens). Bruce is so right about Milwaukee lacking “the vision thing.” And it’s not just about aesthetics, per se. Parks have been proven to drive economic development (more than sports venues), increase property values (and the tax base) and tourism. So deleting a park (now or in a decade or so) is economic idiocy.

    And Gary, thanks for describing the simple pleasures of spending time in O’Donnell. I wonder if the folks who are always bad-rapping it ever get beyond the parking garage (which, by the way, is more well-lit than most).

  13. Privatizing land at the lakefront does not ‘democratize the garden.’ nor in our case, our lakefront. The lakefront at Michigan, Clybourn and Wisconsin belongs to the public and asks for a new, larger 21st century activated public space to celebrate our city’s fresh water future future..

  14. Gary says:

    Demolish the current parking/park/plaza structures and link Wisconsin Ave. through a culvert (water theme) to N. Lincoln Memorial Dr. with a clover leaf intersection (nature theme) inset with roundabouts (representing the historic discussions about development in Milwaukee).

  15. mookie says:

    Dave Reid says above that if Northwestern Mutual doesn’t get to buy O’Donnell Park and its garage, it will have to build its own garage, either on its campus or on a nearby street–thus downgrading its neighborhood. But what if, denied the opportunity to buy the park, NM just took the hit and stayed with its original plan to rent or lease 1100 of O’Donnell’s 1,332 parking spaces for its employees at a favorable rate? What’s not to like? NM would save money and fuss. People who don’t like selling parkland would be jumping for joy.

  16. Dave Reid says:

    @mookie Sounds great. Except it is pretty clear to me that is not what is in the cards. NM has already bought up properties in the area and in fact already demolished one building and built a surface parking lot. So yes, I have every expectation that if NM does not buy the O’Donnell Garage there will be a net increase in parking in East Town and further damage done to the neighborhood.

  17. Ben Miller says:

    What a colossal load of B.S. It is a shame that some people will believe Murphy’s version of history. Jordan Miller was my great uncle (R.I.P.) and we were well aware of the actual reasons for the actual problems with O’Donnell Park. Only a low-rent publication would run something like this.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us