County Board to hold public hearing on Mitchell Park Domes [updated]

The (mostly?) temporary  closure of the Mitchell Park Domes due to safety concerns is old news by now. This is a direct result of the deferred maintenance that has plagued the Milwaukee County Parks System for far too many years now — and I argue deferred maintenance is a direct cause of the tragedy at O’Donnell Park  in 2010. And the issues at the Domes are not at all new. The problems with deteriorating concrete have been known since 2004, and I voted for action on it back in 2013.

MitchellDomes
The Mitchell Park Domes

The Mitchell Park Domes, a popular tourist attraction and point of local pride, are the latest attraction to have been closed by deferred maintenance. This, despite the fact that in July 2015, I and my colleagues on the County Board allocated $5 million from an already-realized budget surplus to directly address deferred maintenance in the Parks, County Executive Abele dismissed this in his veto message [PDF] as  “flippant and irresponsible decision making” by the Board.

In September 2015, we also approved $500,000 specifically for Domes maintenance.

Half a year later, the Domes are closed.

In response to this closure, the County Board is holding a public hearing at the Mitchell Park Domes Greenhouse [map] at 6 PM on Wednesday, February 24th. We want to find out what the people of Milwaukee County want to happen with this cherished institution. According to an email from County Board Chairman Theodore Lipscomb, the hearing agenda lists presentations by the County Executive; the Parks Director; and the Friends of the Domes, and comments by the public.

I’ll do a gentleman’s bet with anyone willing on whether or not the exec will or will not appear, as he repeatedly failed to represent his own department at a series of budget hearings last year.

Update: An e-mail from Abele to Chairman Lipscomb begins, “Thank you for the invitation. I will make sure that someone from my administration will be in attendance to answer the Board’s questions.” That’s a “no.” It is his sixth? seventh? eighth? failure to appear before the public on official business.

Either way, see you on February 24, 2016, at the greenhouse.

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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.

Scott Walker Failure Files makes its debut

It’s sad when the supposed leader of a government has done so much that a whole web site exists to document his unceasing demolition of the body he’s supposed to lead. But that is the case. The web site scottwalkerfailurefiles.com has launched, and its contents are quite damning. We’ve known for a long time that he’s done a bad job. It calumniated with the preventable tragedy at O’Donnell Park, in which a suburban teenager lost his life and his buddy’s mother lost her leg.

Just imagine what he’ll do to the state if he gets the chance.

Tragedy at O’Donnell Park parking garage

I will quote Milwaukee County First’s reaction to this event:

Disaster struck Milwaukee this afternoon as a large section of concrete fell off the side of the parking structure at O’Donnell park. The concrete struck three people, injuring two and killing a fifteen year old boy.

The Milwaukee Business Journal is reporting that OSHA is now involved and has closed the building until it is deemed safe, although the evening news showed that people were being allowed to retrieve their cars tonight.

We share Chairman Lee Holloway’s sentiment in his statement:

“First and foremost, my heart goes out to the individuals involved in this terrible collapse. Based on media reports, it’s my understanding that one child has perished and possibly two adults were injured.

“As Chairman of the County Board of Supervisors, I am calling for an immediate and thorough investigation into this incident, as well as a review of all County facilities to make sure that they are structurally safe for our residents to use and enjoy.”

• • •

Now, on a more personal note, I was picking up my daughter from her summer camp a short time after this happened. I hadn’t heard about it until later in the evening, when I with her and our dog in a local park. I looked at her and thought how grateful I was that she was there, playing with our dog. I can’t imagine what the family of the young boy must be going through right now. My heart goes out to them for their most terrible loss.