What to do with O’Donnell Park?

When my wife and daughter visited the Milwaukee Art Museum two or three years ago, we chose to park in the ramp at O’Donnell Park. Looking around inside, it made me feel a little uneasy. The dark, dingy air in the ramp and the shoddy-looking concrete all contributed. While I’m not a structural engineer, I had a feeling that something was wrong. I thanked Scott Walker for making sure the county buildings were kept in good order, and went out to meet the day like most folks would do.

We know all too well that the policy of deferred maintenance lead to the tragic death of a teenager and the injury of two other people.

What is to be done now?

Proposed ideas include: sell it as land for condos, to repair the structure, or demolish it and build anew.

Selling the land may net a lot of money, perhaps tens of millions of dollars. Tempting, but ultimately, that is not the best option for Milwaukee County. Once the land is sold, the opportunity to use that land as a site of active revenue generation disappears with it. While it could become a source of property taxes, that first requires a successful sale, followed by the building of properties that could generate said revenue. There is too great a number of hypothetical situations within that for me to be comfortable with selling the site and just hoping for the best.

This is to say nothing of the fact that building a tall condo tower would interrupt lakefront visibility as you travel east on Wisconsin Avenue, or glimpse across town to see the lake. This lakefront area must be held in a higher standard with regard to access and visibility. Again, there is a facile temptation to sell it and let someone else do as they please with the land. This would seem to be the easiest way out in the short run, but it produces many long-term problems.

Next is the thought of repairing the structure. According to estimates cited by the Journal Sentinel, repairs not linked to the “decorative” concrete panels would cost nearly $2 million. Performing those repairs and removing all 70 concrete panels would boost the cost to $5.4 million.  Demolishing O’Donnell is said to have a cost of up to $6 million, which seems to be not terribly higher than the “remove and repair” estimate.

If we’re going to do anything, we should do it right. Without making any more than a cursory examination of the available information, it seems there are so many instances of deferred maintenance that it is easy for the price tag to creep higher and higher as more problems are finally acknowledged or discovered. Without having read the detailed estimates and reports—and there’s still no conclusive finding about the June 24 tragedy, and we still need an independent investigation—I lean towards having the complex demolished. That brings into mind removing and reusing the space that holds the Downtown Transit Center. (Was that once the site of the grand old Northwestern railroad station?) The space looks like a product of its era. That is to say it could be redesigned with contemporary open air, energy, and access considerations and become a much more inviting and usable space.


Author: Jason Haas

Jason is an elected member of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, occasionally moonlights as an amateur gardener, and is a proud father of two, or three, depending on how you do the math.