Common Council meeting tomorrow to fix issue with Couture contract

Resolution would address concerns from city attorney

Downtown aerial view from Lake Michigan. Rendering: Rinka
Milwaukee skyline rendering with The Couture on the left side. Rendering: Rinka

Last updated on March 19th, 2021 at 11:15 am

The latest snag with the Couture project may be resolved tomorrow.

Milwaukee Common Council members are scheduled to meet tomorrow morning in a special session to consider a modification to the city’s agreement with Couture developer Barrett Lo Visionary Development.

The Couture is a $188 million, 44-story luxury apartment tower proposed at 909 E. Michigan St. The city has a development agreement with Barrett Lo because it is assisting the project through tax incremental financing.

A project long plagued with problems, the latest emerged earlier this week when City Attorney Tearman Spencer revealed he would not sign the latest changes to the agreement.

The new agreement holds Barrett Lo responsible for repaying up to $1.4 million in federal grant money that the city may be forced to pay back if construction deadlines are missed on a related streetcar line extension. It also stipulates the developer will donate $100,000 to a city anti-displacement fund.

It was the latter change that Spencer took issue with. The $100,000 donation was added at the committee level through an amendment offered by Alderman Robert Bauman.

Spencer wrote to council members that Bauman overstepped his authority as an alderman in drafting that change. Moreover, the city attorney must first approve any agreement with a consideration over $25,000 before other city leaders can act on it.

Mayor Tom Barrett also refused to sign the new agreement.

The proposal being considered Friday should resolve the city attorney’s and mayor’s concerns, according to Common Council President Cavalier Johnson.

It would place the developer’s $100,000 contribution in escrow pending review of a special counsel that is acceptable to both Johnson and Spencer, Johnson said in an email.

Depending on the outcome of the counsel’s findings, the contribution would then be made to the fund, which is administered by MKE United, or returned to the developer.

“In essence, the point of contention has been resolved and after so much work by the parties involved, I fully expect for both Milwaukee’s mayor and its city attorney to hastily affix their signatures where appropriate so that The Couture can go from delayed development to development under construction,” Johnson wrote.

Bauman said Barrett and Spencer have both indicated they would sign the agreement if the council approves the latest changes. But he wasn’t ready to call it a done deal yet.

“We’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out if they’ve fulfilled their promise,” he said.

Bauman said Barrett Lo chief executive Rick Barrett is frustrated with this recent spat.

While the issue shouldn’t ultimately affect the project timing, Bauman said, it put the Couture in peril before this latest compromise.

Bauman also took issue with Spencer’s refusal to sign the agreement to begin with.

“The short answer is he’s breaking the law by not signing the documents,” he said.

Bauman argued that Spencer only needs to give initial approval to real estate deals, not something like a contract modification.

A spokesman for Barrett Lo did not provide a comment on the matter. Spencer did not immediately provide a comment.

Read the March 8 issue of BizTimes Milwaukee here:

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Alex Zank covers commercial and residential real estate for BizTimes. Alex previously worked for Farm Equipment magazine and also covered statewide construction news at The Daily Reporter. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he studied journalism, political science and economics. Having grown up in rural western Wisconsin, Alex loves all things outdoors, including camping, hiking, four-wheeling and hunting.

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