Inside the Debate on the O’Donnell Park Sale

Photo Credit American Spirit/Shutterstock As Downtown Milwaukee’s reinvention continues to take shape, a decision will be made this week on one of the key pieces of the puzzle – O’Donnell Park. The Milwaukee County Board will vote Thursday on whether or not to sell the lake-adjacent Downtown park and parking structure to Northwestern Mutual, which, as one of its uses, would like to make it available for employee parking. Northwestern Mutual is hoping to purchase O’Donnell Park for $12.7 million, factoring in a $1.3 million credit built into the deal that would go to repairs at the park’s parking garage, which…


Photo Credit American Spirit/Shutterstock

As Downtown Milwaukee’s reinvention continues to take shape, a decision will be made this week on one of the key pieces of the puzzle – O’Donnell Park. The Milwaukee County Board will vote Thursday on whether or not to sell the lake-adjacent Downtown park and parking structure to Northwestern Mutual, which, as one of its uses, would like to make it available for employee parking.

Northwestern Mutual is hoping to purchase O’Donnell Park for $12.7 million, factoring in a $1.3 million credit built into the deal that would go to repairs at the park’s parking garage, which is also included in the $14 million total sale. Of that, $7.5 million would then go to pay off existing debt, and $5 million is intended to go to the Milwaukee County Parks, according to Teig Whaley-Smith, county economic development director under County Executive Chris Abele, supporters of the sale.

“It gets us out of a significant liability, into the hands of somebody who has agreed to invest in the property and continue to have public access to the property so we can focus on other deferred maintenance issues throughout the county,” says Whaley-Smith.

The sale, though, is not guaranteed. Several county supervisors have spoken out against the sale, and a vocal group of park preservationists has heavily lobbied county officials. A large part of the opposition is a matter of principle – that public bodies should not sell public parks to private parties under any circumstances, and that once those properties are out of the public domain, they’re gone forever.

“If they sell this park, then I think everything will be up for sale,” says Charlie Kamps, co-founder and board member of Preserve Our Parks. “Milwaukee County cannot just start selling parks.”

The deeper into the issue you get, however, the more nuanced and complex it becomes.

Northwestern’s primary interest in purchasing O’Donnell is upgrading “what could be a stunning centerpiece” to the “renaissance that’s currently happening” in Downtown Milwaukee, says Sandy Botcher an NM vice president who is project leader for the Tower and Commons.

The company intends to spend $7 million on immediate upgrades to the parking structure, across the street from its $450 million Tower and Commons currently now under construction. But “parking is not a driving factor of what we’re trying to do here,” says Botcher.

“We have other options that we could explore right on property we own, adjacent to our campus, where we could build our parking in a more efficient way,” she says. “We feel O’Donnell is the first and primary option to explore because of what we can do for the community to make that place more engaging.”

Those options have not been decided. To make the space “more engaging,” Northwestern Mutual is partnering with NEWaukee (terms of the agreement are not being disclosed), which has held community events to collect ideas for what to do with the park, many of which are now posted here. Botcher says NEWaukee would “definitely” continue to partner on the project if the sale is approved, but that ultimately “this is about Northwestern Mutual helping to move this forward for the long term.”

O’Donnell is zoned as a park by the city of Milwaukee, and Botcher says “we have no intention of seeking to change that zoning.” Opponents say, however, that there is no guarantee in the agreement saying the entire park will be treated as a park in the long term.

And here’s where things get tricky.

The northern and southern portions of the park have different restrictions on what can and can’t be done with the property. The area north of Wisconsin Avenue has two deed restrictions. One of these says the property can’t be sold to a private party. This could be changed, but by the city, not the County, which makes the matter complicated and contentious. The other says it has to be preserved as a park, which Northwestern Mutual has agreed to.

The southern portion, however, has no deed restrictions. This is the larger portion of O’Donnell, which includes the Miller Pavilion, home to Betty Brinn Children’s Museum and the Coast Restaurant. The fear for sale opponents is that this portion, along with the parking garage when it reaches the end of its use lifespan, could eventually be redeveloped however Northwestern Mutual sees fit if the company becomes the property owner.

Bill Lynch, attorney and Preserve Our Parks board member, who has written a lengthy legal analysis of the deal, says among the many concerns he has with the proposed sale is that “there are no provisions of proposed purchase agreements that will require the buyer to use this forever for public park purposes.”

Supervisor Patricia Jursik (8th District), says the operations agreement in this deal doesn’t guarantee that the space will remain a park in perpetuity.

“[The operations agreement] talks about use of the parking structure and reserving some spaces for the public,” says Jursik. “That only will last during the life expectancy of the parking garage, which is estimated to be about 20 years, but it’s really solely in the decision of Northwestern Mutual what the life expectancy will be. When that life expectancy is at an end, then they’re free to do whatever they want with the property. [The operations agreement] comes to an end. It’s got a termination date.”

Sup. Jursik, who is on the County Board’s finance committee and is the chair of the economic development committee, says the difference between the northern and southern portions were not initially made clear to the County Board.

“It was actively misrepresented to us at some of the early meetings that the property was deed restricted,” she says. “That is not true. Only half of the property is under a deed restriction. That affects a lot of decision-making with regard to how much is this property going to be valued.”

Critics also contend that the O’Donnell is worth more than its assessed value. There was not a request for proposal (RFP) before this deal was made with Northwestern Mutual, and Supervisor Gerry Broderick (3rd District) calls this a “back room deal that was cut between County Executive Abele and apparently Northwestern Mutual.”

“I was a cop for three years, and then I spent 21 years as a private investigator,” says Broderick, “so I’m always looking at motive and hidden agendas and all that. And what I see is enough to sicken a maggot.”

There has only been one appraisal, through a third party, of the park’s value, which is what was used in the county comptroller’s report to determine the sale price. But the Whaley-Smith claims there’s no hard evidence suggesting the park is worth more than it’s valued. In fact, he says, the sale would be a good deal for the county.

“They can speculate all they want about what things are worth but I’ve yet to see anything with any empirical back-up,” he says.

While sale opponents say selling any public park sets a bad precedent, Whaley-Smith says there’s another “bad precedent” the sale could remedy.

“We’re in a position where there’s millions of dollars that need to be put into the garage,” he says. “At some point the garage will need to be torn down or replaced and we can’t keep up with it. We have this infrastructure that has been built that we can’t responsibly maintain, and here we have a partner that is going to responsibly maintain it and has agreed to keep the park zoning and keep the park restriction.”

Support for the sale has also been expressed by the Intergovernmental Cooperation Council of Milwaukee County, which includes elected leaders of all 19 municipalities within Milwaukee County. Another supporter of the sale, Ricardo Diaz, executive director of the United Community Center, was the commissioner of the Department of City Development during O’Donnell Park’s inception. “This [sale] is an opportunity to get it right,” he says. “We didn’t get it right.”

Diaz says that Northwestern Mutual’s reputation as a good corporate citizen makes this a special case.  Even opponents of the sale hold the company in high regard. Sup. Jursik calls it “the best corporate citizen in Milwaukee County.”

Yet Jursik says Abele and the Milwaukee County Parks department haven’t properly cared for the plaza level of the park. “They didn’t even change the lights. At night, you’ve got a plaza that’s not lit well,” she says. “The county has been developing beer gardens. What better place for a beer garden than right up there on the plaza at the lakefront, with a pavilion already built and could easily be used to house a beer garden?”

Broderick says a half cent sales tax should be approved to fund the parks, and that Abele, like Walker before him, has kept taxes “unrealistically low,” contributing to the “$300 million deferred maintenance problem” in the parks system.

The company’s proposal, argues Northwestern’s Botcher, would be a financial asset to the county parks department. “We are giving them a creative way to make sure that O’Donnell gets well taken care of and is activated and engaged in a way that the county can’t do given the choices that it has,” she says. The sale “would give the county some money that it can allocate and use for other parks, and then put this property onto the tax roll so it’s generating more revenue for the county to invest in other parks. Let us take care of it. Let us give the community what they want, and let the county focus its attention on other pieces of property.”

The concern for many is that those good intentions are not in writing.

“There is nothing in the language of the agreement that will protect the property from being commercially developed by the purchaser,” says Preserve Our Parks’ Lynch. “There are no promises in the agreement that the buyer will use the property for park purposes and that concerns me and many others.”

There’s also the matter of the Public Trust Doctrine, which prohibits private development on filled lake bed land.

“Preserve Our Parks has a concern that it has expressed for many, many years now about the importance to the public’s rights to public development of land that was once Lake Michigan and has been filled,” says Lynch. “Preserve Our Parks is in favor of development of that land, but it has to be development in accordance with the public trust.”

This could be headed toward a lawsuit.

“There is [potential for a lawsuit],” says Lynch. “It’s a matter that could and I anticipate it very likely to be litigated…At this time, from the way it looks, it’s very likely that Preserve Our Parks will assert the public’s interest to have the property developed for the public, not for a private corporation.”

The County Board is faced with a tough decision. But we elect our leaders to do just that: make tough decisions.

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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.