By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Oct 27, 2014 at 2:16 PM Photography: Bobby Tanzilo

In a 4-2 vote this morning, the Milwaukee County Economic Development Committee voted to recommend Northwestern Mutual's proposal to purchase O'Donnell Park from Milwaukee County.

According to the proposal, NML will purchase the O'Donnell Park from the County for $14 million, though the plan also includes a $1.3 million credit for NML to pay for maintenance for the parking structure. 

The current proposal – as detailed, discussed and debated in the almost two-hour meeting – included some changes to NML's original proposal, namely in the language used in three amendments.

According to Sandy Botcher, head of Northwestern Mutual's Downtown campus development project, the new three amendments, developed with Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic from NML's interactions and discussions with the public, keep current restrictions in place while providing the County with additional protections previously lacking.

The first amendment states that the north half of the property will continue to be covered by a deed restriction requiring it be used as a public park. The second proposal amendment gives the County has the absolute right to reject any attempt by the owner to change that deed restriction.

"Not only are we preserving the status quo in terms of the restrictions that are there, we believe that we are giving the County more protection with these two amendments to the agreement than they currently have," Botcher said.

The final amendment notes the whole property will remain subject to the zoning restrictions and that NML would have to give 90 days notice to the County so it could exercise its right to a supermajority vote in case of future efforts to change that zoning. 

Before the vote, the committee opened the floor to members of the public, speaking for and against the proposal. Proponents for the deal noted the current underutilized state of O'Donnell Park and NML's apparent intent to invest in, maintain and serve as stewards for the park and parking lot space.

Those arguing against the proposal noted the potentially dangerous precedent in selling park land, as well as the estimated value of the space – sometimes placed between $30 and $40 million. 

After taking public comments, the board continued to debate the pros and cons in the proposal. 

"If you could develop all of that plus, then maybe it's worth $25 or $30 million, but we're not going to develop this," Milwaukee County supervisor Jim "Luigi" Schmitt said.

"Non-developed, it's nowhere near that in price. Also, I keep hearing about how let's keep O'Donnell Park and then we'll have the money to do other things. O'Donnell Park is an albatross on us economically. We have terrific debt because of O'Donnell Park. This would be relief. We always talk about deferred maintenance with our parks. This is a crown jewel of deferred maintenance."

Schmitt, along with fellow Milwaukee County supervisors Steve Taylor, Khalif Rainey and David Bowen, voted to approve the sale, while supervisors Willie Johnson, Jr. and Patricia Jursik voted no to the proposal. Johnson, Jr. explained his vote, noting "a lot of property that's been with the County just shouldn't be up for a fire sale."

"I am not for just selling park land to sell park land," Johnson, Jr. said. "I'm against that, and I have been against that for a long time."

Though she noted that Milwaukee County has done "a pretty lousy job running the O'Donnell parking garage" – making a point to criticize former county executive Scott Walker and current county executive Chris Abele – Jursik argued that she couldn't vote yes for the proposal because of a "missing piece," the southeast quadrant of the area, still unprotected by NML's current plan. Supervisor Jursik also called into question the parking study's conclusion and the appraisal's determined value. 

After prevailing through this morning's meeting, Northwestern Mutual's current proposal now moves to the full board, which will consider the sale at its meeting on Nov. 6.