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Milwaukee County faces rebuild if O’Donnell deal falls through

By: Beth Kevit//August 6, 2014//

Milwaukee County faces rebuild if O’Donnell deal falls through

By: Beth Kevit//August 6, 2014//

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People stop for lunch in O’Donnell Park while signage around a Northwestern Mutual construction project is visible in the background Thursday, July 10 in Milwaukee. Northwestern Mutual has expressed interest in purchasing O’Donnell Park from the city. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)
People stop for lunch in O’Donnell Park in Milwaukee recently while signage around a Northwestern Mutual construction project is visible in the background. Milwaukee County, which owns the park, could avoid an estimated $58 million parking garage reconstruction by selling the park to Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. (File photo by Kevin Harnack)

Milwaukee County would avoid an estimated $58 million parking garage reconstruction by selling O’Donnell Park to Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co.

Milwaukee-based Northwestern Mutual has explored buying the park plaza, pavilion and parking garage at 929 E. Michigan St. since at least 2012, when the company received a restoration consultant’s report on the parking garage’s deficiencies, including $7.64 million in repairs that should be done within nine years.

In July, Northwestern Mutual proposed buying the property for $12.7 million. The company is building a $450 million office tower across the street from O’Donnell and would use the parking garage for the 2,800 employees who could work in the new building.

If the deal falls through, Milwaukee County would be on the hook to eventually replace the parking garage, a project Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele would like to avoid, said Brendan Conway, Abele’s spokesman. The reconstruction would have to happen by 2035, according to a county report.

But several county supervisors have raised concerns about the sale, wondering if the park would remain public land. The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors is expected to consider the sale in September.

Supervisor Steve Taylor said he intends to vote in favor of the sale, especially because of the cost to rebuild the garage. The county’s annual capital improvements budget is about $36 million, he said, and that money covers only a small portion of work that needs to be done on the county’s roads and buildings.

“How can we afford $58 million?” Taylor said. “I don’t even know where we start because we have so many other issues.”

One expensive example is the county’s aging Safety Building in downtown Milwaukee, Taylor said. The building should be either gutted or replaced entirely, he said, and construction could cost about $70 million.

The county also faces an estimated $300 million in deferred maintenance throughout its parks system, and the proposed sale to Northwestern Mutual would yield $5 million that would be used to chip away at that backlog. The rest of the sale proceeds would be used to pay off Milwaukee County’s debt from building O’Donnell.

Tenant favors sale

The executive director of the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum, a tenant of the Miller Brewing Company Pavilion at O’Donnell Park, favors selling the Milwaukee property to Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co.

Northwestern Mutual, Milwaukee, in July proposed buying the O’Donnell property, which includes the pavilion, a parking garage and a public park, from Milwaukee County for $12.7 million.

The children’s museum rents about 25,000 square feet throughout the pavilion, including basement storage, exhibit space and offices, and has lease options to stay until 2033, said Fern Shupeck, the museum’s executive director. The museum pays about $60,000 a year in rent.

According to Northwestern Mutual spokesman John Gardner, the company would honor the pavilion tenants’ leases.

Shupeck said the children’s museum maintains its own space but relies on Milwaukee County to improve the pavilion’s common areas and parking garage. She said the county recently invested in repairs to the pavilion’s cooling system, hot water heater and roof, so the building meets the museum’s needs. But the parking garage could use some attention that Milwaukee County has not been able to afford, she said.

“It is not always kept as clean as we would like,” Shupeck said. “It is not always terribly well-lit, and that starts, we think, a visit to the museum off on the wrong foot.”

Northwestern Mutual has indicated that if the sale goes through, the company would repair leaks in the parking garage’s roof, improve lighting and repaint the structure. The company would reserve the majority of parking stalls for its employees, according to a Milwaukee County report on the sale proposal, but would set aside 200 spaces to be used by visitors to the Betty Brinn and Milwaukee Art Museum.

— Beth Kevit

Potential costs related to the parking garage are not a major factor in Supervisor Mark Borkowski’s support of the sale, he said, but the $58 million reconstruction estimate should not be ignored. Without the sale, he said, the county would go from turning a profit to facing a big expense.

“You want to talk about a 180,” Borkowski said. “It’s a night-day extreme.”

Still, the county does not have a guarantee that Northwestern Mutual would preserve O’Donnell as a park, said Supervisor Gerry Broderick, chairman of the County Board’s Parks, Energy and Environment Committee. The sale could set a dangerous precedent for selling parkland to private interests, he said.

“They could decide the life of O’Donnell is over as soon as they sign the paper,” Broderick said, “as soon as the ink is dry.”

Northwestern Mutual representatives have claimed the company does not want to build on the site, and the county report cites city of Milwaukee zoning regulations and deed restrictions that would limit private use of the parkland.

But supervisors should not rely on the city to oversee what should be Milwaukee County’s responsibility, said Supervisor Pat Jursik, chairwoman of the County Board’s Economic and Community Development Committee. She said she is waiting on a second opinion about the garage’s predicted revenue, among other things, before deciding whether she supports the sale.

But, she said, she is worried about the potential effects of selling parkland.

“I’m not going to base a decision about O’Donnell,” she said, “on what potential replacement costs would be.”

Keeping the garage, though, would cost more than just $58 million, Taylor said. The roof needs immediate repairs, the most pressing of which would require a $1.3 million replacement of a portion of the waterproof membrane between the garage roof and the park plaza above, he said.

“If you don’t sell it, then you better have a plan on how to address the future costs,” Taylor said, “and right now, I haven’t seen that.”


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