Graham Kilmer
MKE County

New Policy Would Require County To Study Demolishing The Domes

County board considering replacing repair-focused 2016 policy after limited progress.

By - Dec 1st, 2022 09:51 pm
The Domes. Photo courtesy of the Park People of Milwaukee.

The Domes. Photo courtesy of the Park People of Milwaukee.

The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors will consider a change to its official policy of pursuing only the repair of the Mitchell Park Domes, now that six years have passed since the first policy was adopted and the board is still no closer to effecting that policy than the day it was passed. The move would allow the formal study of demolition options.

The Domes have long been in a state of disrepair, as the county has not had the funding to maintain the structures first built in 1959. In 2014, when pieces of concrete began to fall from the structure, the county put up emergency netting and, in 2016, the board created a Domes Task Force to find a solution.

In 2016, the board passed a resolution funding long-term planning for The Domes and establishing its policy position, the operative section being that ” Milwaukee County shall pursue the repair and preservation of the existing Mitchell Park Conservatory (The Domes).”

The new resolution states that the county board “rescinds the policy position adopted in [2016]” and creates a new policy that the board will “consider all options for the future of the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory.”

Under this policy, demolition of The Domes would be on the table for the board, whereas the board refused to consider it in the past.

In 2019, an Ohio-based consultant, Gallagher Museum Services, provided the county’s Domes Task Force with a report that laid out a plan for demolishing the Domes and constructing a joint Milwaukee Public Museum and Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory. The park was not embraced as a future location for the public museum by museum officials, and the plan was roundly dismissed by the three supervisors most important to the future of the domes at that time: former district supervisor Sylvia Ortiz-Velez, former supervisor and chair of the parks committee Jason Haas and board chair Theodore Lipscomb, Sr.

“The thought of tearing down The Domes pains me and I know a lot of other residents to Milwaukee County,” said Sup. Steven Shea in channeling the sentiment of the board.

But times have changed. The new policy headed to the board for consideration specifically states that demolition must be evaluated as an option. The resolution is sponsored by Sup. Sheldon Wasserman, chair of the Committee on Parks and Culture, and has seven co-sponsors in supervisors Shea, Juan Miguel Martinez, Shawn Rolland, Kathleen Vincent, Steve Taylor, Felesia Martin and Peter Burgelis. The resolution only needs one more vote to pass the 18-member board.

Taylor is the only co-sponsor that was on the board in 2016 when the original repair-focused policy was passed. He lost his seat in 2018 to Sup. Patti Logsdon, but won a new seat in 2022 after redistricting. Another supervisor that returned to the board in 2022 and voted on the original 2016 policy is Sup. Deanna Alexander. She was the lone vote against the 2016 repair policy.

The new policy doesn’t only contemplate demolition. It also outlines three other options that must be assessed: limited repairs, full renovation of the buildings and a proposal for a “New Urban Botanical Park and Conservatory.” The last option is the plan created by Arts Market LLC in 2019, which a recent analysis by accounting firm Baker Tilly and law firm Husch Blackwell found was not a feasible plan for saving The Domes.

In another departure from the current policy, the legislation sets out hard deadlines for reports from county officials and answers to specific questions about the viability of The Domes and ways they could be fixed.

Frustration with a lack of tangible progress on The Domes reached a boiling point in September while the board was considering a proposal to seek listing for the domes on the National Register of Historic Places. At a meeting of the parks committee, Wasserman, Taylor and Martinez discussed the need for an actionable plan for The Domes that Milwaukee County Parks and the administration can get behind. “But I want it to be anything, all, everything is on the table,” Wasserman said.

County Executive David Crowley vetoed the historic designation proposal, expressing support for a Domes plan while stating that any plan would need to be grounded in cost estimates and funding sources “verifiable and realistic” and not “speculative or aspirational.” In his veto message, Crowley showed support for including demolition as an option to be considered.

Crowley’s predecessor Chris Abele never signed the board’s 2016 resolution. Instead, he wrote back to the board, “Some have tried to limit the discussion of ‘what’s possible’ to binary options – fix the current domes or tear them down – without a robust community discussion. Nothing can be further from the truth. While the county does have financial constraints and many competing priorities, this should only info1m our imaginations, not limit them. As John Gurda said in his February column in the Journal Sentinel, “We could repair the complex, rebuild it or replace it with something as novel for its time as the Domes were for theirs.” Gurda would later be appointed a member of the Domes Task Force.

For the first time since small pieces of concrete began to fall from The Domes nearly a decade ago, the board and the county executive seem to be on the same page. How the board reacts to the proposed new policy, though, will ultimately set the stage for the future of The Domes, if there is one.

The Domes

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Categories: History, MKE County, Parks

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