Milwaukee officials expect ‘good news’ on Couture project by end of June

Alderman wants to separate streetcar extension from project

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

Last updated on May 14th, 2020 at 10:59 am

Milwaukee city leaders say there will be some “good news” on the long-anticipated Couture project by late June or early July at the latest.

But at least one Common Council member said the city has waited long enough, and has promised to put forward a directive that would ultimately sever ties between the development and an idle downtown streetcar extension.

For years, Milwaukee-based Barrett Lo Visionary Development has planned to construct a $122 million, 44-story residential tower near the city’s lakefront. The luxury high-rise is to go up at the site of the county’s former Downtown Transit Center, southwest of Michigan Street and Lincoln Memorial Drive.

Lori Lutzka, development projects manager with the Milwaukee Department of City Development, told members of the council’s Public Works Committee at a Wednesday hearing the department receives weekly updates from the development team. She said she and others are confident the project is making significant progress.

“I believe as long as we see progress, as long as the conversations are going in the right direction every week, we believe we should continue on,” she said. “However, there needs to be a conclusion to this, and I can’t tell you today when that conclusion is. However, we feel at the end of June, early July, we will have something positive to report.”

That sentiment was backed by Jeff Polenske, commissioner of the Department of Public Works.

“The end of June, early July is a good time frame for us,” he said. “We feel confident that’s the kind of time frame that we’re going to have some good news to share. We have had very close conversations with all our partners, and I think everybody is satisfied with that.”

Rick Barrett, founder and chief executive of Barrett Lo, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

“We believe the city and county deserve an extraordinary building on this extraordinary site. We are not willing to settle for less for the community we love,” he said in an emailed statement forwarded by a spokesman on Wednesday. “We continue to work tirelessly to complete the last piece of the financing puzzle to make this iconic, transformative building a reality.”

Barrett previously said he was $15 million away from securing all the needed equity on the project. He hired Milwaukee-based R.W. Baird & Co. to help him obtain it from investors.

The project is also relying on a loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. A HUD spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ald. Robert Bauman, who represents downtown Milwaukee, said at the committee hearing that the city’s planned lakefront streetcar line extension should still be untethered from the Couture project — even if the project is announced to be moving forward later this summer.

He noted the line extension is about three-quarters finished, and now has to wait for the Couture to move forward before the “loop” at the development site can be installed. He said due to the Couture construction schedule, it could be another 18 months before the extension is up and running.

Bauman proposed pushing the extension further east, across Lincoln Memorial Drive and to turn around at Discovery World. He said it would actually be preferable to do so anyway.

“This obstinance is baffling that we don’t go that route,” he said.

Polenske said it would cost the city an additional $10 million to do that.

Bauman said that, with or without any “good news” on the Couture, he will be bringing forward a resolution when the committee next meets to direct DPW to move forward with alternative plans with the lakefront line.

Bauman also said that, through his conversations with the commercial real estate community, it seems other developers are skeptical the Couture project could even work.

“No developer in Milwaukee thinks this building will be built,” he said. “Nobody, and they’ve got very specific reasons for that, which make a lot of sense in terms of the building design, the amount of rentable space, the mix of units, on and on and on.”

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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.

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