Op-Ed

New Plan to Sell O’Donnell Park Is A Mistake

Proposed resolution would allow county to sell O’Donnell Park for redevelopment by any private developer.

By - Feb 3rd, 2015 03:07 pm
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O'Donnell Park. Photo by Eric Oxendorf, Milwaukee. ©Copyright Eric Oxendorf.

O’Donnell Park. Photo by Eddee Daniel, Milwaukee. ©Copyright Eddee Daniel.

A brazen plan to sell off O’Donnell Park has turned up like a bad penny. Milwaukee County officials, hell-bent on divesting downtown’s park with the best vistas, have devised a new scheme. They revealed it in a resolution presented with no public notice at a January 27th meeting of the Parks, Energy and Environment Committee. If county supervisors approve this plan, it will immediately and permanently end O’Donnell Park’s status as a public park, regardless of how long before any sale becomes final. The former park will be a numbered parcel on an auction list, as degraded as if it were a brownfield. The board will vote on the resolution on Thursday, February 5th.

This end-run tactic was a substitute for a resolution offered by supervisors Patricia Jursik, Gerry Broderick and Jason Haas (which had been properly announced), to maintain O’Donnell Park and enhance its programming. The countering park-sale plan was sponsored by Deanna Alexander, Anthony Staskunas and Steve Taylor, who voted in December to sell O’Donnell Park to Northwestern Mutual Life. That proposal was defeated 9-8.

Teig Whaley-Smith, the county’s designated-director of administrative services (pending board approval), pitched this new sale scheme to the committee. He also authored a report last July that touted selling what he consistently termed “the O’Donnell Parking Structure,” rather than O’Donnell Park. (That 18-page report omitted pertinent facts, such as that the proposed sale also included the block-long Miller Pavilion.)

This new resolution would put the whole O’Donnell Park complex up for sale for “full redevelopment.” If it’s approved, this exceptional lake-view town plaza at the east end of Wisconsin Avenue will be up for bids, after being declared “surplus property.” Governments sometimes declare outdated equipment and vehicles, and vacant lots and buildings, as “surplus.”  Now, County Executive Chris Abele and other officials insist “surplus” can be applied to a much-used park complex with a full-capacity parking facility. It’s Orwellian doublespeak: a “destination” becomes “detritus.”

Justification for this absurd “surplus” assertion hinges on a whole-cloth narrative that O’Donnell’s parking facility has an expiration date, like perishable goods. An Abele-appointed “workgroup,” all but one of whom answers to him, claimed parking structures have a “useful life” of roughly 40 years. So these futurist planners said it would be smart to save the county from a scary, hocus-pocus expense ($50 million!) to reconstruct O’Donnell Park around 2033. Their group-think mantra–“Sell O’Donnell Park Now!”–has been trumpeted by talk radio and mainstream media.

Here’s the catch. Parking structures do not fall apart after a set number of years, any more than other buildings do. “Useful life” is an accounting term used to “depreciate” fixed assets. Structures don’t crumble on cue after full depreciation. (Preservation-conscious Milwaukeeans know this.) Three downtown parking structures owned by the City of Milwaukee are ancient (Michigan & Van Buren: age 59; Plankington & Wells, age 55; MacArthur Square, age 48). There are no plans to demolish any of them. Like O’Donnell’s facility, they are lucrative. Like all structures, they must be well maintained to hold value. Other urban parks, including Chicago’s Millennium Park and Boston’s Post Office Square, are built atop underground parking structures, with no talk of future razing and reconstruction.

To bolster this “useful life” claim, the county reported that the Graef engineering firm concluded in 2012 that O’Donnell’s parking facility was “in generally good condition with a usable service life of at least another 25 years.” Graef did not assert O’Donnell’s life would be limited to 25 more years. The parking structure received a thorough, $5-million restoration in 2011. (Refurbishments were fully reimbursed by a negligent former contactor, through a court settlement.) Inspectors deemed the facility structurally sound then, and in regular inspections.

The Calling. Photo by Eric Oxendorf, Milwaukee. ©Copyright Eric Oxendorf.

The Calling. Photo by Eric Oxendorf, Milwaukee. ©Copyright Eric Oxendorf.

One O’Donnell repair yet to be completed involves leakage in a small roof area that sometimes affects six parking spaces. Graef bid the job at $1.1 million in 2012. NML obtained a second estimate for $4.6 million to rip up the entire South Garden Plaza (including 8,500 donated commemorative bricks). This jacked-up estimate was used to imply O’Donnell Park is crumbling, which is not the case.

The county’s own evidence proves that O’Donnell Park can remain sound and productive for decades, so what’s the hurry to sell it now? Auctioning this park will devastate the entire parks budget. O’Donnell’s net revenue, at least $1.3 million annually, will be transferred immediately from park operations to amortizing debt. This mid-year budget slashing will gut park maintenance, including funding for hundreds of seasonal workers. The income loss will continue year after year.

As a volunteer watchdog group, Preserve Our Parks works to keep parks open and thriving. We promote adequate parks funding and battle all encroachments. We consider this unprecedented campaign to sell O’Donnell, a Milwaukee park since 1868, outrageous and unwarranted.

As downtown’s lakefront gateway and showcase for world-class art and architecture, O’Donnell Park welcomes countless tourists and metro-area residents year-round. It’s a popular site for lunch breaks, photography, watching fireworks, weddings, and other activities. Its sale and redevelopment would violate the public’s interest and urban-planning principles. It would transfer an irreplaceable park with iconic Milwaukee views to a private, for-profit owner. Despite happy talk, there can be no “public-private partnership” when the public completely relinquishes ownership of a park. O’Donnell Park already functions well as a public-private enterprise, with a privately leased museum, restaurant, and banquet hall.

When Detroit declared bankruptcy, officials sought to sell the city’s famous art collection. That plan was rejected resoundingly. In Milwaukee County, our officials wish to preemptively liquidate public assets, even though the county is financially sound. At issue is the soundness of their reasoning.  Why do they want to forgo this money-maker and abandon their sworn stewardship of parks, which are held in the public trust? Their anti-populist policy seeks to cannibalize this high-value park first, using bogus claims to support their scheme. It seems like another example of pervasive corporatization of public infrastructure–handing over shared assets to benefit the 1 percent.

Please urge county supervisors before February 5th to reject this wholesale assault on O’Donnell Park. Tell them to maintain it as an income-producing complex, accessible to all forever. This essential public space contributes to Milwaukee’s economic vitality, quality of life and civic character.

John Lunz, Board President, Preserve Our Parks

Laurie Muench, Preserve Our Parks Board Member, Retired Milwaukee County Park Planner

Categories: Op-Ed, Real Estate

14 thoughts on “Op-Ed: New Plan to Sell O’Donnell Park Is A Mistake”

  1. Max says:

    While I wholeheartedly agree that the County should not sell O’Donnell to private interests, I find it interesting to note that POP did not bring up the whole Public Trust Doctrine as a legal reason that it can’t be sold.

    Why does POP feel that the Public Trust Doctrine applies to the land up for sale for the Couture, but not here?

  2. Will says:

    Preserve our Parks does not care what benefits the city, they only care about the park system. Big picture, selling the land to private interests benefits the city more than having a park there. End of story. Sell it to the person who will put it to the best use.

  3. will says:

    “Auctioning this park will devastate the entire parks budget.” No wonder Preserve our Parks doesn’t want this to pass.

  4. Paul says:

    will, Preserve Our Parks doesn’t get a dime from the county’s part budget. They were referring to the annual parking revenue that the garage provides which goes to the operating budget of the parks system.

  5. Concerned says:

    These guys are the worst. Instead of doing something constructive, like actually help the parks system and raising money for them…they are hellbent on scaring away development that will bring millions of dollars in tax revenue and ENCOURAGE greater use of the lakefront! Here’s the deal, more tax revenue = more money for the parks. I don’t see them saying, hey, Metcalfe Park is unsafe, maybe we should raise some money for installing camera and better lighting. I don’t see them protesting the City operating rotating beer gardens…instead they are protesting against developing some of the most valuable land in the state, shutting down a once in a lifetime development opportunity that ALSO happens to deeply affect the city’s street car, and oh yeah, protesting the county selling a rapidly crumbling parking garage that will require millions (if unsold) to maintain…even as it remains one of the crappiest, and most underutilized parks in the city. These guys…bunch of idiots who really seem to HATE the idea of a better Milwaukee.

  6. Amelia says:

    The County has plenty of valuable property it can sell for development in the Park East corridor and in other areas. The economic development dept. could bring in lots of cash directly for the county budget and increase the tax base for city and county. All park land is valuable and could fetch a pretty penny, but it’s been protected for everyone’s benefit. It’s an American tradition–no need to change that.

    Parks are equal to good transit in promoting economic development. So let’s keep our parks and add a streetcar and other transit! We have great parks along the lakefront but downtown and the rest of the city of Milwaukee doesn’t have nearly enough parks, according to a national rating of big cities.

    What’s good for parks = good for citizens = good for quality of life = good for city.

    Max, I read a while back that Preserve Our Parks made a big donation to the Johnsons Park restoration, which has greatly improved Lindsay Heights neighborhood. I agree, we should be helping parks all over the city.

  7. Michael says:

    Preserve our Park(ing lot)s

    O’Donnell Park is a parking lot first and foremost. You admit as much when you describe it as a “income-producing complex” that provides funding to the parks department.

    The NM deal could have saved the need for additional parking structures and allowed for additional infill and urban density, perhaps with people who could live near by and use the park. The dedicated funding source could have been replaced with other funding from the county. Instead we get the calls to save this ‘precious parking structure’.

  8. Michael James says:

    If someone would build a 100+ million dollar tower there, the tax collected would be more than 1.3 million annually… maybe something is already lined up. Also, I’m curious about the ‘retail’ proposed in the Couture, like how much will there be. Maybe retail at the current O.D parking structure location (and tower above it) combined with retail at the Couture would give MKE an actual downtown shopping area (obviously there is no sign of Grand Ave making a comeback anytime soon). I don’t think O.D Park is necessary considering the three mile long park across the street from it.

  9. Marie says:

    County should focus on selling all its vacant lots in Park East and elsewhere downtown. Build up those areas, add to tax base. Leave parks as parks, for the taxpayers who paid for them. No harm in having some parks that also produce income. What’s the alternative? Why is selling park land so popular in MKE and nowhere else in U.S.? Parks and transit always help econ development.

    Max, I read a while back that Preserve Our Parks made a big donation to Johnsons Park restoration, which has improved Lindsay Heights neighborhood. I agree, we should look make sure parks are cared for in all areas of MKE. I think Park People is the group that handles donations to parks.

    Until we have regional transit bringing people from suburbs to work and playdowntown, parking structures will be in demand. More will be built until people can get by w/o cars. Let’s work on getting light rail–and soon!

  10. Gary says:

    What a great article.
    I think the creation of O’Donnell Park as a park and plaza on top of an income producing parking structure was an intelligent and creative use for what was a scrubby remnant of land partially held up by a railroad retaining wall.
    Look at the nearby scraggy, unkempt Juneau Park hill and think “shorter” with more cement. That area at the east end of Wisconsin Ave. had a semi-demolished and neglected look for years. You could even say that today’s O’Donnell Park structure mimics the natural bluff that was there prior to being shaved down in Milwaukee’s early days.

    If the city had connected E. Wisconsin Ave. to the then new Lincoln Memorial drive after removing the railway yard we wouldn’t be having (most) of this discussion. And if the freeway-that-never-got-built adjacent to that property had been completed we’d be arguing today about “double-decker” versus further destruction of all that park property.

    I use the park throughout the summer. It’s remarkably underused, which leads me to wonder if there isn’t some old 1200 lb. elephant or 800 lb. gorilla (pick your metaphor) that’s been dancing on toes of some issue for years.
    Does anyone doubt that NML will now have their way since saving the easternmost posterior of downtown Milwaukee with their bling?

  11. Jebediah Springfield says:

    “An Abele-appointed “workgroup,” all but one of whom answers to him…..”

    This is factually incorrect. The 2014 budget amendment that created the workgroup was added by the County Board. There were more members of the workgroup who were not from the administration than there were from the administration.

    This author can’t even get that right and has no credibility.

  12. Shelbyville Manhattan says:

    This entire article is a tawdry, pathetic attempt to advance the minority interest of the Park People Board but presented and framed as an attack on working class Milwaukee residents.

    “When Detroit declared bankruptcy, officials sought to sell the city’s famous art collection. That plan was rejected resoundingly. In Milwaukee County, our officials wish to preemptively liquidate public assets, even though the county is financially sound.”
    The statement here relies on specious reasoning and false equivalencies to support a weak/baseless argument. Detroit’s situation is completely immaterial to the matter at hand and irrelevant to the scenario were currently facing.

    “Their anti-populist policy seeks to cannibalize this high-value park first, using bogus claims to support their scheme. It seems like another example of pervasive corporation of public infrastructure–handing over shared assets to benefit the 1 percent.”
    Divisive propaganda trying to desperately present itself as the sole beacon of truth while shamelessly attempting to invoke fear.

    “It’s a popular site for lunch breaks, photography, watching fireworks, weddings, and other activities.”
    Is this city seriously going to let over one hundred million dollars’ worth of economic development, tax revenue, job creation, and greater public improvement be impeded by an outdated eyesore because people sometimes take pictures and eat lunch there?

    Its attitudes like this that keeps Milwaukee a 60’s cultural icon. I’m not referring to the Bronze Fonz (Awesome), our affinity for affordable beer, or any other mid-20th century relics. Rather the recitation of land laws drafted in1868 to upend an opportunity of revitalization that comes once in a generation for cities our size.
    Neither this group, nor this article represents the thoughts and feelings shared by me and my fellow Milwaukee residents.

  13. Bart says:

    Shelbyville, when you mention the hundred million dollars in economic development etc., is that what NML was planning to build to replace O’Donnell? I thought they said they weren’t planning to redevelop it for 18 or 20 years (after garage useful life was over). That sounds like a pretty big high-rise project to leave on the table.

    But shouldn’t we also be talking about selling/developing at least part of Juneau Park? With no tear-down costs you could probably get more for the land and be able to move more quickly.

  14. Nathanael says:

    Check out the federal rule known as the “4(f)” rule, and its interaction with NEPA. It’s illegal for any government to remove parkland unless there is no other practicable alternative. They would have to do an Environmental Assessment to prove that there was no other practicable alternative.

    You should be able to stop this in federal court.

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