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County Board Approves Transfer of Lakefront Land to Milwaukee Art Museum

O'Donnell Parking Garage will transferred to the Milwaukee Art Museum

Thursday’s Milwaukee County Board meeting marked the last time members would meet as full-time supervisors. The job becomes part time, after the April 5th election. And for some not running again, Thursday’s meeting was their last.

The agenda was packed with important issues. One was the transfer of the O’Donnell Parking Garage to the Milwaukee Art Museum. The board voted to transfer ownership of several lakefront buildings, due to the cost of maintaining them.

Included in the lakefront deal are the O’Donnell Parking garage and the park on top and sections of the museum across the street, such as the Kahler building and the lower level of the Saarinen Building, which houses the War Memorial. While no cash will be exchanged, that prime real estate is valued at nearly $29 million.

Outgoing Supervisor Pat Jursik says the deal is a good one for the county because of all the deferred maintenance it’s facing.

“Domes, $75 million, parks deferred maintenance, $300 million, new criminal court building, which we just heard this week in our special transportation public works, $300 million historical society, $4 million. And without having specific figures, we also have bus replacements due, courthouse repairs, deferred highway maintenance, Milwaukee Public Museum maintenance,” Jursik says.

The O’Donnell garage itself needs more than $5 million in repairs. And Jursik says the list of financial challenges goes on and on.

“And then you take that tax collections, our tax collections, one half of the tax collections basically pays retiree health care benefits and pension for employees. We know the county continues to operate in a deficit,” Jursik says.

Jursik says one of the best things about the deal to transfer the county buildings to the Milwaukee Art Museum is that it guarantees the areas will remain open to the public. In December of 2014, the board rejected a $14 million offer from Northwestern Mutual to purchase the O’Donnell parking garage largely because the company would not guarantee public access into the future.

Yet Supervisor John Weishan has concerns about how the transfer will impact the parks budget. Right now, revenue the garage brings in goes directly into the county parks budget.

“When you look at the 2016 budget, $1,254,000 in O’Donnell park revenue is in the parks department budget,” Weishan says.

Weishan says he’s been told the county will make up gap.

“So does that mean that we are now going to increase the property tax levy $1.5 million to fill the revenue void in the parks department?" he asks. "Because I think we should get that stuff squared away and have that before the body before you make this decision."

County Executive Chris Abele has come out in support of the plan. While the county will transfer ownership of the buildings to the art museum, the land under them will remain publicly owned.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.
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