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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
-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.
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