Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

MAM Offers To Buy O’Donnell Park, War Memorial

County taxpayers will save at least $9 million in non-cash transaction.

By - Mar 8th, 2016 03:27 pm
O'Donnell Park as seen from the Milwaukee Art Museum

O’Donnell Park as seen from the Milwaukee Art Museum

The long-debated future of the O’Donnell Park Parking Garage may finally be clear. At a press conference this afternoon, billed as “the most historic event we could create” by Milwaukee Art Museum board president Don Layden, the Milwaukee Art Museum unveiled plans to acquire the parking garage, pavilion building and rooftop park, as well as a substantial portion of the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center. Why so historic? Because after seemingly years of fighting, County Executive Chris Abele and board chair Theodore Lipscomb, Sr. have agreed on a plan to transfer ownership of the garage.

The event was led by art museum president Dan Keegan, who remarked that the plan is “good for county taxpayers and good for the community.” It came out of a “very long and interesting process,” according to Keegan, and will create a true museum campus at the lakefront with the art museum, Discovery World and the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum. The museum’s plans for the facilities including “transform[ing] the garage into a state-of-the-art parking facility” as well as taking care of deferred maintenance on the facilities.

Lipscomb and Abele were quick to note in their remarks the savings for taxpayers and preservation of public access. The deal, under which the county will maintain ownership of the land underneath the structures, will relieve the county of their currently 84-year obligation to repair and maintain those facilities. The net present value of those repairs stands at $28.8 million, with Lipscomb estimating that the true cash costs could come as high as $200 million by the time the year 2100 rolls around. Following existing commitments to the art museum and other area institutions, a comptroller’s report due out later today is expected to show eventual savings to county taxpayers of $9 million to $15 million dollars. This represents at least a $4 million improvement over the previously proposed Northwestern Mutual deal (discussed below).

How will the museum pay for all of this? According to Keegan, “the museum will create a capital reserve fund with revenue generated from the O’Donnell Parking Garage that is expected to cover the costs of maintaining and repairing all structures.” In a follow-up interview after the event, Lipscomb noted that the revenue from the garage has exceeded expectations since the board rejected the Northwestern Mutual proposal in December 2014. Hopefully for the art museum, that’s not just revenue from construction workers building the adjacent Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons.

As part of the transaction, the Milwaukee Art Museum will honor all existing leases, most substantially those at the Miller Brewing Company Pavilion, a three-story building atop the parking garage. The Milwaukee Art Museum will also find themselves no longer subject to as many layers of management when they seek to make repairs to the War Memorial Center, which houses the bulk of their collection. That building was recently renovated to great fanfare late last year.

The deal does allow for long-term redevelopment of the southern portion of the site, but would require city and county approval to do so. Betty Brinn’s lease on the site runs through 2028.

Future Plans

The Milwaukee Art Museum isn’t looking at the acquisition as simply a way to get parking revenue. They unveiled bold plans at the press conference to redesign the actual park portion of O’Donnell Park. GRAEF, the firm also leading the Lakefront Gateway Plaza design, unveiled conceptual plans to reimagine the park with a ribbon walkway, substantially less concrete and a sculpture garden. The plans including eliminating the nearly useless “spider system” of pathways, and reducing the barriers caused by the height difference at the north and south ends of the park. Suggestions that I put forth in my 2014 column “How To Fix O’Donnell Park.”

The museum isn’t pushing forward with the designs in a vacuum: Keegan noted the organization won’t make final decisions until other lakefront changes including the Lakefront Gateway Plaza, The Couture and a bridge over E. Michigan St. are finalized.

Moving Fast

In a move uncharacteristic of a legislative body, this transaction is expected to move quickly. The Milwaukee County Board will hold a public hearing on the matter at its March 10th meeting of the Finance, Personnel and Audit Committee. Assuming the deal is approved, and all signs point to yes, the full County Board would take up the matter at their regularly scheduled meeting on Thursday, March 17th. The matter would then be whisked off to the county executive’s desk, who would certainly be happy to sign it in advance of the April 5th election.

Supervisors Jason Haas, Gerry Broderick and Steve Taylor were also in attendance at the press conference, signaling additional support for the deal.

The Park Today

Past Plans

The move follows the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors rejection of a purchase offer from Northwestern Mutual. That deal, negotiated by the county executive, would have sold the garage and adjoining land to the insurance giant for use as a parking garage for their new tower. Under terms of the deal, the company would have paid $14 million, the appraised value, for the garage, but received an immediate $1.3 million credit for the cost of repairing the leaking roof. Following the retirement of existing debt on the garage, the county would have netted approximately $5 million. Unlike the art museum proposal, the county also would have maintained complete ownership of the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center.

NM Company chairman and CEO John Schlifske had pledged to keep the rooftop park open to the public, but the company had not agreed to additional zoning or easement protections that would have prevented them from developing the southern portion of the site. That site, beyond the footprint of the garage, is targeted for a mid-rise tower in the city’s most recent downtown plan. Urban Milwaukee editor Bruce Murphy explored the details of the proposed deal in a November 2014 column, arguing against it. The deal failed on a 9-8 vote by the board on December 18th, 2014.

Northwestern Mutual’s need for parking didn’t vanish like their purchase offer did, as the company announced plans to develop a new parking garage in the area the same day as the rejection. As was previously speculated on Urban Milwaukee, that project will be built at 777 N. Van Buren St. Demolition is ongoing for that project, with new designs released yesterday.

14 thoughts on “Eyes on Milwaukee: MAM Offers To Buy O’Donnell Park, War Memorial”

  1. MidnightSon says:

    Exciting news! Looks like it’s poised to happen. What a great way to tie the lakefront together, with art.

    My dream would be for the MAM or some other, forward-thinking organization or group to replace the pavilion with something truly visionary and iconic. Think..Blobitecture! 🙂

    Imagine a museum or galleries where the pavilion is now–on its own or attached to an office building or mixed-use development–and it looked like the Sage Gateshead or the Kunsthaus Graz. (See link.) Now that’s a show-stopper, baby.

  2. Izzy says:

    How convenient that this is being quickly passed through the review process, when it has dragged on for years. The museum couldn’t pay for the recent addition or the deferred maintenance of the War Memorial building, but somehow they will find the money to get O’Donnell up to code and extend it’s useful life? I think it’s great that they want to re-animate the park space, but this is “too little, too late.” It’s also convenient that the pavilion is untouched in the site plans, I wonder if there will be a provision included that requires that land stay public, or if MAM will reserve the right to sell that parcel for future development, especially as that area is currently a hot-bed for development. Even though Betty Brinn has a lease for another decade, I could see them easily being relocated to the art museum, Discovery World or resume talks to locate at the Couture. I will definitely be at the March 17th meeting. I’m all for redevelopment, but I just don’t think the MAM is the most capable for taking on such a monstrous task.

  3. Marie says:

    “Hopefully for the art museum, that’s not just revenue from construction workers building the adjacent Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons.”

    O’Donnell Park’s parking operation has been booked beyond capacity with day parkers for over two years. That demand is likely to hold. MAM reportedly did meticulous due diligence about the whole operation.

    But it sounds like the public will also be well-served in this transfer of stewardship. We will still own all the land (holding on to the “principal,” a bedrock of asset management). MAM will expand its options and scope and be able to enhance the visitor experience for both the museum and the park. I expect they will also program events on the plaza. What a site for concerts and what-not!

  4. blurondo says:

    Moving fast, move quickly, fast track are words that should never be associated with governmental action except when creating a law that forbids such actions.

  5. AG says:

    I have a number of questions on this topic.

    1. How is this a “sale” if the MAM isn’t giving the county any money?

    2. I’d also like to know how this saves $4 million over the NML deal… is it only because it includes the war memorial? Because then you’re comparing apples to oranges.

    3. If the garage is making enough money to pay for improvements, why doesn’t the county just hold on to the garage and do it themselves with the parking revenue?

    4. Does the previously questioned “cost savings” include the ten year extension on county taxpayer assistance to the MAM that I heard reported? I heard on the radio that the county extended payments of over a million dollars a year to the MAM for 10 additional years.

    5. Does this provide any additional protections against redevelopment that weren’t there for the NML agreement?

    I’m actually happy how the deal with NML worked out because of the new residential tower they’re building… but when objectively looking at how both deals went down, I see nothing but dysfunction.

  6. Jerry says:

    @MidnightSon Thanks for the link to “Blobitecture”. Milwaukee could use something cool like this to attract tourists. I’m always fascinated by how Europeans combine the very old historic architecture with cutting edge modern architecture.

  7. leah says:

    Important to give credit where credit is due on this matter. The County Board deserves all the credit for sticking to their guns in the face of significant government, community and business pressure (perhaps including writers on this site). Abele’s ties to the business community clouded his judgment and kept him from seeing the whole field. He was quick to accept NML’s offer with little negotiation and marshaled the usual MMAC forces to attack the Board and pressure them into accepting it. Reminiscent of his strategy in cutting a really bad deal with the BUCKS.
    For the Board’s part they saw from the beginning that there were other potential suitors, namely the MAM. They knew that the parking structure was a valuable asset and could bring more than Abele was willing to settle for. In holding out they were able to sell to a buyer that the community is more comfortable with AND get an additional $ 4 million. More importantly, their actions sent NML back to the drawing board to solve their own parking needs. Necessity is the father of invention. In doing so NML will take an underperforming block of city land and develop a parking structure AND a 30 story apartment building that will add over $100 million to the county’s tax base. If the Board had blindly accepted Abele’s weak first deal that project would have never happened. NML already had plans to level the buildings on that block and create a surface parking lot. The Boards action is no less courageous than that of the Common Council when they rejected the cookie cutter Pabst City in order to allow the wonderful and sustainable Brewery development to flourish.
    For all who hail the action of Abele and the State to squash the role and responsibility of the County Board, you need to look no further than this deal to understand how important it is to have a check and balance on the actions of the executive, whether that’s a Mayor, a village president or a County Exec. Can the Board be a pain in the ass sometimes? Sure. But more often their deliberations bring to light more information and a broader perspective that leads to better policy, more community engagement and stronger deals for the taxpayer. Unfortunately, with the new structure deals like this will not be as strong in the future.

  8. Marie says:

    AG, Those are good questions, especially #5. Is the contract available for public viewing online, esp. since this will be voted on in 8 days? Can UM post it?

    As for #3, people who knew how much income O’Donnell was bringing in encouraged the county to keep that revenue coming. However, the fever to sell off this asset, and repeated attempts to do so, and the county’s inability to fund almost any capital improvements indicates that none of that money would be going to improve the park itself any time soon. But at least this deal is apparently not giving away the farm, as in giving away the land. And it’s not privatizing a lucrative parking operation at the expense of citizens, as Chicago did.

    This really should more accurately be called a stewardship and conservancy arrangement, not a sale.

  9. AG says:

    Leah, can you please explain where is this additional $4 million? Perhaps I’m missing something here… everything I’ve seen shows no money being paid to the county.

  10. AG says:

    Marie, thanks for addressing some of my questions!

    Regarding #3, if that’s the case… all this shows is that the county is horrible at managing the parks and they have to give the assets away in order to find someone who can do it for them.

    I’m actually not opposed to this deal… I am just astounded at how it has come to this.

  11. Rich says:

    This story ( says MAM just assumes $28.8mil in liability, so in effect, that’s what the county is “selling” and they probably get to use an accounting trick to make that look like something in their budget. However, at the same time, the county is losing the parking and lease revenue from the site. And they retain ownership of the land, but apparently do not act as a landlord (e.g. receiving rent).

    As for viewing of the contract, it seems that the county is not enabled for the internet this year…The committee about to hear this doesn’t have any 2016 information on their site: But I guess citizens / journalists could always go.

  12. Pat Small says:

    Thanks for noting excellent points about the county board’s role in rejecting a bad park-sale deal and making way for a much-better stewardship agreement. The deliberative process worked to the public’s benefit, as it is meant to do.

    However, the role of many engaged citizens should also be noted. The deal to sell O’Donnell Park to NML was announced in July 2014. The county and NML had spent two years devising it and carefully crafted their messaging so it was always called the sale of the “O’Donnell Parking Garage.” Eventually it became cleat that the deal was to sell the whole shebang, including our downtown plaza and a huge pavilion, not just a parking garage.

    I attended a meeting that September where many citizens spoke both for and against the sale. Many parks friends wore anti-sale T-shirts. It was noticeable that NML had also worked to help pack the room. But at least it was a public forum.

    Numerous opinion pieces were published on both sides, including multiple Journal Sentinel editorials endorsing the park sale. UWM architecture prof Bob Greenstreet wrote that only NML had the resources to make the site work in his eyes, even though private development would mess with the Calatrava’s entry plaza and prominence. Advocates warned about the slippery slope of selling off parkland, which defies America’s parks tradition. They emphasized O’Donnell Park’s role in providing public green space and access to the best views in downtown.

    Momentum built as more citizens realized the deal would actually not “preserve” the park, as Chris Abele and NML kept saying, or retain full access to its facilities. Those facts came out after attorney Bill Lynch spent weeks expertly analyzing 100s of pages of the sale contract documents.

    The county board held committee meetings on the issue. I spoke at one in October 2014 and urged them to reconsider the sale that would have let NML get seven acres of Wisconsin’s most prime real estate, plus all its structures, for less than a third of what taxpayers had spent to build the park.

    Fortunately, at a full board meeting in November, the board postponed a final vote after I distributed a full sheet of damning facts about the deal. This allowed more community engagement to build, especially among citizens who had previously focused on getting out the vote for the gubernatorial election. The nine NML lobbyists in the board chambers were livid that their scheming was being postponed. It later came out NML had spent hundreds of thousands on lobbying.

    In late November Bruce Murphy broke the story on Urban Milwaukee that the proposed sale looked like a sweetheart deal, which most media never mentioned. Kudos to UM!

    In December I wrote and distributed all over the county a satirical poster (Headlined: “All THEY Want For Christmas Is O’Donnell Park”) stating, among many barbs, that NML wanted to acquire the park as a holiday tree topper for their new downtown campus. The poster also invited citizens to “Be there to keep it fair!” at the December 18 county board meeting–when the final sale vote was to occur. The glaring eyes of a crowd at that board meeting certainly made it clear that citizens indeed wanted fair treatment—and no sale of public parks by Chris Abele or anyone else.

    It was still a cliff hanger the day of the vote. County supervisors (and long-time parks defenders) Gerry Broderick, Pat Jursik and Willie Johnson had been publicly joined by Jason Haas, John Weishan and Theo Lipscomb in opposing the deal. Peggy Romo West and Michael Mayo voted along with David Bowen. He came around to opposing the sale after many of his constituents spoke to him about why keeping parks public were crucial to social justice issue and democracy. The vote to “keep O’Donnell Park public” then opened the door for this MAM deal to take shape.

  13. leah says:


    from article above:
    Following existing commitments to the art museum and other area institutions, a comptroller’s report due out later today is expected to show eventual savings to county taxpayers of $9 million to $15 million dollars. This represents at least a $4 million improvement over the previously proposed Northwestern Mutual deal (discussed below).

  14. Marie says:

    @AG, #10:
    Re: #3, I guess in some ways it could be a sign that the county’s not great at managing our parks. It would have been short-sighted (and worse!) to give away this land asset and all the buildings to NML for peanuts and cede the park for for-profit development. However, this MAM deal simply transfers stewardship responsibility/ownership of the building while the public still owns the very valuable land assets and we retain access to the buildings and other resources.

    Also, “the county” is a pretty board term. The county board did push for a referendum to secure dedicated funding to have more funds for park maintenance, which voters passed and the state declined to implement–including a skittish Dem governor and bipartisan state legislators.

    Nonetheless, in many ways Milwaukee County Parks staff do a phenomenal of managing our legacy parks portfolio with meager fiscal resources and exceptional volunteers and other resources. For example, Brian Russart, the natural areas coordinator manages about 10,000 acres of natural areas in parks with about three other FT staff and some seasonal workers and unpaid interns. Those folks also work with legions of park friends who help with removing invasive plants, planting, etc. I saw a recent report on it somewhere on the parks website. It’s pretty incredible.

    Parks stewardship can take many forms and needs to include as many “stakeholders” as possible to deal with diminished funding, including philanthropy and wisely sharing responsibility without abdicating the legacies. But county officials must also value these public assets and not sell off or give them away in desperation. The MAM deal does not appear to do that and everyone involved deserves credit for developing a mutually beneficial solution.

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