Couture. The word evokes the height of fashion: Glamorous models strutting down Paris catwalks, draped in oh-so-chic designer creations, as cameras flash.
But the literal translation of that French word is “sewing,” the mundane work behind the scenes to assemble those complicated garments.
It has taken eight years and millions of dollars of public assistance to stitch together the legal and financial underpinnings of The Couture, the 44-story Downtown lakefront skyscraper for which ground is to be broken this month. And like those pricey French fashions, the planned $188 million, 750,000-square-foot structure not only has drawn attention for its striking design but also has raised questions about its practicality in a casual-Friday world.
By contrast, Northwestern Mutual built its own eye-catching lakefront skyscraper one block north in just five years, with almost one-third more space, and at more than twice the price. The insurance giant announced plans for its $450 million, 1.1-million-square-foot corporate headquarters six months after The Couture was proposed, and the gleaming 32-story building has already been open for more than three years.
The Couture proposal has stirred hopes for another signature building on a high-profile but underused parcel, while delaying gratification. Only now, after the approval of federal loan guarantees last fall, will developer Rick Barrett’s vision finally be set in steel.
Milwaukee’s first glimpse of that vision came in June 2012, when then-County Executive Chris Abele endorsed Barrett’s ideas to develop the 2.2-acre site in the 900 block of East Michigan Avenue. The county’s lakefront plan called for new construction to replace its underused Downtown Transit Center, opened in 1992 as the hub of an express bus network abandoned in the early 2000s.
In its original form, The Couture was to feature 179 upscale apartments, a 180-room hotel, 40,000 square feet of shops and restaurants, and 775 indoor parking spaces. Abele picked it over three competing proposals that all would have included office space.
The coronavirus pandemic proved that choosing apartments over offices was the right call, Downtown Ald. Bob Bauman says: “People have got to live somewhere, but now we’re learning that they don’t have to work in an office building.”
More controversial was The Couture’s prime lakefront site. A citizens group, Preserve Our Parks, claimed that much of that land was on filled lakebed, underwater as late as 1884, and as a former part of Lake Michigan was protected by the state constitution’s public trust doctrine. That doctrine holds that Wisconsin’s navigable waters are “common highways and forever free,” held in trust by the state for the benefit of its citizens. It’s a core principle of environmental protection, rooted in the Northwest Ordinance and the Magna Carta, that “certain properties are incapable of private ownership, including the air and surface water,” says Bill O’Connor, the lawyer who represented the organization.
Supervisor John Weishan says he and then-Supervisor Patricia Jursik tried to work out a deal to allow The Couture to move forward without setting any precedent for the rest of the lakefront. “My goal was to have a great project, not rewrite 100 years of lakefront history,” Weishan says.
Instead, Abele bypassed the County Board and asked state lawmakers to decide the issue. The Legislature and then-Gov. Scott Walker approved a law to define the shoreline according to its 1913 boundary, essentially at Lincoln Memorial Drive.
Preserve Our Parks filed a suit, arguing the legislation unconstitutionally violated the public trust doctrine. Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Christopher Foley upheld the law in June 2015.
Meanwhile, another issue had arisen with the site. The Downtown Transit Center demolished for the project had been built with $6.7 million in Federal Transit Administration aid, and that 1988 grant required the money to be repaid if the site wasn’t going to be used for transportation purposes and was sold below market value. But the site was assessed at $8.9 million, and Barrett argued the deal wouldn’t be feasible at that price.
At the same time, Mayor Tom Barrett – no relation to the developer – was pressing forward with plans for a modern streetcar line. Bauman, a leading supporter of the streetcar, says some business leaders were uncomfortable that the initial route wouldn’t connect to major attractions.
Rocky Marcoux, then commissioner of city development, proposed an arranged marriage to salvage both projects. The streetcar would add a lakefront spur, ending within walking distance of Discovery World, the Summerfest grounds and the Milwaukee Art Museum. And The Couture would add a transit concourse to serve as the lakefront station for both the streetcar and the county’s planned bus rapid transit line.
In addition to the transit concourse, Rick Barrett added more public areas, partly in response to the ongoing lawsuit. He also dropped the hotel, leaving 302 apartments, more than 50,000 square feet of retail and 570 parking places.
With those changes, the County Board voted in December 2014 to give developer Barrett an option to buy the site for $500,000. The Common Council authorized $17.5 million for The Couture’s transit concourse and public areas in February 2015, as part of a larger tax-incremental financing package mainly benefitting the streetcar now known as The Hop. Aldermen later kicked in $2 million more to move a sewer line discovered on the site.
Once the FTA approved the transit concourse plan in April 2016, the sale closed in August of that year, and transit center demolition started the following January.
But the deal still wasn’t done. Rick Barrett was seeking loan guarantees from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD would not issue those guarantees until he had assembled all of his investor financing.
The developer told a County Board committee that investors were hesitant because nobody had ever built a Milwaukee residential building 507 feet tall before. Bauman, however, says Barrett’s financial advisors told him that investors didn’t believe they could receive a sufficient return on their investment.
The problem, Bauman says, is The Couture’s curvy design, which doesn’t leave enough useable space on each floor to charge as much rent as investors want the project to produce.
Northwestern Mutual didn’t have that problem, Bauman explains, because it was occupying its own building and willing to spend big bucks on an iconic structure. (Barrett declined a request for an interview for this story.)
As the financing delay dragged on, The Couture became a drag on The Hop. The streetcar’s initial M Line had opened in November
2018, and the lakefront spur, the L Line, was supposed to follow in 2019. Instead, the tracks and stations continue to sit unused without a concourse where streetcars can turn around at the end of the route.
Worse still, the delay risked costing the city and county millions of dollars. The FTA had set a deadline of Dec. 31, 2020, for the concourse to open or the county to pay back the original transit center aid. The city faced the same deadline from the same agency over the $14.2 million in federal aid used to build the L Line.
Weishan and other supervisors questioned whether the county should find another developer for the site. Bauman urged city officials to find an alternative to the transit concourse.
In response, Marcoux set a deadline of June 30, 2020, for developer Barrett to complete his investor financing – a deadline the developer met with just days to spare. HUD approved $103.5 million in loan guarantees for The Couture in November.
And county officials say the FTA is considering an extension of its repayment deadline by up to two years. That pushes the transit concourse opening to late 2022, although the rest of the building is not expected to be completed until May 2023.
By then, it will have taken the active involvement of two local governments, the state Legislature, two federal agencies and the courts to make this project a reality. Was it worth it?
Supervisor Felesia Martin says it is. “Any thriving metropolitan system, such as ours, needs to have a thriving downtown lakefront,” says Martin, who leads the County Board’s Economic Development Committee. “It’s about time we got a nice, tall building for our skyline … and reimagine Milwaukee for what it could be, not what it used to be.”