Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Fund for Lake Michigan: supporting environmental restoration and innovation

It didn’t take much persuasion. When Vicki Elkin suggested that we go to Three Bridges Park for our photo session I jumped at it eagerly. The park is one of several projects in the Menomonee Valley that have been made possible in part by grants from the Fund for Lake Michigan, which Elkin administers. As regular followers of this blog know, it is also one my favorite places in the Valley.

We stroll between the contoured slopes of park hills that rise from a formerly flat rail yard. Fresh green grasses and newly planted seedlings emerge from burlap staked down to prevent erosion during this fragile stage in the process of vegetating the park. A row of boxcars sits idle on one of the remaining tracks adjacent to the park. The human hand in creating what eventually will become natural-seeming habitat is everywhere apparent. It’s an example of what I like to think of as “intelligent design” and an appropriate setting to talk about Elkin’s role as Executive Director of the Fund for Lake Michigan as well as the variety of environmental, scientific and technological projects it has enabled.

To read the rest of this post and view the photo essay, click here to go to Arts Without Borders.

This post is one in a series that relates to my Menomonee Valley Artist in Residency. For more information about the residency and links to previous posts and photographs, go to MV AiR.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Selling O'Donnell Park is a lose-lose for Milwaukee County taxpayers

Northwestern Mutual would like to purchase O'Donnell Park, which stands between its campus and Milwaukee's lakefront. County Executive Abele and some members of the Board of Supervisors have agreed to a proposed sale that would net the county $5 million. That is peanuts compared to what this prime land is worth on the open market. No piece of property in the State of Wisconsin is in a more lucrative location. Every taxpayer in the county ought to be asking the board why it can be considering such an ill-conceived sale.

The cost is secondary, however, to the principle of selling park land in the first place. Sure, O'Donnell is an under-loved park. But, as the following letter explains, we can do better than transfer it to private ownership in a firesale. The current proposal is a lose-lose proposition for us the taxpayers and citizens of Milwaukee County. Please tell this to your county supervisor. For a list of supervisors and contact info, click here.

The following is an open letter to the county board urging it to preserve public control of O'Donnell Park. I've added my name to the list of signers. I hope you'll join me.


We, the undersigned, oppose the sale of O’Donnell Park to Northwestern Mutual Life, or to any corporation or private individual. By definition, parks are held in trust for the public interest. If this proposed deal closes, Milwaukee County citizens and visitors will lose all rights to this land legacy, not just the structures on it.  The public will have no inherent say in decisions regarding the park’s continued operations or its future designed use.

Regardless of any promises the proposed buyer has made regarding “public access” and concessions to zoning and such, private owners can do what they want with their land, within variable land-use parameters. Yes, many businesses choose to let the public “enjoy” their private properties to some extent. However, the only way that the public can retain any stake in the future of O’Donnell Park is if the public holds ownership of the land, as required in long-standing deed restrictions. Public officials, as well as all citizens, are duty-bound stewards who must honor these exacting covenants, just as executors of an estate must honor its bequests in perpetuity.

O’Donnell Park has been unfairly, and repeatedly, portrayed as a bleak garage with no intrinsic value. This 9.3-acre lakefront overlook did not become a park by accident. It was set aside for the common good by far-sighted leaders beginning in 1868. The short-sighted sale of this multi-purpose park will deprive taxpayers of more than just the current amenities and views O’Donnell provides and the substantial revenue it produces. It will also rob the public of any future possibilities that visionary civic leaders and philanthropists may have for re-imagining this priceless public land. For example, downtown Chicago’s dazzling Millennium Park (also built above a parking structure) would never have happened if the land on which it was built had not already been publicly owned. Public projects that are supplemented by private contributions first require a vested public interest.
If this unprecedented sale is executed, how will citizens ever stave off other schemes to privatize county or city parks?

We urge the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors to reject this ill-advised sale. Whenever corporations across the U.S. want to help “improve” public parks, they make designated donations for that purpose. Parks drive economic development and eco-tourism, and increase property values, so supporting them makes fiscal sense to businesses and individuals. Lease arrangements can be used effectively to ensure that public assets continue to be managed for the public good. This unnecessary sale of park land is simply an abdication of the public trust.

We Milwaukeean County residents, of all ages, take pride in our magnificent lakefront “emerald necklace.” We cannot afford to chip away at this legacy through the arbitrary sale of our most valuable gem, the very downtown gateway to our city’s treasured lakefront.

Philip Blank, President, Public Enterprise Committee 
Peter Blewett, Ph.D.; Former President, Milwaukee School Board
Diane Buck, Community Activist and Art Educator
Tony Busalacchi, Past President, Milwaukee School Board; Past President, City of Milwaukee Art Commission; Former Cultural History Educator
Eddee Daniel, Photographer, Writer and Art Educator
Daniel J. Diliberti, Former Milwaukee County Treasurer; Former Milwaukee County Supervisor
Vincent Goldstein, MPS Social Studies Teacher
James Goulee, Former Regional Parks Manager, Milwaukee County Parks
Henry Hamilton III, Esq., Member, Lakefront Development Advisory Commission; Member, Milwaukee County Parks Advisory Commission
Laurie Muench, Landscape Architect; Retired Milwaukee County Park Planner
William Lynch, Esq., Chairman, Lakefront Development Advisory Commission
Linda Nelson Keane, AIA, Professor of Architecture & Environmental Design, Art Institute of Chicago; Placemaking Board, National Project for Public Spaces
Mark Keane, Architect and Principal, Studio 1032; Professor of Architecture; University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
William F. Kean, Professor Emeritus, Geosciences; University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Cheryl Nenn, Environmentalist
Keith Schmitz, Founding Member and Steering Committee Member; Grassroots North Shore
Peggy Schulz, Writer, Third-generation Milwaukeean; Supporter of Public Infrastructure
Walter Wilson, Fellow of the American Institute of Architects; Retired Principal Architect, Milwaukee County
Anita Zeidler, Ph.D., Urban Education