Northwestern Mutual could go big downtown

Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. is considering plans to replace a 16-story office building on its downtown Milwaukee campus with a significantly larger office building, according to sources.

“It would be substantial,” said Ald. Michael Murphy, chairman of the Common Council’s Finance Committee. “I do think it would be fair to say (the new building will be significantly larger than the existing structure),” said Murphy, who declined to elaborate on the company’s plans.

Last fall, Northwestern Mutual announced that it plans to tear down the 451,964-square-foot, 34-year-old building on its downtown campus. The company said the building needs extensive and costly maintenance and cannot serve its long-term needs. The company says it will make a decision by the end of this year as to how it will replace the building. It is considering three options: building a new building at its downtown campus, building a new building at its Franklin campus, or building new facilities at both campuses.

“I’m hearing their focus is downtown and they want to make a statement,” one commercial real estate source said.

A spokesman for Northwestern Mutual declined to comment on the company’s building plans.

“We’ve said all along that our campus planning is a long-term process, and we don’t comment on speculation that arises from it,” said Northwestern Mutual spokesman Mark Lucius. “The process is ongoing. We do expect to have something to say about our long-term plans later this year.”

One developer said he has seen plans for a building on Northwestern Mutual’s downtown campus that is about 10 stories taller than the 16-story building that the company plans to tear down. Another commercial real estate source said he heard the company was considering plans for a 1 million square foot facility, which would be similar in size to the 42-story U.S. Bank Center, the tallest building in the state, located across Wisconsin Avenue from the Northwestern Mutual downtown campus.

One source said the new downtown building would have six stories of underground parking and six stories of above ground parking.

“They’re not going to take the building down and put something wimpy up there,” one source said. “They’re going to go vertical. I don’t think they want to be the quiet company.”

One commercial real estate source said the company’s downtown campus is the best location in the state for an office building development. The site is perched atop a bluff along Lake Michigan at the end of Wisconsin Avenue near the Calatrava addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum.

“What a spectacular office site,” the source said. “It would be a pity to under-develop it.”

Department of City Development spokesman Jeff Fleming declined to disclose specifics about discussions with Northwestern Mutual about the firm’s downtown plans.

“Our discussions with Northwestern Mutual are continuing,” he said. “We’re having productive discussions with them.”

Some sources say the company also plans to build a new building in Franklin.

Franklin city planning manager Joel Dietl said Mayor Tom Taylor speaks with Northwestern Mutual representatives on a regular basis. Taylor could not be reached for comment.

In addition, numerous sources say Northwestern Mutual wants to include the O’Donnell Park parking structure in its future plans for its downtown campus. The company’s downtown plans include a desire to purchase or gain control of the O’Donnell Park parking structure, sources say, which is owned by Milwaukee County.

Brendan Conway, spokesman for Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, declined to comment on the matter and said any negotiations with the county and a company would be kept confidential.

“(Northwestern Mutual) wants additional parking for their employees and customers,” Murphy said. “The details of what that means, that’s all open.”

O’Donnell Park is located across Wisconsin Avenue from the Northwestern Mutual downtown campus.

Several commercial real estate sources said that Northwestern Mutual is unhappy with how the O’Donnell Park structure is being managed by the county. Some people are reluctant to park in the O’Donnell Park structure because they don’t think it is safe, some sources said.

“It’s so poorly run by the county,” one source said. “There’s homeless people sleeping in there.”

Also, commercial real estate sources said the facility is in poor condition. In 2010, a 13-ton panel fell off the façade of the parking structure, killing a 15-year-old boy and injuring two others. Last year the county installed new panels on the façade of the structure.

The county expects to collect the same amount of parking revenue this year, $610,387, from O’Donnell Park that it received annually prior to the panel collapse, Conway said.

One commercial real estate source said Northwestern Mutual wants to purchase O’Donnell Park from the county to make sure that it was operated better and maintained better. The company would also be able to use meeting space in the facility. Another source said Northwestern Mutual wants to demolish O’Donnell Park and build a new parking structure there with an office building on top of it.

However, County Supervisor Pat Jursik, who chairs the County Board’s Economic and Community Development Committee, said any development proposals for O’Donnell Park will be controversial with supervisors that will be concerned about a loss of parking spaces for the public and the parking revenue for the county’s Parks Department.

Meanwhile, Northwestern Mutual is moving forward with plans to purchase and renovate a 153,720-square-foot office building at 733 N. Van Buren St., near its downtown campus. The company plans to add a skywalk connecting the downtown campus to the building, which it is buying from Van Buren Management owner Joel Lee. The building will provide space for Northwestern Mutual employees while it replaces the downtown building that it plans to tear down.

“We will essentially gut the interior of the building to bring the design and finish of the space up to a standard consistent with our other downtown workspaces,” said Lucius.

The building that the company plans to tear down houses 1,100 employees. The company said it could house 1,000 of those employees in the Van Buren Street building and its other downtown buildings. The remaining 100 employees could be moved to the Franklin campus. n

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