Graham Kilmer
MKE County

County Begins Future Domes Study

Seeking construction consultant to price everything from demolition to restoration to expanded urban botanical complex.

By - Feb 18th, 2023 12:16 pm
Mitchell Park Domes' Tropical Dome. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Mitchell Park Domes’ Tropical Dome. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee County has taken the first step in a process that will likely determine the future of the Mitchell Park Domes and Horticultural Conservatory.

The county is looking for a consultant to develop a study of the domes that will help policymakers make an informed decision about the dilapidated structure’s future. In late 2022, supervisors approved the study, which should provide them with new, updated cost alternatives for a variety of future domes scenarios, including for the first time, demolition.

In 2012, when small chunks of concrete began to fall out of the Domes’ structure, emergency mesh netting was put up and county policymakers began discussing the need to develop a plan for its future. That process began in 2016 with the Domes Task Force, whose work was guided by the board’s policy of “repair and preservation” of the structures built in 1959. Its report was completed in 2019 and recommended a plan developed by a private consultant Arts Market LLC that has since been deemed an unfeasible approach, when taken as a whole, to saving the domes.

The overriding issue for all domes planning has always been the cost. The county struggles with annual budget shortfalls and a massive backlog of infrastructure maintenance it can’t afford. And domes restoration would represent a massive capital infrastructure project that has to be weighed against the rest of the county’s infrastructure needs. As of 2021, the county had already spent more than $1.5 million on emergency repairs and planning.

So when supervisors found themselves in 2022, one decade after the issue first arose, with still no concrete cost estimates to evaluate, let alone a plan to fund, they decided to rewrite their domes policy and ask county staff to give them cost estimates so they can chart a path forward. The major departure from the old policy, was supervisors’ decision to seek cost estimates for demolishing the domes and constructing a new horticultural conservatory.

But that’s just one option: the study will also provide estimates for limited repairs, a full renovation of the domes, and for the Task Force’s recommended proposal which called for a “New Urban Botanical Park and Conservatory” and redevelopment of Mitchell Park as a whole.

The construction consultant selected by the county will be responsible for pricing out these options and also analyzing them based on criteria that has not yet been determined. The consultant will also produce architectural renderings of the alternatives and conduct public outreach.

Releasing a Request for Proposals or RFP seeking consultants is the first step in this process expected to be completed before the end of the year. Domes-watchers can expect a preliminary report by July of this year and a final report by September, according to a timeline provided by the county for prospective consultants.

Sup. Juan Miguel Martinez, in whose district the park is located, offered this comment to Urban Milwaukee: “While I am understandably a little apprehensive about the RFP, I am absolutely elated at the fact that it is happening because this shows momentum for the domes and Mitchell Park as well as the 12th District overall.” During the legislative process to rewrite the board’s domes policy, Martinez pushed back against considering demolition as an option but supported the board’s new policy as a whole because he saw it as the “best available option that we have to be able to move forward.”

He said he wants the study to produce something that he can stand behind, but more importantly, that “the neighborhood is proud to be a part of.” The hope, he said, is that it will “get the county on board so we can make this pocket of the South Side as wonderful as it was when the domes were first built.”

Jeremy Ebersole, the executive director of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance (MPA), said his organization was “pleased” to see the county begin work on “this critically important report.” MPA has steadfastly advocated for the preservation of the domes, which Ebersole called an ” irreplaceable, nationally recognized icon.”

“Much will depend on the qualifications of the chosen team. Just like you wouldn’t have a brain surgeon perform an operation on the heart, you wouldn’t want a consultant only familiar with new construction techniques producing a report on a historic building,” he said. “It will be vital that the team that is hired have a proven understanding of mid-century buildings, their costs, and the techniques available for their restoration.”

Categories: MKE County, Parks, Weekly

One thought on “MKE County: County Begins Future Domes Study”

  1. CraigR says:

    So we hear that the stadium “needs” over $400 million in upgrades. I sure hope that’s the Domes is ahead of that project. We had a sales tax for the stadium… We need one for our parks.

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