Retail a big part of The Couture plans

The Downtown Milwaukee retail real estate market has struggled mightily for years with a high amount of vacancy at the Shops of Grand Avenue and in street level retail spaces. Few prominent retailers are located downtown. Most retailers prefer to open stores in the Historic Third Ward or the suburbs.

But developer Rick Barrett thinks his proposed The Couture development will provide the shot in the arm that the downtown retail real estate market needs.

“Our retail concept is very grand and large,” he said.

Since it was announced, The Couture has attracted attention for its 44-story height, its location near the lakefront and its plans for 179 upscale apartments and a 180-room hotel.

The project has also attracted the attention of parks advocacy group Preserve Our Parks, which is now raising concerns that the site is located on filled lake bed. The group says a private development should not be allowed on the site because of the state constitution’s public trust doctrine. The issue is being reviewed by the state Department of Natural Resources.

Meanwhile, the one major aspect of The Couture project that many are overlooking is that it would have 40,000 square feet of retail space. That would be a major influx of retail space in a very weak downtown retail market.

But Barrett is confident that the proposed location for The Couture, at the site of the Downtown Transit Center southwest of Lincoln Memorial Drive and Michigan Street, is so attractive that retail space there would outperform the rest of the downtown retail real estate market.

The Couture atrium

“We’ve already been approached by some (potential tenants),” Barrett said. “There’s lots of interest. We’re not going to have a problem filling this retail space.”

The site is in a busy area with several popular attractions including the lakefront, Milwaukee Art Museum, Discovery World, the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum and the Summerfest grounds. But despite the high concentration of attractions there are only a few restaurants in the area and no stores.

“There’s nowhere to eat, shop and do the things you want to do in a major city,” said Matt Rinka, owner and principal of Milwaukee-based Rinka Chung Architecture Inc., and the architect for The Couture. Retail development is usually paired with major tourist attractions, he said.

“Every other city has figured that out,” Rinka said.

Destination retail stores would help attract more people to the lakefront area museums and vice-versa, Barrett and Rinka said.

The retail space in The Couture would likely be filled by a mix of local and national retail tenants, some providing unique stores for the region and others filling convenience needs for the building’s tenants.

“We have interest (in the retail space), both nationally and locally, already,” Barrett said.

The property’s prime location on the lakefront would be “nationally attractive” to retailers, Rinka said. Restaurants, retail stores and hotel operations have all expressed initial interest in The Couture, he said.

The plans for The Couture include 20,000 square feet of retail space on the first floor of the building at the northwest corner of Clybourn Street and Lincoln Memorial Drive. Barrett hopes to attract a destination retail store to that space and a restaurant.

The plans for the second floor include another 20,000 square feet of retail space which would be split up into smaller stores. The building would have an open air atrium in the middle surrounded by the second floor retail space on all sides.

Pedestrian bridges are planned to connect the building to properties on each side, including a bridge over Lincoln Memorial Drive to improve pedestrian access in the area to the lakefront. Barrett anticipates a lot of pedestrians using the bridges to pass through the building’s atrium, and its retail space, to get to the lakefront or other properties in the area. That foot traffic would add vitality to the building and could help attract customers for the retail space.

“Millions of people will be walking through here,” Barrett said.

The lakefront location for The Couture would make it an extremely attractive location for a restaurant, said Cory Sovine a retail real estate broker and vice president of Siegel-Gallagher Inc. The development should be able to attract a national restaurant operator, he said.

“Certainly from the perspective of a restaurant there’s going to be demand there,” Sovine said. “It kind of replicates what Harbor House offers as far as location.”

The prime location combined with the density of The Couture and the large amount of retail space in the project will provide a retail opportunity that is currently lacking downtown, Sovine said.

The Shops of Grand Avenue has a large amount of vacant retail space but The Couture’s location on the lakefront is “a million times more attractive than the Grand Avenue,” because the mall is located on the west side of downtown, Sovine said.

Looking at the big picture, Barrett and Rinka envision The Couture stimulating retail development along Clybourn Street to create a prime retail corridor connecting the lakefront to the Milwaukee River. Although it’s just a concept, it is still a bold vision considering the street is currently desolate and lined with parking structures and parking lots. But the Long Range Lakefront Plan, created last year, envisions a re-configurated Lake Interchange that would free up some land south of Clybourn Street, across the street from The Couture, for new development, which could include additional retail space. Development there plus The Couture could spark more development along Clybourn. The Long Range Lakefront Plan also envisions changes to Clybourn Street that would make it a prominent gateway to the lakefront and a “major connector” between the lakefront and the rest of downtown.

The Couture is a key element to realizing the vision of the Long Range Lakefront plan, Barrett and Rinka said.

“We have to have something (built at the Downtown Transit Center site) that’s catalytic enough to spur development all the way to the Milwaukee River and the Public Market,” Rinka said.

Clybourn also could be a significant retail street because it is right off the freeway and accessible for people living in the north, south and western parts of the metro area, Barrett said.

“It’s tailor-made for a significant retail corridor,” he said. n

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