County Board votes down O’Donnell Park sale, Northwestern Mutual reacts

Photo: American Spirit/Shutterstock The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors on Thursday voted against selling O’Donnell Park to Northwestern Mutual. The vote was expected to be close, and indeed it was, with nine supervisors opposing the sale, and eight voting in favor. Several county supervisors who voted against the sale expressed outright opposition to selling the small Downtown park or any park under any circumstances. Others who voted “No” had additional reasons. Sup. Peggy Romo West said the county should sell the parking garage but maintain ownership of the plaza and pavilion. Sup. John Weishan, Jr. said this sale was a…


Photo: American Spirit/Shutterstock

The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors on Thursday voted against selling O’Donnell Park to Northwestern Mutual. The vote was expected to be close, and indeed it was, with nine supervisors opposing the sale, and eight voting in favor.

Several county supervisors who voted against the sale expressed outright opposition to selling the small Downtown park or any park under any circumstances. Others who voted “No” had additional reasons. Sup. Peggy Romo West said the county should sell the parking garage but maintain ownership of the plaza and pavilion. Sup. John Weishan, Jr. said this sale was a bad business deal for the County.

Sup. David Bowen appeared to be the swing vote. At one point, Bowen made a motion to lay over the vote until a later date, saying the County Board should engage with the city of Milwaukee zoning board to “protect green space” at the park. That motion was voted down. But when Bowen began to express reservations about aspects of the deal, supervisors opposed to the sale reacted with support. (Note: Bowen will be heading to Madison next year to represent the 10th District in the Wisconsin State Assembly.)

It remains to be seen what will happen now with O’Donnell, but Sup. Jason Haas and Sup. Patricia Jursik suggested that the county build another beer garden at the park.

Parks advocate Virginia Small says, “County Executive Chris Abele could still negotiate another deal to sell off this park, or any other park, in his quest to “relieve the County” of its public assets, something on which he campaigned. The County Board has no say in those negotiations, or in revising those deals, but they are charged with voting to approve or reject them in an up or down vote, if they are for more than $100,000.”

Northwestern Mutual has other options for parking, it said. In a press release, the company “announced its intentions to build a mixed use real estate development immediately west of its downtown Milwaukee campus,” with plans to include “up to 1,000 parking spaces for its employees, but also incorporate residential and possible retail components.”

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Sandy Botcher, an NM vice president who is project leader for the Tower and Commons, talked with Milwaukee Magazine after today’s vote.

Milwaukee Magazine: What is your initial reaction to this vote?

Sandy Botcher: I think this was a missed opportunity for the community. NM wasn’t looking at this as a parking solution, it was looking at it as a creative way to give what we heard from the larger community they want to see happen at O’Donnell – a great space where people want to be that’s safer, cleaner, great parking and great public space to enjoy. And that’s not what the community has.

MM: Were elements of the debate surprising at all?

I don’t think anything was surprising. First, I would say, I thank those supervisors, as well as other members of the community, businesses, civic organizations and the multitude of individuals who came out and were supportive of this because they want to see something different. We really appreciate that there’s a large portion of the community that sees that vision and that we share that vision with that community. We think there were some supervisors who were very creative way to provide a great solution for the community. I would hope that those supervisors who have now made some commitments to think about how they can make O’Donnell better follow through on that. I think they have very tough choices to make. Because, as you heard Supervisor Taylor say, if we’re going to put O’Donnell at the front of the heap in terms of fixing it, then we’re going to have to take away from some other  public spaces that are out there. Those are tough choices. But I certainly hope that they follow on the choices that they’ve made today given what they turned down today.

MM: Will there be another offer from Northwestern Mutual to buy the park? There was some debate there as to the specifics that could be changed. There were some of the supervisors who seemed more in the middle of this debate, who talked about the price and finding some compromise for the southwest portion, or what have you. What’s the next step?

SB: There has been so much public discourse and the opportunity to hear not just from the community but from the supervisors through all of the public hearings that we have had on this property. Northwestern Mutual, through the help of the Chairwoman (Marina Dimitrijevic – 4th District), made some significant compromises to the deal that we put forward by agreeing to keep the deed restriction on the north half, agreeing to give the county the extraordinary right to stop any attempt to change that deed restriction, agreeing to keep the zoning on the entire footprint, and agreeing to give the county notice provisions in the attempt that anyone in the future tried to change that zoning. I think we have put forward a fantastic deal that would have given the community a space that they want to have. I think we were comfortable with the deal we put on the table.

MM: Is there a chance you come back with another offer?

SB: Always have to evaluate, but I think right now, were going to continue to focus on how we move forward building our half-billion dollar investment in Milwaukee, how we continue to invest in our neighborhoods here in Milwaukee, how we continue to think about driving growth through the creation of construction jobs and jobs for the long term here for the residents of Milwaukee.

MM: Are you saying you’re not done with any O’Donnell park involvement?

SB: I think you always have to evaluate, but I that think the deal we had on the table was the right one for NM and, more importantly, the right one for this community. And as we’ve said all along, we’ve got other opportunities to build parking, and turn our attention to those.

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John Lunz, president of Preserve Our Parks, released this statement in reaction to today’s vote:

“Today the Milwaukee County Board affirmed public ownership of O’Donnell Park, a public space held dear by citizens since 1868.  It’s a great day for Milwaukee’s cherished and nationally acclaimed parks system, and our Lakefront gateway.

This vote resulted from tireless efforts by citizens who rallied to communicate to supervisors the urgency of honoring our park legacy. Less than six months ago, misguided plans for private encroachment on O’Donnell Park were revealed. Alarmed citizens became energized. They stressed to supervisors why public parks must be kept public, and not handed over to any entity for private control.

We especially applaud Supervisors Broderick, Haas, Johnson, Jursik, and Mayo, who led the effort to preserve this park–like all parks, an enshrined pillar of democracy. A robust public infrastructure is essential to our quality of life and economic vitality.

In 1992, the present O’Donnell Park facilities were built in a public-private effort. Generous individuals and corporations enhanced the investment of taxpayers. In the coming years, creative and philanthropic opportunities will surely unfold for re-imagining this evolving public space. We look forward to participating in this civic enterprise.

On behalf of Preserve Our Parks, and all those who extended themselves to keep O’Donnell Park public, may it be an especially happy holiday season.”

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Supervisors voting against the sale include: David Bowen (10th District), Gerry Broderick (3rd District), Jason Haas (14th District), Willie Johnson, Jr. (13th District), Patricia Jursik (8th District), Theodore Lipscomb, Sr. (1st District), Michael Mayo, Sr. (7th District), Peggy Romo West (12th District), and John Weishan, Jr. (16th District).

Supervisors voting for the sale include: Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic (4th District), Deanna Alexander (18th District), Mark Borkowski (11th District), Khalif Rainey (2nd District), James Schmitt (6th District), Martin Weddle (5th District), Anthony Staskunas (17th District), and Steve Taylor (9th District).

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Dan Shafer was the digital editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Dan joined the magazine as assistant editor in 2014 and wrote the November 2014 cover story, "Downtown Horizons." He's worked as a reporter at BizTimes Milwaukee and an editor at ThirdCoast Digest. Contact him at daniel.shafer@milwaukeemag.com. He's on Twitter @danshaferMKE.