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Views Vary on Future of O'Donnell Park in Milwaukee

S Bence

The park might be better known for its parking garage than the green space on top.
Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele wants to take neighboring Northwestern Mutual up on its offer to purchase and improve O’Donnell Park.

Diane Buck has worked to preserve parks and public art for decades. She wants people to consider the history of the place. Then she thinks they’d oppose the sale.

“Back in the Depression, the city gave to the county 31 one the historic parks in our city - Lake Park, Juneau, Estabrook, the list goes on," Buck says. "The intent was to preserve them for the future, so something called deed restrictions were put on these parks and the intent of deed restrictions is to preserve green paces for public parks for all time."

O’Donnell falls under a unique category. "You have to realize that O’Donnell Park is really part of Juneau Park – you don’t see that now because Lincoln Memorial Drive snakes up there and cuts it off," she says. "But back in the 19th Century, Juneau Park extended down to the Chicago Northwestern Depot and that was built in 1890 and it was a magnificent. They demolished that building in 1960s anticipating the freeway that would be built.”

The freeway project was thwarted, followed by O’Donnell Park’s transformation. "In the 1980s - early 90s, it was felt that we should have a park but mostly a parking lot,” Buck explains.

She acknowledges the deteriorated state of the plot and the financial burden it places on the county, but she believes the park should remain in county hands.

“To me, the answer to this conundrum is for the county to negotiate a long-term lease," Buck says. "Let Northwestern Mutual manage and improve the parking lot and the park above. The county has scores of successful leases with businesses within parks."

County Executive Chris Abele says his team did consider the option of leasing and then dismissed it. “We’re still paying for the parking garage, because there is debt service which is about $700,000 a year and at some point there is going to be the cost of replacing it,” he says.

Abele says striking a sale with Northwestern Mutual will allow the county to pay off the debts and create an endowment for the future support of the county’s parks.

Sandy Botcher has been the face of Northwestern Mutual since it offered to purchase the park a few months ago.

"We’re building a half billion dollar investment on this side of Wisconsin Avenue – right across the street from O’Donnell. And what happens at our front doorstep is very important to us,” she says.

Botcher admits to getting a little revved up when questioned about the company's long-term commitment to keeping O’Donnell’s green space green. “Part of what we’ve said all along is that we don’t ever envision that Northwestern Mutual would want something right across the street that blocks our view to the lake,” she says.

Botcher says the company added a layer of assurance by agreeing to a deed restriction. “That would stop us from doing anything with that property and gives the county the absolute right to stop anything to do anything differently," she says.

Credit S Bence
Photo taken from southeast corner of park - the area about which Supervisor Jursik is concerned.

Perhaps no County Supervisor has been closer to the O’Donnell debate than Pat Jursik. She chaired a public hearing on the issue last month and more than 300 people packed the hall.

“It truly was 50/50 and I’m getting about equal concern from my own district, which is the South Shore," Jursik says. "And I’m hearing a lot of from those who use the parks that they’re against this, but I am also hearing from a fair number who think Northwestern Mutual is a great corporate citizen in Milwaukee County."

Last week, Jursik’s vote was one of two against the sale in committee.

She wears a pin shaped like a jigsaw puzzle piece on her blazer. She explains that she’s holding out for a little bit of compromise.

Jursik points to the bit of O’Donnell Park not covered by the deed restriction.”Let the public have assured access to the southeast corner, which currently right now is a public plaza," she says. "I think it could be a win-win for everyone.”

Bargaining time may be running out. The County Board is expected to vote on the O’Donnell Park sale this Thursday.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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