Anonymous map mailings prompt public trust doctrine review for The Couture

Mysterious packages of maps mailed from an anonymous sender to reporters, environmental advocates, elected officials and others, have prompted a formal objection by a parks advocacy group of a proposed lakefront tower and a review by the state Department of Natural Resources.

The maps indicate that a large portion of the Downtown Transit Center site, located southwest of Lincoln Memorial Drive and Michigan Street in downtown Milwaukee, was originally in Lake Michigan and is now filled lake bed and therefore subject to the state’s public trust doctrine which preserves public access to waterways and severely limits development in filled lake beds.

Barrett Visionary Development wants to build a 44-story building, called The Couture, on the downtown Transit Center site with a 180-room hotel, 179 upscale apartments, and restaurant and retail space. Barrett was one of four developers that responded to a request for information from the county seeking development proposals for the site. The County Board’s Economic and Community Development Committee voted Monday to allow the county executive’s office to begin negotiations with Barrett for the project. The full County Board is expected to vote Thursday on that measure.

But parks advocacy group Preserve Our Parks is objecting to the project saying it should not be allowed because it would violate the public trust doctrine.

Last year, the Long Range Lakefront Committee recommended that the county seek development proposals for a higher and better use for the Downtown Transit Center’s prime site near the lakefront.

Also last year, Department of Natural Resources acting southeast regional director John Hammen informed county officials that the Downtown Transit Center site was “not on lakebed and therefore is not subject to the public trust.”

But the mysterious packages of maps sent around the community in recent weeks prompted Preserve Our Parks to hire a surveyor to determine the location of the original shoreline. That review determined that 75 to 80 percent of the Downtown Transit Center site is filled lake bed and subject to the public trust doctrine, said John Lunz, president of preserve our parks.

Lunz said Preserve Our parks did not send out the mysterious maps about the site.

“We don’t know who it was,” he said. “This is just a guess but it might be somebody that doesn’t want their view obstructed by this (development).”

U.S. Bank, which owns the nearby U.S. Bank Center, at about 600 feet tall the tallest building in the state, did not send out the mysterious maps about the Downtown Transit Center, said vice president Joe Ullrich.

“U.S. Bank is not opposed to the Barrett project at all,” Ullrich said.

Wauwatosa-based Irgens, is working on an 18-story office building project on the site of the U.S. Bank Center annex parking structure, located just west of the Downtown Transit Center. But, “Mark (Irgens) is not opposed to the Barrett project,” Ullrich said.

When asked if Irgens sent out the mysterious maps, spokesman Eric Nelson said, “not that I’m aware of.”

Eric Nitschke, the DNR’s southeastern Wisconsin regional director, said the agency is looking into the new information provided by the maps to determine if the Downtown Transit Center property is filled lake bed and is subject to the public trust doctrine. The information was provided to the DNR by Preserve Our Parks.

Preserve Our Parks says no private development should be allowed on land subject to the public trust doctrine, Lunz said.

“We don’t want it to be a habit that people violate the statute and get away with it,” he said.

However, DNR officials declined to say what type of development would be permitted on a property that is subject to the public trust doctrine.

“We are reviewing the additional information (submitted by Preserve Our Parks) for its factual contents and will determine if it is something that should be taken into consideration,” said DNR spokesman Bill Cosh.

Despite the jobs and tax base that could be created by the proposed $125 million The Couture development, Preserve Our Parks would prefer that the site remain in use as the Downtown Transit Center, which has a public park space on top of the building, Lunz said. If the building is torn down it should be replaced by a park or other public use, he said.

However, the motivation of county officials to have the facility torn down is to attract a major development at the site.

Barrett Visionary Development owner Rick Barrett said The Couture will have numerous public amenities including a public atrium and elevated walk-ways to adjacent properties connecting the site, and others, to the lakefront. The hotel, stores and parking in The Couture will all be accessible to the public, he said.

“It is serving the public good,” Barrett said.

But a private development should not be committed on the site, Lunz said.
Lunz would not say if Preserve Our Parks will file a lawsuit if the DNR allows a private development on the site.

“I can’t say,” he said. “We have not discussed this as a board.”

Barrett said he will wait to hear what the DNR determines about the matter.

“We have to leave it up to the experts at this point,” he said.

Barrett declined to say if The Couture could be altered to be built on the western portion of the Downtown Transit Center site, if it is determined that the eastern portion of the site cannot be developed.

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