Several major commercial real estate developments that are planned or are under construction will have a significant impact on how people live, work and play in southeastern Wisconsin.
The architects working on these projects are faced with the challenge of creating functional spaces that are also visually appealing.
Four of those architects were featured in a recent panel discussion on "Designing Milwaukee" at the 2013 BizTimes Milwaukee Commercial Real Estate and Development Conference. The architects on the panel were: Greg Uhen, chief executive officer and managing partner of Milwaukee-based Eppstein Uhen Architects Inc.; Matt Rinka, principal of Milwaukee-based Rinka Chung Architecture Inc.; Glenn Roby, principal of Milwaukee-based Kahler Slater; and Tom Kubala, principal architect and co-founder of Cedarburg-based The Kubala Washatko Architects Inc.
[caption id="V3-311079983.jpg" align="align" width="440"] 833 E. Michigan St.[/caption]
Major commercial real estate projects planned, or under construction, in the region include:
[caption id="V5-311079983.jpg" align="align" width="440"] Third Ward Kimpton Hotel[/caption]
"I don't know if I can put a finger on another project that is doing this," Rinka said. "This is a brand new downtown. The opportunity here is to give a new identity to a community that really didn't have one."
However, the most dramatic transformation that will occur for Milwaukee's built environment in upcoming years will happen at the lakefront. Three major projects are planned and changes to the street infrastructure could help attract even more development.
The most noteworthy project near the lakefront is Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co.'s plans to build a $450 million, 32-story, 1.1-million-square-foot office tower at its downtown Milwaukee corporate headquarters campus. New Haven, Conn.-based Pickard Chilton is the design architect for the project. Houston-based Kendall/Heaton Associates is the architect of record for the project.
Barrett Visionary Development plans to build a 44-story tower, called The Couture, with an upscale hotel, luxury apartments and retail space at the current site of the Milwaukee County Downtown Transit Center, southwest of Michigan Street and Lincoln Memorial Drive near the lakefront. The project will likely face a legal challenge from parks advocacy group Preserve Our Parks, which contends that most of the site was originally in the Lake Michigan lakebed and therefore private development should not be allowed there because of the state's public trust doctrine. The state budget adopted this year established that the site was not subject to the public trust doctrine. Rinka is the designer for The Couture.
Wauwatosa-based real estate development firm Irgens plans to build a 17-story, $105 million, 357,000-square-foot office tower at 833 E. Michigan St., just west of the site for The Couture. The project is being designed by Kahler Slater.
The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. tower, The Couture and the 833 E. Michigan St. are all coming forward shortly after a committee of community leaders in 2011 adopted the Long Range Lakefront Plan to guide development on the lakefront. The plan was crafted by Uhen. It envisioned a high-rise development on the transit center site, where The Couture is planned, and called for infrastructure changes to enhance the lakefront and make it easier for pedestrians to access the lakefront from downtown and to create opportunities for more development near the lakefront.
Earlier this year, state and local officials announced a $34 million Lakefront Gateway Plan to redesign the Lake Interchange area, as recommended in the Long Range Lakefront Plan. The changes will open up a three-acre triangular-shaped development site, currently used for parking, located south of the Downtown Transit Center/The Couture site. The Lakefront Gateway Plan also includes: the extension of Lincoln Memorial Drive south into the Third Ward; conversion of Clybourn Street into a boulevard that crosses Lincoln Memorial Drive east to Discovery World; an improved Michigan Street; and new pedestrian bridges that would connect The Couture to O'Donnell Park and the lakefront. Pedestrians using pedestrian bridges could move through The Couture, past the restaurant and retail space, between downtown and the lakefront.
With several major components of the Long Range Lakefront Plan moving forward in the planning process, Uhen says the community should take a hard look at how to build on the lakefront momentum to spur move development in other areas of downtown Milwaukee.
"There's a tremendous amount of inertia to ask: what's next?" Uhen said. "How can we build on this and really begin to change our city fundamentally?"
Look to the west
The Italian Community Center site in the Third Ward, the downtown Post Office site along the Menomonee River, the vacant lot at North 4th Street and Wisconsin Avenue and The Shops of Grand Avenue are all opportunities for catalytic development projects, Uhen said.
The downtown area has attracted numerous developments in recent years but the very center of downtown, in the area near where Wisconsin Avenue crosses the Milwaukee River, has seen little activity. The struggles of The Shops of Grand Avenue are a major reason for that, Uhen said. More residential development is needed to revitalize the area west of the river downtown, he said.
"The only way we are going to solve this is by putting density back in place and by making connections," Uhen said.
One way to better connect the lakefront and the east side of downtown to the west side would be by improving Clybourn Street, Uhen said.
"Clybourn is a terrible street," he said.
Improvements to the street are called for in the Lakefront Gateway Plan, but more could be done to improve the street further west, Uhen said, including conversion to a two-way street and the addition of landscaping and better bike and pedestrian access.
Barrett Visionary Development owner Rick Barrett has proposed a vision to make Clybourn Street a high-end retail street between the lakefront and the Milwaukee River.
There are several vacant sites along Clybourn that are highly visible and accessible to I-794.
"We've looked at a number of these sites," Uhen said.
Population density is rising in and around downtown Milwaukee as several apartment developers have been built, are under construction or are planned.
The most noticeable new apartment development could be The Moderne, a 30-story tower with 203 apartments and 14 condominiums completed last year southwest of Old World Third Street and Juneau Avenue. The building was developed by Barrett and designed by Rinka.
Another major new apartment project is planned by Wauwatosa-based Wangard along the Milwaukee River near the intersection of Water Street and Brady Street. The project, designed by AG Architecture and The Kubala Washatko Architects Inc., will have 160 apartments, a café and a restaurant overlooking the river. One of the most interesting aspects of the project will be a public walkway from Brady Street to the riverwalk.
"A big part of (the project) is how to connect Brady to the river," said Kubala. "Brady is connected to the lake (on the east end of the street). It might as well be connected to the river."
The project is an example of a growing trend of developers providing public space as an amenity that enhances their development, Kubala said.
"I have to give credit to Wangard for creating this much public space as part of their own private development," he said. "This is a trend that I think needs to happen."
An "amazing time"
With numerous major developments in the works in the Milwaukee, including several featuring cutting-edge architecture, it is an exciting time for the local architecture industry.
"I think it's an amazing time for Milwaukee architecture," Rinka said.
Major projects are moving forward because more property owners and developers are willing to take risks and overcome hurdles, which can include public criticism, Rinka said. And more local architects are gaining confidence to push contemporary designs and encourage their clients to expand their minds about design possibilities for their projects, he said.
"It all starts with people willing to take that risk," Rinka said. "It's not enough to just talk about this stuff. You have to have people take the risk to go above the criticism. That's what's different right now."