A vision that sparked downtown development

Northwestern Mutual Tower & Commons

Last updated on February 2nd, 2023 at 12:42 pm

In December 2012, Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. announced it would build a new office tower at its corporate headquarters campus in downtown Milwaukee.

The news was one of the most significant announcements in the company’s history, and one that also caused a ripple effect throughout downtown that has lasted for nearly five years.

Northwestern Mutual Tower & Commons

Northwestern Mutual’s decision to build the $450 million, 32-story tower in Milwaukee let the public know the company believes in the city. It also sent a signal to the development community that after one of the worst recessions in history, it was OK to begin to invest and build again.

There have been several key developments over the past few years in Milwaukee, but Northwestern Mutual’ s new tower is probably what has spurred a great deal of the construction now taking place downtown, said Rocky Marcoux, commissioner for the Milwaukee Department of City Development.

“Northwestern Mutual is one our great corporate citizens,” Marcoux said. “They have been great corporate citizens to the City of Milwaukee for the many decades they’ve been here.”

Eric Christophersen, Northwestern Mutual’s vice president of facilities, said the company’s decision to build what is now one of the state’s largest buildings, coming in at 1.1 million square feet, was not based solely on Milwaukee, but rather on its business needs.

That said, the company is happy to be a new addition to the city’s expanding skyline.

“The fact that we have been credited for spurring more development is very flattering, but what we did was for business purposes,” Christophersen said. “Still, we cannot wait for The Couture project to begin and are thrilled about the new Bucks arena and the new Westin hotel opening. It is a great time to be in Milwaukee.”

The decision to build a new office building downtown versus in Franklin, where Northwestern Mutual has its other corporate campus and more than 2,000 employees, was a confluence of events that began with its aging and deteriorating East Building, constructed in 1978, at the downtown campus.  The new tower is located at the southeast corner of North Cass and East Mason streets where the former 500,000-square-foot East Building once stood.

Northwestern Mutual was founded in Janesville in 1857 and moved to Milwaukee in 1859. The company built its iconic East Wisconsin Avenue office building more than 100 years ago.

“We had an opportunity to take a step back and think about what we wanted to do: fix our aging building or, perhaps, consider something different,” Christophersen said.

The executive team wanted to build a headquarters tower that would make a statement. They also wanted it to be structured and designed for a workforce of the future.

Attracting and retaining millennials and being able to offer employees state-of-the art technology were top of mind when designing the building.

“It’s not just about building office space to conduct business in, but strategic thinking about how we do business and how do we build out a space in a way that we maybe haven’t thought about in the past,” Christophersen said.

The decision to build a new tower in downtown Milwaukee came after years of strategic planning, Christophersen said.

The construction of the new building preserved 1,100 Northwestern Mutual jobs in downtown Milwaukee and also created space for approximately 1,900 new ones, according to the company.

Since construction began three years ago the project has also created more than 2,600 construction-related jobs.

Because the city committed $54 million in tax incremental financing for the project, a quarter of the contracts have had to be awarded to local companies eligible under the city’s Small Business Enterprise Program and at least 40 percent of the labor hours have to be worked by city residents who are eligible under the Residents Preference Program.

Northwestern Mutual has consistently met or exceeded those goals.

Before entering the building from Wisconsin Avenue, employees and the public are greeted by the Northwestern Mutual Gardens, a 4.6-acre landscaped space filled with gardens and trees, tables, benches and walkways.

One of the first things people will notice when they enter the building itself is the tremendous amount of light that shines through, Christophersen said.

The Commons, which is a three-story, two-block long common area, will be open to the public. It includes a Starbucks coffee shop, as well as a visitor’s center and museum with interactive digital displays where people can learn about the company’s 160-year history.

On July 23, Northwestern Mutual employees got their first look at the new office space and their reaction was remarkable, Christophersen said. Employees will begin moving into the building this week.

There are no private offices located along the exterior walls, to allow the maximum amount of light into the building. And there are very few walls in general, Christophersen said.

“I’ve been in the workforce a lot of years, and this is a place where when we are looking to hire people they will say, ‘I would love to work here,’” Christophersen said. “We have a beautiful open air café, public spaces, a fitness area and a very welcoming environment. It is like nothing I have ever seen before, certainly in this state.”

In addition to building its new office tower, Northwestern Mutual is also in the process of constructing a 34-story mixed-use residential tower at 777 N. Van Buren St., adjacent to its downtown campus. The building also has a significant amount of structured parking for the company’s employees. Northwestern Mutual originally wanted to purchase O’Donnell Park for its parking needs, but the Milwaukee County Board voted against the sale in 2015.

The new residential tower, to be named 7Seventy7, features 25 stories of one-, two- and three-bedroom luxury apartments on top of an eight-story parking garage, which will help address the company’s workforce parking needs when it opens in summer 2018.

But Christophersen said the timing of the residential tower in conjunction with the company’s new downtown headquarters was coincidental. The development is more of an investment opportunity for Northwestern Mutual Real Estate, the company’s real estate arm. It’s one of the largest real estate investors in the country, with investments in commercial mortgages and equity investments across all major property types, including apartments, office, retail and industrial, he said.

“That (building) could have been built in Milwaukee, San Francisco, New York or anywhere,” Christophersen said. “The timing was just right and ironically, it is so close to our other project it has been tied into what we are doing. But it is totally unrelated.”

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