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.
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.)
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.
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