Park preservationists are threatening to sue Milwaukee County if it approves a parking lot expansion on lakefront property for the War Memorial Center.
War Memorial Inc., a nonprofit organization that runs the center, is asking Milwaukee County for a lease of 2.55 acres that would be used as part of the planned reconstruction of the center’s north entrance and parking lot.
But organizers for The Park People of Milwaukee County Inc. and Preserve Our Parks Inc. are trying to stop the project and on Wednesday said they are prepared to file a lawsuit to stop approval of the lease.
“If they go ahead and try to ram this through, we’re prepared to sue,” said Dan Cody, board president of The Park People. “We don’t want that to happen. Frankly, it’s expensive for everyone.”
Representatives of War Memorial did not immediately return phone calls.
War Memorial already is violating its lease with the county because, in the late 1990s, the organization expanded its parking lot onto county land without approval. The county let War Memorial temporarily expand the parking lot when the addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum was under construction, but the county never forced the organization to remove the lot, said County Supervisor Gerry Broderick.
“Because no one raised a complaint,” he said, “I think there was just a general unawareness of what was going on down there.”
The proposed project north of the art museum near the east end of East Mason Street would bring the existing parking lot into compliance and let War Memorial pave another quarter-acre.
Broderick said he is concerned about expanding the parking lot deeper into parkland because the War Memorial is a private company making money from public land.
“They were not only parking cars there on parkland unauthorized,” Broderick said, “but they were charging people for it.”
County Supervisor Joe Sanfelippo dismissed complaints that the War Memorial is a private corporation. He said the organization runs the parking lot on the county’s behalf and should not be confused with a private company trying to turn a profit.
“Any income that is generated from the parking lots basically offsets the tax money that the county would have to put in there,” Sanfelippo said.
During lakefront events, such as Summerfest, people already park on the grass where the parking lot would be expanded, Sanfelippo said. The proposed project would improve the overall appearance of the center for a minor tract of land, he said.
“I’m confident that their claim has no merit at all,” he said of the park groups. “It would be different if we were giving this parking lot to Northwestern Mutual for their employees.”
Sanfelippo and four other members of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors are calling for a Thursday vote on the lease agreement even though the proposal has not been discussed in a public hearing before a county committee. Sanfelippo said War Memorial is ready to start its project in early July, so any delays in the lease deal would delay construction.
Cody said he wants to prevent the Thursday vote and force the proposal to go to a public hearing next month. If the County Board approves the deal after a public hearing, he said, the parks groups still would sue.
“We feel that if this does come to public light,” Cody said, “the support against it will be so overwhelming that they will inevitably do the right thing.”