County plans legal action to advance The Couture

Milwaukee County officials are planning to take legal action to move forward the proposed Couture development, which is planned for the site of the county’s Downtown Transit Center, located southwest of Lincoln Memorial Drive and Michigan Street at the lakefront.

In a recent memo to County Board Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic, county corporation counsel Paul Bargren is requesting $100,000 in county funds to pay Milwaukee law firm Von Briesen and Roper, s.c. to “carry out the litigation strategy,” to establish development rights for the site.

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. City officials have proposed $17.5 million in tax incremental financing to pay for the public spaces in the project.

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.

County officials are moving forward with plans to sell the property to Barrett Visionary Development and are also preparing a legal strategy to establish development rights for the site in an attempt to finally end the standoff with Preserve Our Parks.

“I foresee the potential for a litigation strategy related to obtaining a judgment establishing the county’s title and rights to the subject property and the county’s ability to proceed with the option to purchase and development agreement,” Bargren’s memo to Dimitrijevic states. “This litigation would proceed only if and when (the sale and development agreement with Barrett Visionary Development) is approved by the (County) Board.”

In December, the County Board will consider the proposal to sell the Downtown Transit Center site to Barrett Visionary Development for $500,000, a discounted price that is essentially a subsidy for the project. The cost to demolish the Downtown Transit Center is estimated at $2 million, which will be paid for by Barrett Visionary Development.

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