O’Donnell Park, located at the lakefront end of Wisconsin Avenue, is actually the top of a parking structure located on 910 E. Michigan Street. A clever example of urban green space, the structure offers 1,300 parking stalls in a high-traffic tourist zone, as well as a serene, grassy hangout nestled between the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum.
Its future, however, is up in the air. As part of ongoing renovations in the downtown area, Northwestern Mutual proposed to buy the O’Donnell Park structure from the Milwaukee County Parks Department for $14 million. Through the deal, Northwestern Mutual would take on the financial responsibility of structural repairs and improvements, which would remain open to the public, according to a company news brief released in July.
While it seems like a mutually beneficial deal on the surface, certain members of the Milwaukee County Board and county residents are discontent with the bid.
A public park has never been sold to a private entity in Milwaukee County before. To finalize the sale, a specific deed restriction, which designates the park as a public-only space, would need to be lifted for Northwestern Mutual to take control of the land. While the company reassured community members the park would remain open to the public under their ownership, local organizations like Preserve Our Parks worry the agreement will not be honored once the park passes into private ownership.
There is also the concern that the O’Donnell Park sale would set a precedent that would allow any county park to be up for grabs by a private entity. Parks on the lakefront such as Veterans, Juneau and McKinley, all in prime real estate locations, would be in danger of sale by the county and conversion into private property.
While taking down and reconstructing a building is possible without major restructuring, parks cannot be replaced so easily. The city cannot afford to lose its green space. Ongoing studies show the many benefits of having natural elements, such as parks, incorporated within cities. According to the University of Washington, the presence of parks provides a stress-relieving sanctuary in the middle of a bustling city. Green spaces promote increased physical activity and healthier cognitive and emotional development in people of all ages. Having a park in the vicinity inspires greater creativity and fosters improved productivity at work and school.
In its downtown location, O’Donnell Park offers the city many of these benefits. It adds diversity to the local landscape and offers a quiet space where downtown employees can take a walk and enjoy their lunch surrounded by nature. We may take its presence for granted now, but its absence will surely be felt if it is removed or significantly altered.
Of course, the Northwestern Mutual deal is not without some benefits. With the park under Northwestern Mutual’s ownership, more resources could be directed to the park’s maintenance, as it would no longer be sharing resources with other county parks. As part of the bid, the company pledged to commit over $6.5 million to immediately begin repairs on the park. In 2010, a falling slab of concrete killed a teenager inside the structure, so it would be beneficial to begin repairs as soon as possible with the more direct source of construction funding. However, it will not do much for the community if the park and structure are well-maintained but turned into private property.
It would be better to see Northwestern Mutual investing in the park’s maintenance rather than looking to buy it entirely. By making a donation for the park’s upkeep, it would demonstrate Northwestern Mutual’s commitment to the surrounding community. As a local resident who enjoys the lakefront, I would much rather be able to walk openly through O’Donnell Park—and maybe have to look at some sponsored Northwestern Mutual trash cans while I’m there—than find myself wondering if I am trespassing on a company garden, or worse, see O’Donnell’s natural haven turned into another corporate building.