County Board panel again backs Hammes development in Park East corridor

The Milwaukee County Board’s Economic and Community Development Committee this week voted unanimously to reaffirm its support for a a multi-building office space development that Brookfield-based Hammes Co. wants to build in the Park East corridor.

Hammes Co. has preliminary plans to build three office buildings on the vacant area northwest of Water Street and Knapp Street in downtown Milwaukee. A 0.37-acre portion of the site is owned by Milwaukee County, a city street runs through the site, and the remaining portion of the site is privately owned. The city street would be vacated, under the development plan.

Rainier Properties LLC has tried for years tried to develop an office building with a Marcus Theatres movie theater complex on the site. But that project has never moved forward as Rainier, led by Bruce Westling, was unable to attract office tenants.

The proposed Hammes Co. development for the site could include the relocation of the company’s corporate headquarters to the site, which would bring about 60 jobs downtown. Other details of the project are still being developed.

The proposed Hammes development was approved by the Economic and Community Development Committee and advanced in September to the full County Board, where it got sidetracked when Supervisor Theo Lipscomb raised concerns about Hammes Co. founder and managing partner Jon Hammes, alleging that in 2006 Hammes made a disparaging remark to an activist about low wage workers.

Hammes’ attorney denied that allegation.

“Jon would never say that,” said his attorney, Foley & Lardner partner Marc Marotta.

After Lipscomb raised the allegation, the proposal to sell the county-owned site to Hammes was sent back to the committee.

“I’ll leave (the Hammes allegation) alone,” Lipscomb said before the committee. “It stands in the record.”

Milwaukee Department of City Development Commissioner Richard “Rocky” Marcoux appeared before the panel and urged supervisors to approve the Hammes project. The site has been vacant for more than 8 years, since the Park East freeway was torn down, and it has significant environmental contamination that must be removed and infrastructure that will need to be relocated, both of which will add to the cost of a development project there.

“This is a very challenging site,” Marcoux said. “I believe this is our best shot at getting this site developed. If we can’t get it done with Hammes and the prowess of their development team, I don’t see too much of a future for this site.”

City officials are considering plans to provide “substantial assistance” to help Hammes develop the site and overcome the site challenges, Marcoux said.

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