Updated design unveiled for The Couture

Updated design plans for The Couture, the proposed 44-story, $122 million luxury apartment tower planned for the site of the Downtown Transit Center at the lakefront, were unveiled recently by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

The latest plans for the project have numerous public elements including: a rooftop park, a public transportation concourse, a streetcar stop, a walkway to the lakefront, a bike sharing station, public parking and a public plaza. The project has 81,560 square feet of public space and $17.5 million in public improvements, according to the Barrett and Abele announcement.

The $17.5 million in public space improvements, which include the park, access ramps and transit connections, would be paid for with tax incremental financing, said Jeff Fleming, spokesman for the Milwaukee Department of City Development.

If the public parking spaces are included, The Couture has 178,000 square feet of space for public use, said Rick Barrett, the developer who wants to do the project. The Couture is designed by Matt Rinka, principal of Milwaukee-based Rinka Chung Architecture.

The streetcar stop is an interesting addition to the project, because the current proposed downtown streetcar route does not include The Couture site. But City of Milwaukee officials are in the early stages of planning an additional leg to the streetcar route that would extend it to The Couture. The leg that would be added to the current streetcar route would run from Broadway and Milwaukee Street eastbound down Michigan Street to The Couture and then westbound on Clybourn Street back to Broadway and Milwaukee Street, said City Engineer Jeff Polenske. The city wants to add a streetcar leg to the lakefront because of the significant amount of development activity there, including the 32-story Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons, the 17-story 833 East (Michigan Street) office tower, plans for The Couture and the proposed Westin Hotel, Polenske said. The cost for the streetcar lakefront route has not been determined and plans are still in the early stages. The leg would be entirely paid for with tax incremental financing funds, he said.

Rick Barrett pitched The Couture project in response to an RFP from Milwaukee County officials, who sought a private development to replace the underutilized bus transfer and storage facility in a prime location southwest of Michigan Street and Lincoln Memorial Drive near the lakefront.

However, parks advocacy group Preserve Our Parks has threatened to file a lawsuit to stop the project. The group says much of the site was originally in the Lake Michigan lakebed and therefore private development is prohibited there by the state’s public trust doctrine. Earlier this year, Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation establishing a historic shoreline location that would allow The Couture to proceed. But Preserve Our Parks has still threatened to sue in an attempt to derail the project. The threat of litigation has so far made it difficult to obtain title insurance for the property.

The release of updated plans for The Couture with numerous public amenities could be an attempt to alleviate the public trust doctrine concerns for the project. But the leader of Preserve Our Parks says the group still opposes the project.

“I know they are just trying to sweeten it up,” said John Lunz, president of Preserve Our Parks.

The planned apartment tower for The Couture remains in the same place on the site, and Preserve Our Parks opposes any private ownership on that part of the site or any other public trust doctrine land, Lunz said.

The Couture would have 302 apartments and about 50,000 square feet of retail space. Previous plans for a hotel and for Betty Brinn Children’s Museum to move into the building have been dropped.

“It doesn’t seem like (the updated plans for The Couture are) going to alleviate the overriding issue of public ownership,” Lunz said.

Preserve Our Parks still plans to file a lawsuit if the project moves forward, Lunz said.

“I think that’s likely,” he said.

Rick Barrett said he hopes Preserve Our Parks will reconsider after they review the new plans, in which he says 97 percent of the base of the building is public space.

The building will have a park that will be owned and maintained by Barrett, but will be open to the public, Fleming said.

The Downtown Transit Center is owned by the county. The Milwaukee County Board is expected to consider plans to sell the site to Rick Barrett this fall, Abele spokesman Brendan Conway said.

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