MAM Offers To Buy O’Donnell Park, War Memorial
County taxpayers will save at least $9 million in non-cash transaction.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Park Today
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.