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


  1. Please do not sell...a public lakefront is one of the best/coolest attractions to Milwaukee. Please!!!!

    1. I hope you're sending that message to your county supervisor!

  2. The County Supervisors have no right selling what has belonged to the people of Milwaukee County all these many years with the understanding it would be preserved as public space. There is no good reason to sell this wonderful land and to sell if for peanuts is a travesty.
    Northwestern Mutual - keep your hands off our land! I will make sure my County Supervisor knows how I feel.

  3. The County's sale price for the property is based on the value of the parking structure/improvements alone, and gives no value to the land because it is subject to deed restrictions limiting its use to public park purposes. However, the sale is premised on the city's agreement to eliminate the deed restriction, giving Northwestern Mutual the right to use the property in any way they might want, whenever they determine that it is time for the parking structure to go. Those who can't sense that this deal stinks to high heaven might do well to question whether they have lost their sense of smell.

  4. Thanks Eddee. I've called Willie Johnson, my supervisor, along with David Bowen, who I heard is so far for the sale. He needs to hear from us. He was elected on his progressive principles. Now he needs to stand by them.

  5. this is a raid on the Commons, and a sucker's deal...
    my friend Virginia Small speaks for me, and many others, with her 'Taking The Long View...' essay: