Plans to remake Milwaukee’s lakefront have been in the works for years, and while they still face hurdles, the inclusion of a new streetcar line landing in the lobby of the 44-story Couture tower has some residential developers excited about the possibility of a downtown resurgence aided by public transit.
The Couture was first announced in 2012 as a hotel and condo project. Developer Rick Barrett and designers Rinka Chung Architecture nixed the hotel from the project, which would be among the tallest buildings in Wisconsin. New renderings show a lakefront stop for the Milwaukee streetcar loop in the Couture’s lobby—a 20,855-square-foot public transportation concourse connecting passengers and passersby to bus stops and to the lakefront via a pedestrian bridge over Lincoln Memorial Drive.
Downtown development in Milwaukee was largely stagnant after 2004, but along with plans to remake the lakefront War Memorial building and overhaul Northwestern Mutual’s corporate headquarters to the tune of nearly half a billion dollars, the market appears to be on the rebound. The average sale price of downtown condos is also rising.
Barrett is not the only downtown developer seizing on plans to expand Milwaukee’s planned streetcar system. Avenir, a mixed-use apartment building at East Lyon and North Jefferson streets, will quietly advertise its location near the approximately 2-mile long route when it begins marketing the units, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. They will do so quietly because developer Stewart Wangard does not want to appear too bullish on a project that has yet to break ground.
In August, the Wisconsin Public Service Commission ruled it was unreasonable for utilities and their ratepayers to foot the bill for up to $65 million in utility relocation required by streetcar construction—a decision likely to set off a legal challenge from Mayor Tom Barrett, whose administration has lined up $54.9 million in federal aid and $9.7 million from a tax incremental financing district to build the route.
It is not the only legal hurdle in the way. Part of the rationale for the Couture’s public transit accommodations is an ongoing debate about the Public Trust Doctrine, which some local park advocates point out precludes private development on the lakefront—a stipulation they say applies to the Couture. But a state decree passed last year says the building site is on the private side of that line.
The Couture also includes the redevelopment of the downtown transit center. Barrett is negotiating to buy the county-owned site at a discount, and in exchange has offered to develop 81,560 square feet of public space that would include a 29,385-square-foot park on the top of the development’s four-level parking structure, as well as the transit connections mentioned earlier.