Surrounded by Wauwatosa homes, and with a lovely pavilion for gatherings and open space for recreation, small Center Street Park seems a natural community center for neighborhood residents.
But there are two problems. One, like most metro parks, Center Street is owned by the cash-poor Milwaukee County Parks Department. And two, Center Street Park is actually in Milwaukee, not Wauwatosa.
Because of some long-ago and likely forgotten annexation negotiation, Center Street Park is ringed on three sides by Wauwatosa residences, between 64th and 65th streets east and west and Center and Clarke streets north and south, but belongs properly to Milwaukee.
That one-block bite out of a Wauwatosa neighborhood wouldn't matter too much if all other things were equal. But Milwaukee County and the City of Milwaukee have bigger fish to fry than to worry much about one of the smallest parks in the system.
Memories of the way we were
Enter Ald. Bobby Pantuso, who grew up in the neighborhood before becoming one of its local legislators. Pantuso said he remembers playing ball in Center Street Park in the summer and skating there in the winter, when it was flooded as an ice rink.
It's been many years since ice has been made, and the ball diamonds are, you might say, "fields of dreams" – you have to sort of imagine there are basepaths out there among the dandelions.
"I came to realize that Center Street Park is the park no one loves anymore," Pantuso said. "It's got a great building. It's got a great lawn area. But no one uses it. No one wants it."
Pantuso wants it for Wauwatosa. Inspired by big things happening on North Avenue, which many had written off years ago, Pantuso thinks Center Street Park could be adopted as a boon to neighborhood engagement a bit farther north.
Already, Pantuso said, the Wauwatosa police respond to crimes in the park and actually would like to be able to do more community service there in order to help curb crime in our city's neighborhood around it.
Pantuso would like to see Wauwatosa take over control of the park and institute some low-cost, high-return investment in civic pride – make it a centerpiece on Center Street.
Precedents for parks partnerships
In his wildest dreams, Pantuso would like to see Milwaukee turn municipal jurisdiction of the park over to Wauwatosa, but that's the stickiest wicket. Most municipalities are loathe to give up property, even when it is tax-exempt, as public parks are.
"I know that's a long shot," Pantuso said, "but it's possible. There has been some talk in the past. There are some blocks on the northwest side where the homes are in Milwaukee but the alleys are in Wauwatosa, and there's been talk of a swap of some kind.
"Maybe we could do some kind of exchange. But even if we can't, there are other ways to approach it."
Even without a formal exchange of jurisdiction, Pantuso said, it's possible that Wauwatosa could lease the park from its rightful owner, Milwaukee County. And there are precedents for that, although they don't involve another city.
"We lease Webster Park from the county," Pantuso pointed out, "and Tosa Pool is leased from the county. There's no reason Center Street Park could not be leased from the county."
Pantuso envisions – or "reimagines" – Center Street Park as a year-round gathering place for north East Tosa neighbors, and the fact is there are no other public parks in the area.
"There is room there for two ball diamonds and probably two youth soccer fields," he said. "I'd like to bring back the ice rink in the winter, and also see the pavilion utilized more."
East Tosa resident, architect and community organizer Ed Haydin has gotten on Pantuso's bandwagon for the park and is working on low-cost designs for revitalization. He's also doing some legwork.
"I checked with the Parks Department on pavilion rentals," Haydin said. "It's $65 an hour, and it was rented exactly one time last year.
"And that's too bad, because it's kind of a gem."
The pavilion is in excellent shape, too, compared to many park facilities, Haydin and Pantuso said.
"It's a good building, a nice space, and Parks did just put a new roof on it last year," Pantuso said. "Its centerpiece is a beautiful stone fireplace, and I can't imagine that people wouldn't want to use it if they knew about it."
Community support kicking in
Pantuso has enlisted the support, he said, of Mayor Kathy Ehley and Common Council colleagues including his companion in the 5th District, Joel Tilleson. He's talked at length with the County Parks Department and says it is getting on board.
"Tosa Baseball is turning kids away because they don't have enough diamonds," he said. "The Kickers would love to have two more youth fields, which I'm sure would fit in those outfields."
Pantuso said he had endorsements from Tom Ertl, the chairman of the Wauwatosa Board of Parks and Forestry Commissioners, because of the need for more soccer space, as well as from Tosa Baseball board members.
Beyond that, Pantuso imagines his ice rink coming back and the pavilion becoming a local gathering place again, with community groups ringing the fireplace.
And then there's kickball.
"I'd have to believe that some of the adult groups in the area would love that," Pantuso said.