A proposed change to the state budget would restore the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors’ control over sales of O’Donnell Park in downtown Milwaukee but not of nearby land set aside for the proposed Couture development.
The state Senate voted 17-16 Tuesday in favor of a motion that would undo some of the changes that the state’s budget committee had proposed making last week to the Milwaukee County Board’s authority over sales of county-owned land and other matters. The original proposal would have taken authority over the sale of O’Donnell Park, the Couture site and other land away from the members of the County Board and shifted it to County Executive Chris Abele.
Even so, Abele would not have had free rein to broker any sort of land deal he might have favored. Sales would also have needed approval from county comptroller Scott Manske, as well as a resident of the county who had experience in real estate law and was not an elected official. This third person would have been appointed by the Intergovernmental Cooperation Council – a body composed of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Abele, and the executive officer of every city and village within the county.
The changes considered on Tuesday, which were added to the state budget, would undo the executive board’s loss of control over sales of park land, including O’Donnell Park, which lies along Lake Michigan in Milwaukee’s downtown. Even so, Abele would still gain more influence over deals involving other sites, including the one designated for the Couture project. That proposed 44-story, $122 million building is to be put up at the site of an underused transit center that serves as a hub for public buses in the city’s downtown. Eric Peterson, a lobbyist for Milwaukee County, said it was important to strengthen Abele’s authority over the sale of that land because of a recent lawsuit that could still interfere with the possible deal.
A public-interest group, Preserve Our Parks, has long argued that selling the site to Couture developer Rick Barrett would violate the Public Trust Doctrine, a provision of the state constitution mandating that lakes and rivers remain open to the public. The transit center sits on former lake bed that was filled in by railroad companies.
Representatives of Preserve Our Parks have publicly stated that they would sue the county to halt the sale and redevelopment of the property — endangering the developer’s ability to get title insurance. The county countered with a lawsuit of its own meant to settle the dispute.
A federal court sided on June 26 with the county. Even so, Preserve Our Parks could appeal the ruling.
Barrett has an option to buy the site marked out for the Couture. Peterson, though, said that the option will eventually expire if Barrett chooses to not exercise it – something that could happen if the legal questions surrounding the deal continue to remain unresolved.
Should the option expire under those circumstances, Peterson said, Abele will want the authority to set up the deal again quickly.
Preserve Our Parks also was against a proposed sale of O’Donnell Park to Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co., which had eyed the site as part of its plans to up put a $450 million headquarters building nearby. Despite Northwestern Mutual officials’ promise to keep the park grounds open to the public and Abele’s support, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors voted 9-8 against the sale.
Since rejecting the sale to Northwestern, the Board of Supervisors has voted 12-5 in favor of a resolution offering to sell or lease O’Donnell Park to the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Along with restoring the county board’s control over possible sales of O’Donnell Park, the motion approved by the state Senate on Tuesday would take away the much greater authority the original proposal would have given Abele over the procurement of goods and of contracting with the county. For the changes to become law, they – along with everything else in the state budget – must still be passed by the full Legislature and signed by Gov. Scott Walker. Follow @TDR_WLJDan