Sunday, November 30, 2014

Keep O'Donnell Park Public!

As I have previously pointed out, Boss Abele, Milwaukee County Emperor, has openly declared war a privatization binge that would made Scott Walker green with envy.  Fortunately, he was stopped - for the most part - by the Milwaukee County Board.
on Milwaukee County.  In his most recent budget, he went on

Sadly, this is not the only front that Boss Abele has used in his attack.  He is also out to sell county assets in secret sweetheart deals.  Lisa Kaiser of the Shepherd Express had broken the story on Abele's plan to surrender Kulwicki Park for a whole dollar a year.  There is no word if Abele promised to give away a vacuum with every park purchase.

One of the more publicized sweetheart deals that Boss Abele is trying to push through is the sale of O'Donnell Park.  O'Donnell Park became a well known name four years ago when part of the facade fell off and killed a teenage boy and seriously injured two others.

Boss Abele is proposing to sell O'Donnell Park to Northwestern Mutual Life (NML) for $14 million.  When one subtracts the cost of needed repairs and paying off the debt service, the county would be lucky to net $5 million.

Since the announcement of this proposed deal, it has been a constant source of red flags, contention and disconcert.

It turns out that the land's real worth is closer to $40 million and is the source of $1.2 million per year in parking revenue.  Why would Abele want to short change taxpayers by such a margin that he would sell the park for less than 10% of its actual worth?

Another problem that will arise is the fact that the land sits on a former lake bed.  The Wisconsin State Constitution rules that this land is part of the Public Trust and thus it cannot be developed for commercial gain.

Granted, Abele and his bought off Teapublican legislators changed state law to rewrite geographic history, claiming that what once a lake bed is no longer a lake bed.  But no one really believes that this law would stand up to a court challenge.

A grassroots group, Public Parks Alliance, has set up a website to fight Boss Abele's folly.  On their website, they explain the issues clearly:
Suppose a private developer offered to buy Washington Park on Milwaukee’s west side. Or Estabrook Park on the east side, or Jackson, Humboldt or Mitchell parks on the south side, or Greenfield Park in the suburbs, or Juneau Park on the lakefront.

The reaction from government and the people would be swift, sure and final:

Our parks are not for sale.

So why is O’Donnell Park different?

Northwestern Mutual Life (NML) has proposed to buy O’Donnell Park, and County Executive Chris Abele was so eager to accommodate the request he put the sale in his budget last fall. Enough county board supervisors balked to get it removed for separate consideration, but some of them were all for it. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has been cheerleading, too. So, the sale of O’Donnell is back on the table for consideration by the County Board.

Why not? O’Donnell Park is prime lakefront property, worth a pretty penny both in the sale and in future tax revenues, right? And besides, O’Donnell is a liability anyway, a boondoggle and a money hole for the county, right?


O’Donnell Park is among the largest revenue producers for the Milwaukee County Parks System. It brings in an average of $1.2 million a year to help fund the parks. With annual cuts to the tax levy portion of parks funding dating back decades, the Parks Department is expected to fund more than half its operating costs through revenues it generates.

County Executive Abele is aware of the harm to the parks budget that would result from the sale. He even suggested a solution in his budget request to make up the difference. It is this: He would simply raise our taxes.

In what sense is O’Donnell Park not the equivalent of other public parks – the ones we would never sell? Because a large part of it is a parking garage? As such, it provides public parking for lakefront and downtown destinations, a benefit to users and to the businesses and cultural institutions they frequent. But O’Donnell is more than a parking structure. Like many other parks, it also includes a public plaza and pavilion for casual or organized public events.

O'Donnell Park is a park in every sense that defines any other park. It is public property, intended for the use and enjoyment of the public. Moreover, unlike many of our parks, O'Donnell Park is subject both to our constitution's Public Trust Doctrine and to deed restrictions requiring that it be used as a public park.

Much of the southern part of the park rests on filled lakebed land, which, under the Trust Doctrine, must be held by a public body for the benefit of the public. It cannot be transferred to a private party. The northern part of O'Donnell Park is part of Juneau Park, which, pursuant to a referendum, was transferred by the city to the county with deed restrictions requiring that it be held by the county and used by it solely as a public park. It was these deed restrictions which were the basis of the lawsuit blocking the Lakefront Expressway.

Preserve Our Parks has said that it would sue to block any private ownership or development of that portion of the Transit Center that rests on filled lakebed . Does anyone think for a minute that they will not likewise pursue lengthy and costly legal action to challenge any sale of O’Donnell? They will. They’ve already said as much.

NML wants O’Donnell Park now for its parking stalls, because it is building a high-rise tower just to the west. What it wants to do with O’Donnell 10 or 20 years from now is another matter. NML has rejected any suggestion that it enter into an agreement with the county to simply lease employee parking at O’Donnell. No, it wants to own it outright.

NML is a very good corporate citizen, almost as old as Milwaukee itself, and as a company has rededicated itself to the downtown area. That we all applaud, and it is natural that local governments strive to accommodate the needs of their best local employers, the drivers of their economies.

But it is of such love affairs that bad precedents are too often set. If Milwaukee County proceeds with what many believe to be the illegal sale of O’Donnell Park, on just what foot will it stand when the next good citizen steps forward with a plan to develop, say, King Park. Why not? Such a plan could bring needed economic opportunities to the suffering near north side.

Let us return to point one:

Our parks are not for sale.
On the group also presents a legal analysis, which is even more telling of what a bad deal Abele is proposing:
At its November 6th meeting, the County Board delayed consideration of the proposed
sale by a vote of 14-3.  The Board expressed uncertainty about the County’s role regarding future use of the property by requesting a legal opinion from County Corporation Counsel on that matter.  They did so with good reason.  There is much confusion about the legal consequences of the proposed sale. The big question is whether the public will have any legally enforceable right to public use and enjoyment of O’Donnell Park or any of its facilities. In short, the agreement provides for almost none.  If the County Board approves this sale, O’Donnell Park will no longer be a public park. It will be fully the buyer’s private property,

The County Executive is proposing sale of the entire park complex--all of its land, structures and facilities. This is a proposed sale, not what some have characterized as a “public-private partnership.” When you sell your house you do not become a partner with the buyer.  After closing, you have no say whatsoever about how the new owner uses the property. Unless the County and NM agree to legally binding provisions for a continuing role for the County, the County will have no role in determining O’Donnell Park’s future. The public, through its County elected officials, will no longer determine whether the property could become part of Milwaukee’s own “Millennium Park,” Chicago’s destination park built atop a parking garage, nor whether the public can have access to any or all of the property. The corporation that owns the property will have the sole right to determine its future use.
As if all this wasn't enough to give the gentle reader cause to pause, Bruce Murphy of Urban Milwaukee, who is as much an Abele acolyte as any, raises concerns about the deal:
Sixth, why did the Abele administration give the impression the entire property was restricted as to future development? “We were misled at the outset that the entire property was, quote, deed restricted,” Jursik complains.

Sixth [sic], why won’t Abele change course and insist on a deed restriction for the southern half of the property? “I’m really concerned Abele is not protecting the public interest on this,” Jursik says. Abele says Northwestern Mutual has other land it could build parking on and “if we push for too much they are able to do other things.” He also notes the county’s past problems developing real estate on land it owns (largely because of board vs. executive squabbles he refrains from noting) and says he wants to send a message to developers that the county is a reliable partner: “We want to build on a reputation as easy to work with.” 
But this may be a case of being too easy to work with. From a market rate perspective, NM seems to be getting a pretty good deal even without the southern portion of the property. But if it has the ability to develop that portion of the property, the deal looks like a steal. With that land included, Jursik says, “there’s no way that’s a market-rate proposal.”
In summary, Boss Abele wants to sell off O'Donnell Park, a valuable county asset which actually generates revenue for the county, for a tenth of what the value of the park is really worth.  On top of that, Abele wants to sell the land with no protections for the taxpayers that would ensure that the public land remains accessible to the public.  Not only did Boss Abele willfully fail to put in said protections, he refuses to even consider them.

It is obvious that Boss Abele has given up even the slightest pretense of representing the people of Milwaukee County.  That is why it is up to us - the people - to make sure our true representatives, the Milwaukee County Board, hears us that O'Donnell Park - or any other park, for that matter - is not for sale!

You can call your Milwaukee County Supervisor at 414-278-4222.  If you're not sure who your county supervisor is, you can look them up here.


  1. Capper, really appreciate this.

    On a forward looking basis, I think the $40,000,000 value maybe understated. The Bucks owners, aka New York real estate tycoons are looking at long term investments. They're buying the Grand Avenue Mall. I know they claim they aren't, but I'm guessing they are "involved," even if their names aren't on the papers.

    All the old rust belt cities on the Great Lakes have access to that fresh water. If you buy (and I do) the dire predictions about climate change over the next 50 years, there will be significant movement into Milwaukee, Cleveland,.....

    I get that NML needs parking and that they are a huge employer, I'm fine with the County helping them with their parking, But the County can DO THAT without actually SELLING the property.

  2. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has been the #1 cheerleader for this "sweetheart deal" since day 1, before even a single public hearing was held. You can read their two pro-park-sale editorials (from July and August 2014) at jsonline or thru the link list on Newaukee's Spotlight on O'Donnell Park. JS has also steadfastly referred to the sale of the "O'Donnell Parking Structure," the new "branding" name that Abele's team gave O'Donnell Park" in its official report on the sale in July. Colluders, including Abele, NM, and JS, hoped busy people would not notice the "parking garage" was really a park that happens to be built above a parking facility, as are many urban parks including famous ones like Chicago's Millennium Park. They also only show pix of parking facility, never the DiSuvero sculpture or Calatrava vista, which is how people experience O'Donnell Park.

    I can see why the JS shills nearly daily for taxpayers to help build a new NBA sports palace, since it covers sports more than anything and needs major league teams here. By why are they insisting that the public must sacrifice a park they've owned since 1868, which taxpayers paid $36 million to rebuild as a multi-use complex to generate money for the whole parks system (parking and pavilion facilities now net $1.3 million annually)? It's probably a bigger issue than just being an "Abele accolyte" or pro-big business. We need to call out MKE's "paper of record" for demeaning defenders of our lakefront and public access to parks as "inflexible." They laud this sale of downtown's park with the best vista's because it's just a "small" park, despite being, at 9+ acres, 4 to 9 times bigger than all other county downtown parks except Juneau. Have they not noticed that Milwaukee taxpayers are raising a ruckus about being force to provide "corporate welfare" to those with the most bucks when parks and recreation facilities have been left to languish? Pushing for the sale of a highly viable park, so it can become a "corporate playground," might not be the best way to keep or get readers...

    1. It can't be soon enough to start the campaign to Dis-Abele's agenda. This tantrum-throwing Boston boy could well look to his hometown to create an award-winning downtown public park atop a parking structure. I'm talking about Boston's "Post Office Square."

      Abele and his lapdog aides lack vision and concern for the public good. Let's face it, the only reason Milwaukee progressives supported Abele was because we were all busy trying to recall Walker. Abele's opponent, Jeff Stone, would have tried to tried to introduce an even worse "Stone-age" following Scott Walker's reign as County Exec.

      The bargain we made with this vaguely "liberal," trust-fund baby was a mistake. Abele first bought entree in Milwaukee by doling out largesse to the arts, etc. from his family foundation. Now,obviously, he's currying favor with Fortune 500 corporations by trying to cede public assets to them.

      Enough! Contact County Supervisors Now. Stop this scandalous sale of O'Donnell Park.