Last year, one developer presented plans to transform Milwaukee’s nondescript downtown transit center with the addition of what would be city’s tallest skyscraper. But another group has since challenged that project with an opposing proposal: leave the Lake Michigan shoreline free of any non-public buildings.
Preserve Our Parks, a local nonprofit, asserts that Barrett Visionary Development’s plans for a 44-story, $125 million hotel and residential tower at the eastern-most plot of downtown Milwaukee’s East Michigan Street go against Wisconsin’s state constitution, whose public trust doctrine largely preserves filled lake bed area for public buildings.
At issue is whether the site was once part of Lake Michigan and, if it was, whether the 98-year-old state law would prevent Barrett and Milwaukee-based Rinka Chung Architecture from building the tower, which is named The Couture for its slender elliptical form.
Even if the ground beneath the site was once beyond Lake Michigan’s historical shoreline it may not matter. A 1915 deal that the city of Milwaukee struck with Chicago and the Northwestern Railway Company divided the lakeshore into land reserved for public use and land eligible for private development. A budget amendment passed in June by the Wisconsin Legislature says The Couture site is on the private side of that line. Preserve Our Parks rejects that interpretation as an abdication of the public trust doctrine.
“We’ve had too many times in our city where buildings have just been plopped down,” said Preserve Our Parks’ John Glunz, who confirmed the group could sue if no compromise is reached. Since the public trust doctrine is part of the state constitution, there is no easy legislative fix.
Local officials have joined Barrett in opposing Preserve Our Parks’ proposal for an alternate lakefront plan, which is centered around a 13-acre park on both sides of Lincoln Memorial Drive. County Executive Chris Abele and the State Department of Natural Resources, which is responsible for enforcing the doctrine, have indicated they will let the project proceed. But a lawsuit could potentially delay construction until currently low interest rates rise, increasing construction costs.
“We believe that the potential redevelopment of the Downtown Transit Center site is a tremendous step forward in the development of Milwaukee’s lakefront,” said Barrett. “I have no doubt that it will positively impact all downtown businesses and residents by attracting more visitors and companies from outside the region.”
In April, the City Council approved $18 million for street and walkway improvements around the transit center site, as well as millions more for I-794 ramp work to encourage development near Lincoln Memorial Drive. The Couture plan calls for various pedestrian bridges connecting the tower to O’Donnell Park, a plaza slated to be built next to Discovery World, and the existing U.S. Bank Galleria, currently the largest office high-rise in the state.
“Once the compromise card is played it just whets our elected official’s appetite for more development opportunities on protected land,” said Glunz. “Visitors to Milwaukee always say how nice our lakefront is without all the buildings along the shore. That didn’t just happen.”
He added Preserve Our Parks is not against The Couture altogether. The organization suggests it be built on vacant land to the west, which the city said is targeted for other uses.