Philanthropist Michael Cudahy wants until Feb. 24 to pull together concrete plans to replace O’Donnell Park with a new Milwaukee Public Museum.
But Milwaukee County is planning to start $6.6 million in repairs to the structure on Feb. 23.
The construction plans should proceed as planned, County Supervisor Theodore Lipscomb said, because it will take at least five to 10 years to line up enough money to construct a lakefront museum like the one Cudahy is proposing.
The county can collect parking revenue to pay off the O’Donnell Park repairs while determining a new plan for the property, Lipscomb said. The parking garage earns the county $1.3 million annually, he said, meaning the county could recoup the $6.6 million in repairs in a little more than five years.
“In the absence of a clear vision with some financing behind it,” Lipscomb said, “at least in the short term, we need to proceed to repair the facility because of the obligation we have to surrounding facilities that depend on that garage.”
The county has approved two design contracts for repair work on the parking garage, and major construction work will begin Feb. 23. The plan is to have O’Donnell Park reopen by the July festival season, said Jack Takerian, director of public works for Milwaukee County.
Cudahy on Tuesday tried and failed to persuade a county parks committee to delay the repair work by 30 days. The retired businessman requested the time to propose more specific plans for the project, insisting it makes more sense to redevelop the property rather than reconstruct O’Donnell Park.
“I can’t go out and solicit people who might be interested in developing that area without knowing whether we’re going to have it or not,” Cudahy said. “If I know there’s going to be some wait time before this patch job is done, I would take it upon myself with others to see if we could develop a specific plan the quickest we possibly can.”
The soonest Cudahy could propose a new plan is in early March, during the next round of county committee meetings. How long O’Donnell Park would need to remain closed until redevelopment could begin is uncertain, he said, until he receives more input on the proposal. There also was uncertainty over whether county government would have to pay more money to support the new museum.
Cudahy wants to move the Milwaukee Public Museum from 900 W. Wells St. in Milwaukee to the O’Donnell Park property.
The O’Donnell Park property also is home to the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum, part of which is on top of the O’Donnell Park parking garage. Executive Director Fern Shupeck said she wants to see the parking structure reopen as soon as possible while the county contemplates the site’s future.
The museum’s numbers dipped immediately, she said, following O’Donnell Park’s closure when a 13 1/2-ton decorative concrete panel fell June 24, killing 15-year-old Greenfield native Jared Kellner as he headed toward Summerfest.
Attendance at Betty Brinn increased after U.S. Bank provided alternative parking, Shupeck said, but the plan is only temporary.
“Now it’s really cold, and even walking across the block pushing a stroller is a concern,” she said, “especially because our patrons are so young.”
The O’Donnell Park repairs are necessary, agreed Dan Keegan, director of the nearby Milwaukee Art Museum, but it is time the county starts seriously considering a better use for that land.
“I don’t think we should spend a nickel more than what it takes to get that garage open,” he said, “because I am of the belief it is not going to be there long term.”
Cudahy insisted any money spent on reopening O’Donnell Park is a waste of taxpayer money, however. The structure has been unsafe since it opened, he said, and it is an eyesore in the heart of Milwaukee.
But if his next proposal is not considered, Cudahy said, the plan could fall dead.
“I don’t get squelched very easily,” he said, “but eventually I will get discouraged and say, ‘Ok, maybe it’s time to live somewhere else.'”