Don’t Sell O’Donnell Park
The proposed plan is being sold as a chance to simply get bids from buyers, but it's really about selling our heritage to private developers.
Milwaukee County Supervisor Steve Taylor tried to assure his colleagues, and citizens, that the latest retooled scheme to offer O’Donnell Park for sale would not mean the county would actually sell the park. He claimed that he and two co-sponsors just want to see “what’s out there,” to see how much cash developers might cough up for the downtown park with the best views in town.
In other words, he and three other supervisors on the Parks, Energy and Environment Committee want developers to throw offers at the wall to see if they stick. I believe this approach is not fair to either potential bidders or the public—as owners of the park. But I assume that any developer or corporation champing at the bit to own this prime property can look out for their own interests. If they want to engage in a midwestern version of Wild West speculation, that’s their business.
Some will surely gamble on controlling and redeveloping this incomparable site and amenities that taxpayers built in 1993 for $36 million. In 2012 County Executive Chris Abele called the adjacent 2.2-acre Transit Center lot “one of the most sought-after pieces of land in the entire state.” Nonetheless, although that parcel was appraised for $9 million, Abele struck a deal to sell it to developer Rick Barrett for just $500,000. The board approved the plan. County officials have acknowledged that the incredibly low price, if the deal closes, will essentially cover their expected legal fees to make way for a sale. Given that precedent, we can’t expect county negotiators to drive a hard bargain for O’Donnell Park, even though it is also one the state’s most valuable parcels, with a promenade to Milwaukee’s iconic Calatrava addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum.
There’s another critical uncertainty that any developer must consider. Can a sale of O’Donnell Park ever be legally completed? Environmental attorneys have long asserted that, like the Transit Center, O’Donnell Park is largely built on filled lake-bed land. That means that, by Wisconsin constitutional law, the park can only be publicly owned and used for the public’s benefit. The county is now engaged in a lawsuit with Preserve Our Parks to determine the status of the Transit Center with respect to the public trust doctrine. If officials wanted to offer certainty to potential buyers, they could wait until that suit is resolved. Nonetheless, they seem cavalier about possibly placing O’Donnell—and potential buyers– in a prolonged state of legal limbo.
As with previous O’Donnell sale proposals, the park would immediately be declared “surplus property” — like a worn-out truck — and removed from Parks Department management and essentially put on the auction block. But there’s a potential escape hatch that crafters of this resolution are touting: The park (half of it dating back to 1868) could eventually be freed from banishment if the fishing expedition produces no big offers. The county board has been reassured that it could then end O’Donnell’s “surplus property” exile and rechristen it a public park. (Supervisors would do well to verify the exact procedure for that unprecedented procedure.)
As is often noted, O’Donnell Park returns at least $1.5 million annually to the parks budget. O’Donnell stands to continue this level of productivity for many more decades. Several city-owned parking structures are models of lucrative longevity (Michigan & Van Buren: age 59; Plankinton & Wells, age 55). Even the model for O’Donnell is a golden oldie. The first American park built atop a parking structure—Union Square in San Francisco—is still going strong at age 74.
Staunch park-sale promoters include supervisors Deanna Alexander and Anthony Staskunas as well as Taylor. The trio co-sponsored the current resolution. Martin Weddle also voted in favor of the proposal. Gerry Broderick, Jason Haas and Khalif Rainey voted against it in committee. Pat Jursik also strongly opposes selling O’Donnell Park. The views of other supervisors have not been declared.
The issue comes before the board this Thursday, March 26th. Please ask board members to reject this latest plot to end O’Donnell Park’s preserved status as a public park. Tell them to maintain it as a lake-view park complex, accessible to all forever, as American parks are all designated. O’Donnell Park contributes to Milwaukee’s economic vitality, quality of life and civic character. If visionary civic leaders want to re-imagine this park someday to meet ever-changing urban dynamics, that can only happen if its current sworn stewards keep O’Donnell Park publicly owned.
John Lunz is president of Preserve Our Parks.