County resolution would move new lakefront tower project forward

The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors is working through the stalled progress of the development of “The Couture” in downtown Milwaukee by scheduling a special joint committee meeting to consider a resolution that would move the project forward.

The special joint meeting of the Committees on Judiciary, Safety and General Services and Economic and Community Development will take place Thursday, Feb. 7, at 8 a.m. at the Milwaukee County Courthouse.

At the meeting, the committees are expected to approve a resolution that allows Milwaukee County to pursue a clear land title on the property, a critical step in the negotiations and development process.

The Couture would be built at the current site of the Downtown Transit Center southwest of Michigan Street and Lincoln Memorial Drive.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has determined that the site in question is not subject to the public trust doctrine. To affirm that determination, the board is seeking a legal ruling in the matter so that negotiations with the developer, Barrett Visionary Development, can proceed.

“This board is being proactive with development, and we look forward to this project’s ultimate success,” said Supervisor Mark Borkowski, chair of the Committee on Judiciary, Safety and General Services.

Rick Barrett, founder of Barrett Visionary Development, said, “I am pleased that the county board is taking strong action to clear title on the Downtown Transit Center property by getting a declaratory judgment to free the transit center of any doubt or questions as to whether the Public Trust Doctrine might apply to the land. This action will allow us to move forward with the project in partnership with Milwaukee County. I want to thank the chairwoman and the County Board for this important action and I look forward to continuing to work together to make this important project a reality.”

Barrett has proposed to develop the 44-story building, which would include a 180-room hotel, 179 upscale apartments and 40,000 square feet of retail space.

County officials decided that the Downtown Transit Center was not the highest and best use for the site, which is located adjacent to the lakefront near the Milwaukee Art Museum, Discovery World and the north gate of the Summerfest grounds.

The county sought development proposals for the site and selected Barrett’s project. Barrett has been in negotiations with Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele’s office for a purchase and development agreement for the site.

However, the parks advocacy group Preserve Our Parks objected to The Couture project, saying the site was originally part of Lake Michigan and is now on filled lake bed. The group said private development should not be allowed on that site because of the public trust doctrine of the state constitution, which preserves public access and use of all waterways.

In 2011, DNR officials told Milwaukee County officials that the site is not subject to the public trust doctrine. After another review, prompted by Preserve Our Parks, the DNR last year again said the site is not subject to the public trust doctrine.

However, members of Preserve Our Parks said they might file a lawsuit to challenge the DNR’s ruling, and the threat of that lawsuit has hung over the project for months.

“Our interest is – and always has been – forward-motion with respect to the land, the public and economic development,” said Supervisor Patricia Jursik, chair of the Committee on Economic and Community Development. “This step will still allow for a fair hearing with regard to the public trust issue.”

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