Milwaukee County supervisor wants to explore options to ‘moving on’ from Couture developer

Developer Rick Barrett says he's ''fully committed' to project

The Couture
A rendering of The Couture, courtesy of Rinka.

Last updated on September 10th, 2019 at 02:00 pm

At least one Milwaukee County supervisor says he wants to look into possibly moving on from the Couture project, which is proposed at a formerly county-owned site near Milwaukee’s lakefront.

His comments come as project developer Barrett Lo Visionary Development works to secure its last piece of equity to finance the project.

Rick Barrett, founder and chief executive of Barrett Lo, took questions from the County Board’s Community and Economic Development Committee on Monday morning. Barrett assured them he’s “fully committed” to developing a $122 million, 44-story luxury apartment tower at the southwest corner of Michigan Street and Lincoln Memorial Drive.

“I understand it’s taken more time than we would all like to have that happen, but good things take time,” he said. “And this is really good for us.”

But Barrett’s update was not enough to quell the concerns of Supervisor Anthony Staskunas. He told Barrett that he would be asking officials what options might exist for the county to select a different developer or project at the site.

“We (the committee) are going to be in closed session in a few minutes, but one of my questions is going to be, to do my due diligence, ‘What can we as a County Board do to move on from Barrett,'” he said.

The Couture project, which would also include commercial space and a station for the county’s proposed bus rapid-transit system and the city’s streetcar line, would be built on the site of the former county-owned Downtown Transit Center.

Barrett acquired the property from Milwaukee County in 2016.

The county has until the end of 2020 to either deliver transit amenities to that site or pay back a $6.7 million grant it had received from the Federal Transit Administration to originally build the transit center.

Aaron Hertzberg, Milwaukee County director of economic development, wrote in a report to committee members that the county and city “are in discussions with the FTA regarding the status of the project and whether an extension of the timeline to deliver transit amenities on site is appropriate.

“It’s a difficult time period, I want to be candid about that,” Hertzberg said on Monday. “I think everybody going into the project has had, and I would say from our perspective, continues to have high expectations for what can be created on the site and that Mr. Barrett can help us get across the finish line and build a fantastic project.”

Staskunas said he was in favor of the Couture when it was first announced, and that he still likes the proposal itself.

“I liked it back in the beginning, it’s exciting,” he said. “Yes, it will be a real key to our lakefront and our downtown, and I liked everything about it. But now, I’m having my doubts … about whether this is actually going to come to fruition or not.”

The Couture hit a milestone in November when Barrett announced after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban DevelopmentĀ asked the developer to submit additional information for its loan guarantee application.

But since then, and after the developer requested a number of extensions to the HUD application deadline, he announced in July his firm will voluntarily allow the HUD application deadline to expire as he sought to secure the last $15 million of equity on the project.

To assist Barrett Lo in those efforts, Barrett said he has hired Milwaukee-based R.W. Baird & Co. Inc. to seek out investors. He told committee members he’s confident he and Baird will obtain the remaining necessary investment, but didn’t provide further specifics.

Barrett said the Couture is a difficult project because of, among other things, its sheer size. It would be the tallest residential building in the state. Barrett said there are no comparisons in Milwaukee that he can point out to investors.

“The first thing I’m doing when I’m meeting with investors (is) selling the city of Milwaukee, the county of Milwaukee,” he said. “And you know, we haven’t had projects to point to and say, ‘Well you see that 40-story (building) down the block? That succeeded.'”

Joel Aizen, Barrett Lo chief financial officer, told the committee that HUD will provide roughly 60% of the financing on the project. Another senior lender is providing an additional 8%, while another 15% comes from city tax increment financing. The remaining portion of the financing would come from investor equity.

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Alex Zank
Alex Zank covers commercial and residential real estate for BizTimes. Alex previously worked for Farm Equipment magazine and also covered statewide construction news at The Daily Reporter. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he studied journalism, political science and economics. Having grown up in rural western Wisconsin, Alex loves all things outdoors, including camping, hiking, four-wheeling and hunting.