County Board committee endorses property sale deal for The Couture

The Milwaukee County Board’s Economic and Community Development Committee today voted to endorse a purchase option agreement for the sale of the Downtown Transit Center site to developer Rick Barrett.

The committee approved the measure with a unanimous 7-0 vote. The deal is still subject to full County Board approval.

Under the proposed deal, Barrett would pay $500,000 to purchase the Downtown Transit Center site, located southwest of Lincoln Memorial Drive and Michigan Street near the lakefront.

County officials want to sell the property, currently used for bus storage and bus transfers, for private development. In 2012, the county selected a proposal for the site from Barrett’s firm,  Barrett Visionary Development, which wants to build The Couture, a 44-story, 302-unit apartment tower, on the site. The proposed $122 million project also includes 50,000 square feet of retail space and 81,560 square feet of public space, including a rooftop park, a public transportation concourse, a streetcar stop, a walkway to the lakefront, a bike sharing station, public parking and a public plaza. City officials have proposed $17.5 million in tax incremental financing to pay for the public spaces in the project.

Members of the County Board’s Economic and Community Development Committee praised The Couture project.

“This will not only move downtown Milwaukee forward, but more important it will create jobs for the community,” said Supervisor David Bowen. “This project will also add the tax base and economic development in our downtown. I’m excited that this project will have a great impact on the entire community.”

“Two thousand family-supporting careers will be created through this project,” said Supervisor Khalif Rainey. “This project stands to re-define and redevelop Milwaukee’s skyline and future. Furthermore, it will be a significant addition to the tax base. Supporting this project was easy for me because I believe in a strong and vibrant downtown, one that is a destination not only for the community, but for those visiting our community.”

“Over the past several months the residents of my district have expressed time and time again that they want to see a growing downtown, one that offers good jobs and good destinations,” said Supervisor Martin Weddle. “The Couture has my support, and I’m excited for the entire community.”

However, the project has been stalled by objections raised by parks advocacy group Preserve Our Parks. The group says most of the site was originally part of Lake Michigan (but was later filled in) and therefore the state constitution’s public trust doctrine forbids private development there. Despite legislation, signed into law earlier this year by Gov. Scott Walker, that established the historic shoreline to the east of the site, Preserve Our Parks has threatened to file a lawsuit to stop the project. That threat of litigation has prevented the county from obtaining legal title to the site, which would be transferred to Barrett Visionary Development.

Milwaukee County officials are now planning to take legal action to settle the public trust doctrine issue once and for all. Last week the County Board’s Judiciary, Safety and General Services Committee approved a plan to spend $100,000 to hire Milwaukee law firm von Briesen and Roper SC to take legal action to establish the  development rights for the site.

“We’re trying to move forward with the (purchase) option, but we’re also trying to clear title,” said Milwaukee County corporation counsel Paul Bargren. “I do feel from a legal standpoint this is a good time to do what we are doing.”

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