Despite legislation, parks group threatens lawsuit to block The Couture

Parks advocacy group Preserve Our Parks this week sent a letter to Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele threatening to file a lawsuit to prevent development of The Couture, a proposed 44-story mixed use building, on the current site of Milwaukee County’s Downtown Transit Center, located southwest of Lincoln Memorial Drive and Michigan Street near the lakefront.

“Preserve Our Parks will see any sale by Milwaukee County for private development of the eastern two-thirds of the area now occupied by the Transit Center as an actional violation of the Public Trust Doctrine and the Wisconsin Constitution,” Preserve Our Parks president John Lunz wrote in the letter Abele. “As you know, we have a history of taking action to preserve the free, open and clear nature of Milwaukee’s lakefront and to protect the public rights in what was once part of Lake Michigan. We stand ready to do so again.”

Developer Rick Barrett plans to build a 44-story mixed-used tower on the site with upscale apartments, a hotel, restaurants, retail space, and possibly a new home for the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum and a new performance venue for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

But the Couture project is opposed by Preserve Our Parks which says that much of the site is filled lakebed and therefore subject to the state’s public trust doctrine. Therefore private development should not be permitted on the site, the group says.

Preserve Our Parks has suggested that Barrett move The Couture to a different site, but Barrett says he has no desire to do so.

The state budget, signed into law on Sunday by Gov. Scott Walker, includes a provision that establishes the Lake Michigan shoreline in Milwaukee. The measure is an attempt to end the dispute about development rights for the Downtown Transit Center site. The budget provision sets the Lake Michigan shoreline based on an agreement between the city of Milwaukee and the Chicago and Northwestern Railway Company in 1913. That means the site for The Couture would not be subject to the public trust doctrine.

Abele spokesman Brendan Conway said the county executive considers the public trust doctrine question for the Downtown Transit Center site a dead issue now that the state budget has been signed with language clarifying the Lake Michigan shoreline in Milwaukee.

Barrett declined to comment for this story.

But Preserve Our Parks says the state budget language violates the state constitution.

“The rights granted to the public with respect to the lakebed lands by the Wisconsin Constitution cannot be cancelled by the Legislature,” Lunz said in the letter to Abele. “The provisions in the new budget bill relating to Milwaukee’s lakefront are null and void…actions to prevent violations of the (Public Trust) Doctrine can be brought in state court or in federal court…”

Milwaukee County is progressing with negotiations to sell the Downtown Transit Center site to Barrett, Conway said.

“We’re close to reaching that agreement,” Conway said. “We believe The Couture project as currently designed is the best option to move forward to create jobs and grow the tax base.”

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