Milwaukee Art Museum makes offer to purchase O’Donnell Park property

Museum would assume $28.8 million in liabilities in non-cash transaction

Rendering of O'Donnell Park overlooking the Milwaukee Art Museum.

The Milwaukee Art Museum today announced it has made an offer to acquire the O’Donnell Park property and its multi-level parking garage from Milwaukee County.

Under the terms of the proposal, the museum would assume $28.8 million in liabilities in a non-cash transaction in which the museum will take ownership of the O’Donnell Park property.

The deal also includes a transfer in ownership of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Kahler Building (inclusive of the new east addition) and the space within the Saarinen Building, currently occupied by the museum, to the Museum.

The Milwaukee Art Museum will assume full responsibility for the county’s current 84-year obligation for capital maintenance and repair for those facilities, valued in today’s dollars at $28.8 million of county-taxpayer obligations.

“We think this proposal is good for county taxpayers and good for the community,” said Dan Keegan, Milwaukee Art Museum director. “The proposal relieves county taxpayers of a long-term commitment, provides permanence and stability for the museum, and ensures that future generations will have public access to the lakefront for years to come.”

In addition, the museum will assume the cost burden for structural repairs and maintenance needed to maintain the O’Donnell Park property. The museum said today that it has plans to transform the garage into a “state-of-the-art parking facility” after making all deferred repairs, including replacing a rubber membrane on the roof of the parking garage and plaza that has been leaking. Costs of other deferred maintenance are estimated at an additional $5.4 million. The museum will also install automated prepay booths and provide electronic signs, more lights and 24-hour security.

Aesthetic improvements will be made to the public park area and will be determined once designs for other lakefront projects are finalized, including the Lakefront Gateway, The Couture and a footbridge over Michigan Avenue connecting The Couture and O’Donnell Park.

Some county officials praised the proposed deal today.

“We’re grateful to the Art Museum for working with us to arrive at what we all agree is now both a good deal for a great institution and a good deal for County taxpayers,” said Chris Abele, Milwaukee County Executive. “As each institution reviews this deal we are confident they will do so with an eye towards sustainability for all.”

“This partnership preserves public ownership of the land for future generations, ensures continued public access and exercise of free speech while maximizing the economic value to the taxpayer today,” said Theodore A. Lipscomb, Sr., Milwaukee County Board Chairman.

The O’Donnell Park property includes an upper plaza with two pavilions and two separate open spaces at the east end of Wisconsin Ave. The three-story Miller Brewing Pavilion is home to the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum and Coast Restaurant operated by the Zilli Hospitality Group. Zilli also has office space in the Promontory Pavilion.

The museum said it will honor those existing leases as part of the transaction.

The museum also said it will create a capital reserve fund with revenue generated from the O’Donnell parking facility that is expected to cover the costs of maintaining and repairing all structures of what will now be a museum campus of buildings including the garage.

Milwaukee Art Museum Director Dan Keegan said the partnership between the museum and the county is historical and solves several problems including providing more public access to O’Donnell Park and relieving the county of a tax burden.

Keegan said the museum’s future vision to work with Milwaukee engineering firm Graef to build a public urban sculpture garden at the park will make the park a destination.

“We are creating a campus that includes three museums – Discovery World, Betty Brinn Children’s Museum and the art museum and providing access to parking for generations to come,” Keegan said.

Graef  was also the firm selected to design the Lakefront Gateway Plaza project on Milwaukee’s lakefront.

Pat Kressin, Graef principal, said one of the ideas for the Lakefront Gateway project is to let water be the guide when designing the project. With the O’Donnell project, art will be the guide, Kressin said.

“We are bringing up that sense of mystery and following the great amenities all the way to the lakefront,” Kressin said. “We’re also brining art up into the city.”

The terms of the proposal will go before the Milwaukee County Finance Committee on Thursday, March 10 and before the County Board for a vote on Thursday, March 17.

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Andrew is the editor of BizTimes Milwaukee. He joined BizTimes in 2003, serving as managing editor and real estate reporter for 11 years. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, he is a lifelong resident of the state. He lives in Muskego with his wife, Seng, their son, Zach, and their dog, Hokey. He is an avid sports fan and is a member of the Muskego Athletic Association board of directors.

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