Preserve Our Parks gives up its fight against The Couture

Last updated on May 15th, 2019 at 05:05 pm

Parks advocacy group Preserve Our Parks announced today that it will not appeal a circuit court judge’s ruling that allows private development at the site of the Downtown Transit Center near the lakefront in downtown Milwaukee.

The group’s decision to give up its years-long fight over the issue clears the way for Barrett Lo Visionary Development to move forward with its plans for The Couture, a 44-story luxury apartment tower with retail space.

“Preserve Our Parks will not appeal Judge (Christopher Foley’s) decision allowing The Couture development at the Transit Center site,” Preserve Our Parks president John Lunz said in an email.

The Downtown Transit Center site is currently owned by Milwaukee County and is used for bus storage and bus transfers. There is public park space on top of the building. County officials felt the property, located southwest of Lincoln Memorial Drive and Michigan Street, was underutilized and wanted to sell it for private development.

Three years ago, county officials announced that they had selected a proposal from developer Rick Barrett, the owner of Barrett Visionary Development, to build The Couture project at the Downtown Transit Center site.

The $122 million Couture project would have 302 apartments, about 50,000 square feet of retail space, public parking, and numerous public amenities.

The county has been unable to get title insurance to sell the site to Barrett because Preserve Our Parks has threatened legal action to block the development. Preserve Our Parks says most of the site was originally park of Lake Michigan and therefore private development of the site is forbidden by the public trust doctrine.

The decision by Preserve Our Parks to end its fight against The Couture means the project is “full speed ahead now,” Barrett said today. “We are pleased that Preserve Our Parks will not appeal the court decision that re-confirmed the historic line for the lakefront used by the city, county and state for more than a century. This was the critical step we needed to secure clear title to the Downtown Transit Center site. We are thrilled to be able to move forward with The Couture, partnering with the city and county to transform this site into a vibrant public space that improves access to the lakefront, creates thousands of new jobs and adds a signature building to Milwaukee’s skyline. Today is a big step forward for our lakefront, our city and our community.”
Milwaukee County officials are just beginning to absorb the news of Preserve Our Parks’ decision not to appeal the Foley ruling.

“We’re extremely excited because The Couture is a landmark project for Milwaukee,” said Nate Holton, spokesman for Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele.

In late June, Foley granted Milwaukee County and the City of Milwaukee’s request for summary judgement to dismiss Preserve Our Parks’ legal argument that private development is forbidden on the Downtown Transit site.

Preserve Our Parks had the option of appealing the Foley decision to the state Court of Appeals and then the state Supreme Court, but has decided not to do so, according to the statement from Lunz.

In 2013 the state Legislature passed, and Gov. Scott Walker signed, legislation establishing that the historic shoreline is east of the Downtown Transit Center site. The state Legislature used the 1913 shoreline as the basis for the law to establish a boundary between the lakefront and where private development would be allowed.

Preserve Our Parks said the lakefront boundary should be based on the 1848 shoreline of Milwaukee.

Foley said that the 1913 boundary is not the accurate location for the city’s historic shoreline. But he said it would be difficult to establish the 1844 line “with any level of absolute certainty, maybe even reasonable certainty.”

He also said that there is legal precedent that allows the state Legislature to grant public trust lands to a private entity as long as there is a public benefit and doing so does not impact navigation or public access to the water.

Foley said he did not see any way Preserve Our Parks could argue that the Legislature’s action provided a negative impact.

Despite its failure to stop The Couture project, Lunz said Preserve Our Parks will continue its advocacy to protect park lands.

“We will continue to oppose any private development of public park lands or any further privatization of Milwaukee’s public lakefront,” Lunz said.

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Andrew is the editor of BizTimes Milwaukee. He joined BizTimes in 2003, serving as managing editor and real estate reporter for 11 years. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, he is a lifelong resident of the state. He lives in Muskego with his wife, Seng, their son, Zach, and their dog, Hokey. He is an avid sports fan and is a member of the Muskego Athletic Association board of directors.

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