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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, July 29, 2014

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Is selling the publicly owned O'Donnell Park to NML in Milwaukee's long-term best interest?
Is selling the publicly owned O'Donnell Park to NML in Milwaukee's long-term best interest?

Should the County sell O'Donnell Park to NML?

Northwestern Mutual has proposed purchasing O’Donnell Park from Milwaukee County for $14 million, though according the the plan NML would receive a $1.3 million credit to pay for parking structure maintenance.

The public, NML says, would still have access to the park, pavilions and parking structure.

Apparently, NML and the County have been discussing this idea for a while.

"We have had conceptual discussions with Milwaukee County for some time on this idea," says Sandy Botcher, head of Northwestern Mutual’s Downtown campus development project, in the news release, which skillfully avoids mentioning the proposed future of Mark di Suvero's "The Calling" sculpture.

In a statement issued by his office today, County Executive Chris Abele says he supports the deal, which has been in the works "for more than a year."

"It’s not often enough we get to announce such positive news. Not only will this sale allow us to continue to improve our beautiful parks, it’s also a great partnership with a company that has made a strong commitment to our community. I look forward to addressing any questions from the community and finalizing a deal that benefits the community."

The statement from NML says under the proposal, which would include the pavilion buildings and the parking structure along the lakefront, "the company would buy the park at its current appraised value of $14 million and would receive a credit of $1.3 million reflecting a portion of needed maintenance on the parking structure."

It adds that the company -- which is clearing away the last bits of its recently demolished 16-story office tower across the street in preparation for beginning work on a much taller $450 million tower to be completed in 2017 -- "would make considerable improvements to the parking structure and enhance the open space above."

Botcher says: "We’ve developed a proposal that relieves the County of some of its financial burden, upgrades the parking structure, and enhances the high-quality open space for the entire community to enjoy."

Abele's statement says that all but $5 million of the purchase price would be used to pay off the county's debt on O'Donnell Park. It adds that with the property returned to the public tax rolls, MPS, MATC and the City of Milwaukee would stand to benefit from the sale.

No one can really question NML's commitment to Downtown Milwaukee, where it has been headquartered for well over a century and where it is in the process of making a major commitment to the skyline, but is this a good precedent to set?

"That’s a valid concern," says 14th District Supervisor Jason Haas. "I ran for office on County Parks, which I want to improve. I think that any sale of any park land would have to be contingent upon an assurance written in stone that public access would be guaranteed. A major concern I’ve heard when talking to other supervisors is will access be denied. But they have repeatedly said there will be public access."

On the other hand, despite its name is O'Donnell even a park? Should taxpayers be in the parking and commercial real estate (there are a restaurant and children's museum in the pavilions) game?

"It is a big parking structure that has a view of the lake on top," Haas says. "O’Donnell is an interesting property, nobody thinks, ‘let’s go to O’Donnell Park to hang out.’ The surface of O’Donnell Park is valuable because of the lake view and the point of the park is to ensure access to the lakefront to the public."

As for the $1.3 million credit for repairs, NML says that's a fraction of what it believes near-term repairs will cost. If these numbers are accurate, in the short term it sounds like a good deal for taxpayers.

"An analysis of the parking structure commissioned by Northwestern Mutual in 2012 identified more than $6.5 million of near-term repairs needed in the facility," the statement says. "Were it to acquire O’Donnell Park, the company would initiate immediate improvements to the parking facility that would include structural repairs, deferred maintenance, improved cleanliness and enhanced lighting to brighten the facility along with fresh painting and updated signage," reads the release.

Haas says that the County Board -- which according to Haas passed a resolution supporting the sale of O'Donnell Park a few years ago -- will only be allowed by state law to say "yea" or "nay" to the deal. It won't be able to make amendments or alter terms agreed upon by the county executive and NML. He says he would he vote for the sale.

"I don’t think we have many options, he says. "It is expensive to maintain and would be tremendously expensive to replace. (Selling) would be a significant easing of responsibility (for the county)."

What do you think? Should NML be allowed to purchase public parkland? If so, should there be restrictions on what the company can do with it?

With the new NML tower across the street, another new tower going up just south of O'Donnell Park and the proposed Couture, should O'Donnell Park even continue to stand? Is it the best long-term use of the space?

And would someone please think of "The Calling"?

Weigh in below using the Talkbacks feature or post your comment via on social media.

You can also attend one of the upcoming County Parks public input sessions slated for Monday, July 28 at Dineen Park Community Room, 6901 W. Vienna Ave.; Tuesday, July 29 at Boerner Botanical Gardens Education Center, 9400 Boerner Dr., Greendale; and Wednesday, July 30, Kosciuszko Community Center, 2201 S. 7th St. All three run from 6 to 7:30 p.m.

This post was updated to add comment from County Executive Chris Abele and County Supervisor Jason Haas.

Talkbacks

hardgeminiguy | July 11, 2014 at 12:57 p.m. (report)

No--this land is too valuable as a parking structure. Land must be sold for a high rise with lake views. NML must incorprate public and it's own needs in a parking structure in their new building. I am, totally, against the county selling the structure for continued patking. plus, a much better looking building must be in such a prominate location. thank-you jerry johnson

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