Shoring Up

Shoring Up

To those who have braved at least one winter in the upper Midwest the prospect of “year-round vibrancy” on Milwaukee’s blustery lakefront might raise an eyebrow. But that’s exactly what developer Rick Barrett hopes his mixed-use tower near the Cream City’s Lake Michigan waterfront will make possible.


The Couture will be a 44-story, $125 million hotel and residential tower at the eastern-most plot of downtown Milwaukee’s East Michigan Street. Barrett won a bid to redevelop the downtown transit center, whose proximity to the Milwaukee Art Museum and lakefront festival grounds have led some to call it one of the most valuable properties in Wisconsin.

Once viewed as potential competition for the Couture, plans for another nearby development have instead coalesced with that project into a cause for optimism along an underused corridor of Milwaukee’s lakefront area. At 18 stories the comparatively squat 833 East complements the Couture in massing, as well as in the economic impact projected by its developers. If the $100 million 833 East hits its 2015 opening target it will be the first new office tower downtown since 2004.

Fourth-floor skywalk connections could link the Couture to 833 East and to the existing U.S. Bank Galleria, including the restaurants therein. U.S. Bank is the largest office high-rise in the state. It will connect one million square feet of office space to 833 East and, in turn, to the pedestrian environment that its developer, Mark Irgens, hopes the project will help foster.

“I think the Couture is beautiful in its vision and could be devilishly difficult in its implementation,” said CBRE Executive Vice President Bill Bonifas, who is handling leasing for 833 East. The projects won’t be realized for a few years, and both need to secure more pre-leasing.

Together the two projects constitute a bet that growth along Milwaukee’s downtown corridor will continue its progression eastward, but demand for new office buildings elsewhere has slowed somewhat. “The trend line,” Bonifas said, “in terms of recent development, was bound to grab the lakefront.”

Nearby 875 East Wisconsin and redevelopment in Northwestern Mutual’s downtown campus are among the recent downtown projects that make the lakefront positioning of the Couture and 833 East seem like part of a logical progression. Santiago Calatrava’s celebrated Milwaukee Art Museum is inseparable from the city’s architectural profile. With the museum undergoing an expansion itself, it may be high time for the city to build out its lakefront area.

“Our goal is to provide the city with an elegant, state-of-the-art high-rise that attracts forward-thinking business to the area that will help ultimately help grow our economy,” said Eric Nelson, spokesman for Irgens. Law firm Godfrey & Kahn has expressed interest as 833 East’s anchor tenant. The proximity of the Couture and its luxury restaurant, Nelson said, will only benefit 833 East and downtown in general.

But the two projects did not gel at first. With each looking to boast panoramic lakefront views, the designers of the Couture and 833 East had to resolve sightline issues without compromising the integrity of each individual project.

That process was apparently successful. George Meyer, CEO of Kahler Slater, the firm that designed 833 East, said full-height glass and cantilevered, column-free corners open up the office space both to views of Lake Michigan and to collaborative floor plans currently popular in modern office design.

Barrett previously worked with the Couture’s architecture firm Rinka Chung on The Moderne condo and rental apartment tower nearby. “The Moderne is a shining example of their ability to design statement buildings that are both aesthetically elegant and modern, while being simple and functional,” Barrett said. Both Milwaukee natives, principal Matt Rinka and Barrett share a sense of ownership over the future of their hometown’s lakefront.

Though initially thought to run afoul of Wisconsin’s public trust doctrine governing the use of former lakebed property, the Couture has won support from city and county officials—in part due to Barrett’s upfront promise to meet local and minority hiring goals for jobs onsite. But final approval from the County Board and the Common Council is still pending.

Both projects would represent a substantial evolution for the Milwaukee skyline and, if its developers’ projections hold true, help sustain a lakefront culture already nourished by Henry W. Maier Festival Park, Discovery World, and the city’s iconic art museum. Barrett said the project is part of his mission to “put Milwaukee on the map as a vibrant, global city.”