County considers legal action to spur The Couture

Milwaukee County officials might take a legal action to move forward with redevelopment of the Downtown Transit Center property, located southwest of Lincoln Memorial Drive and Michigan Street on Milwaukee’s lakefront.

The legal action would be an attempt to secure the development rights for the property and to transfer title of the property to developer Rick Barrett of Barrett Visionary Development, who has proposed a 44-story tower for the site with a hotel, upscale apartments and retail space.

County officials wanted to attract development to the property, which they felt could be put to higher and better use than its current use as a bus storage and transfer facility. Last year they issued a request for development proposals for the site and selected Barrett’s project.

But members of parks advocacy group Preserve Our Parks objected saying the site was once part of Lake Michigan and the group argued that a private development of the site would violate the state’s public trust doctrine.

The Department of Natural Resources reviewed the matter and said the site was not subject to the public trust doctrine. However, members of Preserve Our Parks said they disagreed with the DNR and threated to file a lawsuit to block The Couture. That threat of a lawsuit has cast a cloud over The Couture project as negotiations to sell the property to Barrett have dragged on.

County officials are considering taking a legal action to clear up the public trust doctrine issue once and for all. County Executive Chris Abele’s office is requesting County Board approval for an additional $100,000 to $140,000 for legal services to be provided by Milwaukee law firm Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren, which would handle the matter for the county. The county previously entered into a $40,000 contract with the firm for legal advice on the public trust doctrine.

County officials have not stated what specific legal action they plan to take.

“It is necessary to obtain legal certainty concerning Milwaukee County’s legal right to develop the property as intended,” said Julie Esch, Milwaukee County director of operations in a inter-office memo to Milwaukee County Board Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic. “It is recommended that litigation be authorized.”

The request for the legal funds will be reviewed by a joint meeting of the Committees on Judiciary, Safety and General Services and Economic and Community Development on Thursday.

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