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Milwaukee County officials poke holes in MSOE project (UPDATE)

The Milwaukee School of Engineering has proposed building a $30 million parking facility and athletic field in the Park East corridor in Milwaukee. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Vacant land sits across the street from Milwaukee School of Engineering's Kern Center in Milwaukee. MSOE proposes to build a $30 million parking structure and athletic field on the land in the Park East corridor, but Milwaukee County officials said they have concerns about the plan. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

By Marie Rohde

Milwaukee County officials are throwing cold water on the Milwaukee School of Engineering’s proposal to build a $30 million parking structure and athletic field in the Park East corridor.

“I have concerns,” said County Supervisor Theo Lipscomb, acting chairman of the committee that would have to approve the sale of the land to the school. “A garage and a soccer field is kind of underwhelming for that land.

“Just because we’re in an economic downturn doesn’t mean we should accept the first thing that comes along.”

MSOE wants to buy 2.5 acres in the Park East corridor, land vacated by the razing of the Park East freeway spur in 2003. The proposed development is across the street from the school’s indoor athletic facility, the Kern Center, 1245 N. Broadway.

The Milwaukee School of Engineering intends to build an in-ground parking structure topped by an athletic field in the Park East Corridor in Milwaukee. (Rendering courtesy of MSOE/Uihlein-Wilson Architects)

The Milwaukee School of Engineering intends to build an in-ground parking structure topped by an athletic field in the Park East Corridor in Milwaukee. (Renderings courtesy of MSOE/Uihlein-Wilson Architects)

MSOE President Hermann Viets disputed the contention that the proposal would not be the best use for the property, saying that the extra parking is a $10 million gift to the community that will attract other construction.

“We are talking about building an awful lot of parking that we do not need and that will spur development,” Viets said. “When Manpower came to downtown Milwaukee, the issue was parking. The issue in development is always parking and everyone knows that building parking is a (financial) loser.”

In order to attract development, government is often asked to provide parking, he said. Putting the two-story garage below an athletic field has another advantage.

“You need to break up these big blocks of development, especially if you are trying to attract hotels,” Viets said. “What would you rather look out your window at? Another hotel or a soccer field?”

The city of Milwaukee broadly defines the Park East corridor as a 64-acre tract on the north end of downtown. Demolition of the Park East was deemed a rare opportunity to expand business and condominium development. The economic downturn intervened, and while proposals get floated and one parcel for a hotel sold, no one has built on the land where the freeway stood.

The county owns 14 acres of that property and the Marshall & Ilsley Corp., Milwaukee, owns another portion. The city of Milwaukee owns the rest of the property.

The 780-car garage proposed by MSOE would be topped by an athletic field, a small park and a small restaurant or cafe, according to plans. Some 500 parking spots would be leased to private users and be taxable properties; the portion used by the school would be tax-exempt.

The development largely would be supported by a donation from Robert and Patricia Kern, founders of Waukesha-based Generac Power Systems Inc., a business they sold in 2006. The school is not requesting city or county money.

The school wants 2.5 acres on the northwest corner of Broadway and Knapp Street from the Marshall & Ilsley Corp. and Milwaukee County through a property trade and purchase, according to a press release. Details were not immediately available.

The project designer is Uihlein/Wilson Architects Inc., Milwaukee. About 150 people will be employed during construction, according to MSOE.

But Lipscomb said other nearby developments, particularly condominiums, are “high value, high impact” projects.

“To think we are going to be excited about this is premature,” he said. “What do we think we’re getting? The decisions we make today will last for a very long time.”

He also said the proposal conflicts with the city of Milwaukee’s development plan for the area because it calls for mixed-use development, not an athletic field.

Still, Mayor Tom Barrett and Rocky Marcoux, commissioner of the city’s Department of City Development, welcomed MSOE’s proposal.

Marcoux praised MSOE as a major asset to the city, noting the project would bring major construction to the area.

“When things got tough downtown, they didn’t put on wheels and move,” Marcoux said. “Their project will put a face on the Park East. It’s a landmark.”

Marcoux said the city wants mixed-use development for the rest of the land. The city’s development plan, he said, envisions a number of three- to four-story office, retail, restaurant and living space buildings.

The redevelopment, he said, will not be “mega block buildings,” but small construction that will not need city financing.

To accomplish that for the rest of the Park East, Marcoux suggested the city should take over the marketing of the portion of the property owned by the county, saying the city has the infrastructure to do the job, and the county does not.

Harold Mester, spokesman for the Milwaukee County Board, said Marcoux had broached the subject in the past.

“County Board Chairman Lee Holloway has said he’s willing to entertain the idea,” Mester said. “But he said that if the city wants to do that, they should make an offer to buy the land.”

Mester said Holloway shares Lipscomb’s skepticism of MSOE’s proposed parking structure and athletic field.

“He’s unable to respond because MSOE did not go through the normal channels,” Mester said on Holloway’s behalf. “He said that if MSOE had consulted him ahead of time, they may have won his support to shepherd the project through the county process.”

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