New Commerce Bluff condos hit the market


Weather, technical challenges prolonged construction timeline

The second phase of Cornerstone Property Development’s Commerce Bluff condominium project in downtown Milwaukee is complete and has been listed with Katie Falk of Realty Executives.
The condos list for between $277,000 and $545,000 – a higher price point than the first phase, due to increases in construction costs and larger square footages.
Units on the first and second floor of the new building span between 1,500 and 1,700 square feet of space. Third floor units offer between 2,100 and 2,200 square feet.
All units but one include two parking spaces in the development’s underground garage.
The condos, built into the bluff just south of the 300 block of Reservoir Avenue, offer a commanding view of the downtown, including a marsupial bridge the city plans to install under the Holton Street viaduct.
A marsupial is a hanging bridge attached to the main bridge above. The marsupial bridge will allow pedestrians and bicyclists to cross the river beneath the main structure. According to sources close to the bridge project, construction on the bridge could start in the spring of 2003.
The spectacular view, according to developer Tim Dixon, is the upside of building adjacent to a bluff. The downside is that the construction and engineering phases bring added challenges that would scare off the faint of heart, he said.
Chief among those challenges was stabilizing the bluff once the initial cut was made to make room for the structures. Excavation for the two 12-unit, three-story buildings was completed separately, with the first phase reaching completion in early 2000. However, the second building is set back further into the bluff than the first, necessitating a deeper cut.
"You end up taking some of the vegetation out to put in engineered fill for the foundation," Dixon said. "You can’t cut 60 feet into a bluff and not have protection for workers and the public."
The bluff was less stable than usual during the first phase of construction due to heavy rains in the summer of 2000, according to Dixon.
"We had a small landslide that confirmed what we had to do," Dixon said.
The city provided some grant money from a bluff stabilization fund, but according to Dixon, it didn’t cover the cost. To fasten the soil on the steep slope, contractors used soldier piles and lagging, a system that involves pounding steel piles into the ground to anchor wood beams lengthwise along the bank.
The retention system was designed and constructed by the Edward E. Gillen Co., Milwaukee.
"We were in there working about a month all total," Tom Ritzer, an engineer-estimator with Gillen, said. "The nature of the soils was a challenge. We had a lot of boulders we had to remove as we drilled down for the placement of the soldier piles. It was a challenge. We get in there and work right along with the excavators."
The top of the slope was stabilized with the GeoWeb cellular confinement system, manufactured by Presto Products, Appleton. The GeoWeb system looks like a massive accordion of high-density polyethylene strips, which unfolds into a honeycomb-shaped grid that holds soil or other fill.
Unlike residential developments that take place in suburban cornfields, as earth was moved on this project, contractors hit a number of interesting structures, including an old box culvert from perhaps 100 years ago.
As sections of the bluff were removed, boulders were pulled from the site and shipped away on barges on the Milwaukee River, Dixon said.
"You try to get to virgin soil," Dixon said. "There wasn’t any virgin soil, so we had to bring in gravel."
The gravel, compacted and tested for load bearing capacity, formed the foundation for the buildings. Other complicating factors included the fact that the site is long and narrow, which meant space to stage materials and equipment was at a premium. With the bluff behind and Commerce Street in the foreground, there wasn’t much room to work.
Due to the difficulty of the job, Dixon said construction went six months beyond schedule. In construction, as in other industries, time is money, and Dixon ran into budget hassles with his construction management firm, Bukacek Construction of Racine. The Jansen Group picked up where Bukacek left off after Dixon exhausted the contracted number of project hours with the Racine firm.
"We were the CM, and had so much time to be on site," Bukacek executive vice president Gregg Thompson said. "Tim had the choice to keep us there or release us at that point."
According to Thompson, the job was a study in the unexpected turns construction projects can take.
Thompson said the discovery of various buried substances and masonry complicated matters, as did the steady flow of water from the bluff.
"There was a lot of water flowing out of the bluff that created difficulties," Thompson said. "We had water in the underground parking. There was a constant flow of water coming out of the hill and through the site. After the bluff was stabilized – after the mud slide occurred – then it seemed to be under control."
According to Thompson, by the time Bukacek left the project site, structural, electrical, mechanicals and plumbing work was completed, and drywall was mostly completed.
"All that was left was to trim out spaces inside and start finish work," Thompson said.
"I think the biggest thing a project like that points out is how important it is to include contingency in a budget," Thompson said, adding that his parting with Dixon was amicable, despite a construction lien the company filed on the property in August. "On that particular site, you may not have been able to anticipate enough contingency, but every project has to be analyzed for risk and appropriate contingency should be a part of it."
Despite the challenges of the project, Dixon said he would consider a similar undertaking in the future.
"I would build on another bluff," Dixon said. "I think I am smarter now."
But even on the first time around, Dixon did have the foresight to leave himself flexibility in pricing the condos. Construction on both buildings started with no presales. The lack of presales may have prevented the project from being a financial wash, according to Dixon.
"The problem with presales is that you don’t have any control if you go over your costs," Dixon said. "It was our decision between me and our banker to do it this way."
Dixon worked with Ken Schneider of Wauwatosa Savings Bank on the project.
"If we had been locked in (on price), that would have been a disaster," Dixon said.
According to Wauwatosa Savings Bank executive vice president Rob Perry, the bank relies more on client history and market conditions than presales.
"Depending on the numbers on the project, we don’t automatically demand a number of presales," Perry said. "We have had a long term relationship with Cornerstone and Tim Dixon. He had shown us this kind of product before, and they sold very quickly. His past track record with us was the single biggest determiner."

Jan. 10, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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