County files lawsuit in attempt to advance The Couture

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele announced that the county filed a lawsuit today with the Wisconsin Supreme Court seeking a ruling on the Lake Michigan shoreline boundary in downtown Milwaukee.

The City of Milwaukee is joining in the action.

The move is an attempt to establish the development rights for 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.

The county selected a proposal for the site from 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.
The County Board last week approved a purchase option to sell the property to Barrett Visionary Development for $500,000. The purchase option has an 18-month term that Barrett Visionary could extend for up to a year.

However, The Couture project has been stalled for about two years 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 Couture project. That threat of litigation has prevented the county from obtaining legal title to the site, which would be transferred to Barrett Visionary Development.

Now county officials have decided to file their own lawsuit in an attempt to once and for all establish development rights for the site in hopes of allowing The Couture project to finally move forward.

“The Legislature has now twice codified the lake bed boundaries that have been relied upon for more than a century of real estate development in Milwaukee,” Abele said. “Preserve Our Parks claims the Legislature’s action is unconstitutional. On this significant question of statewide concern, the Wisconsin Supreme Court should make the final decision, and the county’s suit takes the issue there directly. Assuming Preserve Our Parks’ interest is deciding the question – and not merely delay – we assume they will join in asking the Supreme Court to hear the matter now.  The county invites any other interested parties to join the action. Not only will this request in front of the Supreme Court determine important legal clarity for the Downtown Transit Center project, it also creates certainty for future downtown developments and prevents the need for future unnecessary delays. When developers are considering significant investments in our community, anything we can do to clarify the process makes us a more attractive place to do business and create jobs.”

“Today’s action by the city and county is a critical step forward to clear title to the Downtown Transit Center site and re-confirm the historic line for the lakefront used by the city, county and state for more than a century,” said Barrett Visionary Development owner Rick Barrett. “We look forward to resolution of this issue, so we can continue our partnership with the county and the city 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.”

Preserve Our Parks board member Charlie Kamps said his group is confident that the eastern two-thirds of the Downtown Transit Center site will be protected from private development by the public trust doctrine.

“It will be nice to get it settled,” he said.

Kamps questioned whether the state Supreme Court was the appropriate venue to address the legal matter.

“I don’t know if the (state) Supreme Court is a good place to have a trial of the facts,” he said.

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