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The new 25-story glassy structure in front of Milwaukee City Hall stands out in downtown’s central business district.
BMO Tower stands at 790 N. Water St., displaying the BMO Harris Bank logo in large lettering against the building’s sail-like parapet. At its entrance is “Pensive,” a bronze sculpture depicting a contemplative W.E.B. Du Bois.
Stepping inside, visitors are greeted by 25-foot ceilings, walnut wood wall panels and marble tile in the lobby. The security desk is made of a Brazilian marble called Invisible Blue. And there’s a giant LED digital video board.
Tenants also have access to amenities such as a fitness center and a conference room that can seat up to 110 people.
But perhaps as noteworthy as the building’s painstaking detail is the journey its construction took to cross the finish line. The roughly 380,800-square-foot building was substantially finished last month and opened to tenants.
To reach this point, the BMO Tower project overcame a number of obstacles, including a lengthy construction of its parking structure, a flooding incident, a switch in general contractor and a global pandemic.
“It’s been quite a journey,” said Mark Irgens, chief executive officer and manager of Irgens Partners.
Putting up the tower
Milwaukee-based Irgens was selected to develop a new office building for BMO through a competition. Rather than just make a pitch for the new building, Irgens said, the firm also said it would buy and redevelop BMO’s existing building at 770 N. Water St., completed in 1967 for Marshall & Ilsley, which was acquired by Bank of Montreal in 2010.
“(The proposal) solved two things for (BMO),” Irgens said. “It solved their desire for a new facility. It also, rather than just sell a building and not have any sort of input on what happens to it, they have a commitment from a locally-based, quality real estate developer in Milwaukee to redevelop the old building.”
The project also included a replacement of the parking structure for the 770 building with enclosed climate-controlled parking. BMO Tower’s 653 parking stalls are located on floors three through 10.
Irgens, BMO and general contractor JH Findorff & Son broke ground for the project in November 2017, starting with the demolition of the 770 building’s parking structure. About a year and a half later is when the public learned of a major project challenge.
At a topping-off ceremony for BMO Tower in June 2019, Irgens remarked that construction of the new parking structure took about two and a half months longer than expected. It was scheduled to be done in December 2018, but took until March of 2019. However, other work was accelerated to meet the December 2019 project completion deadline.
Later, the completion date of BMO Tower was officially pushed back to this spring after a water-supply breach in November flooded the basement. The flooding damaged the building’s customized mechanical and electrical equipment, which then needed to be replaced.
“It was just a bad situation, and it took us a few days to figure it out,” Irgens said, adding that the new specialty equipment pieces took time to be made and delivered.
In January, Irgens announced it had terminated its contract with Findorff and named Pepper Construction the new general contractor for the project.
It wasn’t until late February when Irgens Partners could confidently say the building would be ready by April, due to the work of replacing the damaged equipment. Irgens gave credit to the contractors and manufacturers’ representatives involved in getting the new parts made and installed.
After all of this, as the BMO Tower was about a month away from its mid-April finish, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down a significant portion of commerce in the state and country. Construction was deemed an essential industry under Gov. Tony Evers’ “Safer at Home” order, so the project continued but with precautions that added another challenge.
“And that was really hard, and we were really living from half-day to half-day to figure out what can we do, what can’t we do, how do we provide a safe work environment,” Irgens said.
Working with Pepper, the construction team adopted a number of new safety measures. Beginning March 16, Pepper issued new guidance to all field personnel and required all common areas to be disinfected daily. Hand-washing stations were placed on every floor, and hand sanitizer and work protocol signs were distributed throughout the building.
Then two workers on the project were diagnosed with the coronavirus in late March, which prompted closures of the job site and “top to bottom” cleanings, according to Irgens Partners.
Through all this, and “by some miracle” made possible by the hard work of the project team, the BMO Tower was able to open, Irgens said.
“While it wasn’t accomplished like I wanted it to be accomplished, it was there and we’re open for business,” he said.
All those challenges are not visible in the end product, even through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows that cover the 328-foot tall building.
And Irgens appears confident in tackling the next challenge: trying to fill the remaining office and retail space amid the coronavirus outbreak.
The BMO Tower presents an opportunity for companies adjusting their office environments to match a world altered by the pandemic, he said.
In his pitch to prospective tenants, Irgens points to the touchless elevators and the building’s high-quality HVAC system. What’s more, the roughly 135,000 square feet of contiguous available space can be designed to adhere to workplace safety and social-distancing guidelines, he noted.
“We’re really serious about providing a safe, comfortable environment for folks to be in, and it allows occupiers to adapt to the new normal quite easily,” he said.
Irgens said there is still a market for new office space. While some tenants are choosing to stay put, others for various reasons simply have to find a new space. He added that Irgens Partners is still making deals, though not as much as before the outbreak.
So far, the BMO Tower is 55% leased to four tenants: BMO, Michael Best & Friedrich LLP, Heartland Advisors Inc. and Andrus Intellectual Property Law LLP.
Michael Best and Heartland Advisors both said they have moved into their new offices. Andrus’ lease does not begin until later this year.
Nicole Best, senior vice president, chief financial officer and chief administrative officer of Heartland Advisors, said the firm was officially moved in on April 20.
“We are thrilled with the space,” she said.
Heartland Advisors, though classified as an “essential business” under the “Safer at Home” order, has most of its 28 employees working from home. Best said no more than five workers are physically in the office on any day. While the firm prefers its employees collaborating under the same roof, it will take its time bringing workers back to the office, she said.
A spokesman with BMO said the bank is in the process of moving into the new building.
“The date we had planned for the move into our new BMO Tower was pushed back due to the COVID-19 situation,” said Patrick O’Herlihy, spokesman for BMO Harris. “The latest update is that we’re in the process of moving the belongings of our employees into the new tower, with the help of a moving service. To assist with the transition, a handful of employees in a few key functions are starting to work in the new tower; however, the vast majority are still working remotely.”
Meanwhile, Irgens said available ground-floor retail space includes an area of BMO Tower at the southwest corner of East Wells Street and North Broadway, and the “connector building” between the BMO Tower and 770 North, the new name for the 770 N. Water St. building.
Irgens said the connector area will likely feature a coffee shop that serves breakfast and lunch items, along with a tenant lounge for office employees.