Dramatic transformation on tap for lakefront

The downtown Milwaukee lakefront, the iconic front door and face of the city, appears to be on the verge of a dramatic and historic transformation.

A major corporate headquarters office tower, an upscale apartment and hotel tower, and a mid-rise office tower are all planned for the lakefront area. A recently announced plan to reconfigure the Lake Interchange would free up a three-acre lakefront site for another major development and a road extension could spur development in the Historic Third Ward. And plans are moving forward to renovate the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center.

If all of the developments come together the total investment could exceed $1 billion and could change the image of the city, said Dave Spano, immediate past president of the Italian Community Center, which is working to attract development to its Third Ward property near the lakefront.

“I really believe the impact of (all of the lakefront projects) changes the city at that point,” Spano said. “If all of them come together I think that downtown Milwaukee has a more metropolitan, newer feel that would draw people to the city.”

The development planned for the lakefront could provide a major psychological boost for downtown Milwaukee, and for the city as a whole, said Alderman Robert Bauman, who represents the downtown area.

“There is the practical impact of tax base, additional downtown employment and impact on the physical space,” Bauman said. “But I think the biggest impact is psychological. It sends a signal that there is confidence in downtown Milwaukee specifically, and in the city generally.”

Late last year Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. announced plans to tear down a 16-story, 450,000-square-foot building on its downtown Milwaukee campus and replace it with a $300 million, 840,000-square-foot, 30- to 35-story office tower. The company said it wants to create an iconic building and has hired prominent national architecture firm Pickard Chilton as the architect of record for the project.

“We are tremendously excited to be a part of this once-in-a-generation opportunity to redefine Milwaukee’s 21st century skyline,” said Jon Pickard, a principal of Pickard Chilton. “We envision a distinguished and elegant design that is respectful of this prominent and visible site.”

Two other major projects near the lakefront were announced last year. Barrett Visionary Development’s plans for The Couture, a 44-story building planned at the site of the Milwaukee County Downtown Transit Center (located southwest of Lincoln Memorial Drive and Michigan Street), which would have a 180-room hotel, 179 upscale apartments, a relocated and expanded Betty Brinn Children’s Museum and 40,000 square feet of retail space. And, Wauwatosa-based Irgens unveiled plans for a 17-story, 350,000-square-foot office building at 833 E. Michigan St., just west of the site for The Couture. The building would be anchored by the Godfrey & Kahn law firm.

But the recently announced plans to reconfigure the Lake Interchange could end up having the biggest impact of all on the lakefront area.

The $34 million project, split by the state and city, will move two Lake Interchange ramps to the south creating a three-acre development site near the lakefront along Lincoln Memorial Drive. Lincoln Memorial Drive will be extended south into the Third Ward, improving access to that neighborhood. The project also includes the transformation, and extension, of Clybourn Street into a boulevard and improved pedestrian access between downtown and the lakefront.

The three-acre development site could support a 750,000 to 1-million-square-foot mixed use development, said Richard “Rocky” Marcoux, commissioner for the Department of City Development. The site will not be available for development until the Lake Interchange reconfiguration is complete, which will be part of the Hoan Bridge reconstruction project. But the Hoan Bridge project has created a unique opportunity to enhance the area, Marcoux said.

“This is a generational opportunity to change the gateway of Milwaukee,” he said.

The three-acre development site is just south of the site for The Couture, a project that has been challenged by parks advocacy group Preserve Our Parks who says the site was originally part of Lake Michigan and that the state’s public trust doctrine forbids private development on the site. The state Department of Natural Resources says the site is not subject to the public trust doctrine, but Preserve Our Parks disagrees and has threatened legal action to stop The Couture project. Milwaukee County officials are preparing to take legal action to get a judge to declare the right to develop the site.

Preserve Our Parks leaders say they are not sure if the three-acre development site created by the Lake Interchange reconfiguration would be subject to the public trust doctrine.

“We’d have to look at that,” said John Lunz, president of Preserve Our Parks.

The plans to extend Lincoln Memorial Drive could provide an immediate boost to development in the Third Ward, particularly to the ICC site. Most of the development in the Third Ward has occurred in the western portion of that neighborhood. The eastern part of the Third Ward, closest to the lakefront and the Summerfest grounds, is largely vacant. That includes 12 acres of surface parking lot and vacant land at the ICC site. Last year the ICC selected a division of Marcus Investments LLC (an investment arm of the Marcus family) to do a feasibility study for a mixed use development of its property.

The study determined that retailers felt the ICC site had poor vehicular access, particularly to the freeway, Spano said. But the extension of Lincoln Memorial Drive should address that problem, dramatically improving access to the ICC site, he said.

“With this road project, we think we are probably over that hurdle,” Spano said.

Lincoln Memorial Drive will be extended south, from its current termination at ramps to and from the Hoan Bridge, to Chicago Street in the Third Ward. From there it joins the existing Harbor Drive path south to Polk Street.

“This will significantly increase the value of the ICC site,” Bauman said. “It brings traffic much closer to that site.”

The ICC is in discussions with Marcus Investments to extend its deal to continue due diligence and marketing work for development of the property, Spano said.

The extension of Lincoln Memorial Drive should also improve traffic flow to and from the Summerfest Grounds, said Michael Gardner, president of the Historic Third Ward Association.

“It’s going to help Summerfest immensely with traffic flow,” he said. “It will be a major street that will move a lot of traffic. I think this is going to be fabulous for the Third Ward.”

Summerfest has also been making improvements in the lakefront area. Last year Milwaukee World Festival Inc., which operates Summerfest, completed $35 million in improvements to the south end of the grounds, including the addition of the new BMO Harris Pavilion stage and a new south gate entrance. Milwaukee World Festival also acquired the former Charter Wire building, demolishing part of it to expand its parking area and is using the building for operations and storage purposes.

Meanwhile, plans to upgrade the decaying Milwaukee County War Memorial Center are moving forward. The Milwaukee Art Museum and county officials recently reached an agreement for control and improvements to the facility. The art museum will spend $15 million for renovations to its galleries in the building, and for other building improvements, and the county will provide $10 million for repairs and maintenance. The War Memorial Center, which consists of two buildings, has crumbling concrete and extensive leaks and is in dire need of rehabilitation and repair.

Road improvements and new pedestrian bridges planned by the city could improve access between the downtown central business district and lakefront amenitites including the Art Museum, the War Memorial, Discovery World and the Summerfest grounds.

“It knits together all of the pieces of this wonderful tapestry we have that have been disjointed,” Marcoux said. “This ties everything together, and it also projects future growth.”

All of the new buildings planned for the lakefront area could dramatically increase the amount of vitality and energy in an area that is busy a times, but has a large amount of under-utilized sites in prime position near the lake.

“I think it is going to enliven what has been pretty much a dead space since the Chicago and Northwestern (train) station moved out in 1964,” Bauman said. “It will knit together what were somewhat segmented entities. The sum of the whole will be greater than the sum of the individual parts.”

“What’s going on down (at the lakefront) is going to be very, very exciting,” said Rick Barrett of Barrett Visionary Development. “It always comes down to timing. All of the right things are in place. It just seems to be the right time.”

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