Construction work for The Couture could begin in 2016

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Now that the legal battle over the Downtown Transit Center site is over, construction work for The Couture could begin in 2016, said developer Rick Barrett, the owner of Barrett Lo Visionary Development.

Demolition work on the Downtown Transit Center could begin next year and Barrett said he hopes to complete that work by the start of Summerfest 2016. Construction for the 44-story luxury apartment building could also begin in 2016, he said. It will take 32 months to complete the construction, he said.

The $122 million Couture project would have 302 apartments, about 50,000 square feet of retail space, public parking, transit connections and numerous public amenities. It would be built on the site currently occupied by the Downtown Transit Center, a bus storage and transfer facility, at the southwest corner of Lincoln Memorial Drive and Michigan Street, near the lakefront in downtown Milwaukee.

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Officials for Milwaukee County, which owns the property, feel the site is underutilized and want to sell it for a private development. In 2012 they chose Barrett and his proposal for The Couture. But the project has been delayed by threats of litigation by parks advocacy group Preserve Our Parks, which said the site was originally part of Lake Michigan and therefore private development there is forbidden by the state’s public trust doctrine.

Legislation signed by Gov. Scott Walker established the historic shoreline to the east of the property and a Milwaukee County circuit court judge’s ruling earlier this summer cleared the way for private development on the Downtown Transit Center site.

Preserve Our Parks president John Lunz announced Tuesday that the group would not appeal the circuit court judge’s ruling. That decision by the group ends the legal fight and should allow the county and Barrett to obtain title insurance on the property and move forward with the sale of the property to Barrett so that The Couture development can finally proceed.

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“This is an important day for Milwaukee County,” Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele said Tuesday. “I want to thank Preserve Our Parks for their decision that will now allow The Couture project to move forward quickly. The Couture is a truly historic project that will change the skyline of Milwaukee, put thousands of people to work, and greatly improve the public’s access to our lakefront.”

Barrett said he hopes to complete the purchase of the site and obtain free and clear title for the property within 60 to 90 days.

Barrett has an option to purchase the site from Milwaukee County for $500,000. Under that agreement he would purchase the property as is, which means his firm will have to pay for the multi-million dollar cost of demolishing the Downtown Transit Center facility.

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The delays to The Couture caused by Preserve Our Parks threats of litigation have slowed planning for the project. A significant amount of design work still needs to be done, including updating plans to for the downtown streetcar route through the building.

“We need to get (architect Matt) Rinka drawing,” Barrett said.

Barrett also needs to complete work to secure financing for the project. He said several potential lenders have expressed interest in financing the project.

“We’ll be fine (with financing the project),” he said. “That is not going to be a problem at all.”

The Couture project could create a domino effect for development of nearby properties. The Lakefront Gateway Plaza project will include pedestrian bridges connecting the lakefront to The Couture and O’Donnell Park. The site south of The Couture site, which will be opened up by the reconfiguration of the Lake Interchange, is where Johnson Controls Inc. is considering plans for a new office tower, which could also be connected to The Couture. The 2.5-acre potential Johnson Controls site also could have been affected by the shoreline public trust doctrine issue.

“We are thrilled to be able to move forward with The Couture, partnering with the city and county to transform this site into a vibrant public space that improves access to the lakefront, creates thousands of new jobs and adds a signature building to Milwaukee’s skyline,” Barrett said Tuesday. “Today is a big step forward for our lakefront, our city and our community.”

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