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Milwaukee’s Couture faces questions about property designation

By: Beth Kevit//July 20, 2012//

Milwaukee’s Couture faces questions about property designation

By: Beth Kevit//July 20, 2012//

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The Couture, a proposed apartment and hotel development, has the backing of Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele. It would replace Milwaukee's Downtown Transit Center. (Rendering courtesy of Barrett Visionary and Rinka Chung Architecture Inc.)

By Beth Kevit

A bus passes the Downtown Transit Center along Michigan Avenue in Milwaukee. Four of the seven supervisors on the Economic and Community Development Committee have asked for a special meeting to discuss Rick Barrett’s proposal to build a 44-story, mixed-used tower at the site. (File photo by Kevin Harnack)

Milwaukee County supervisors are wrestling with the designation of land beneath the Downtown Transit Center and, by extension, the legality of The Couture high-rise proposed for the site.

The center, owned by the county, could be on former lakebed land, which would restrict what can be developed there. That has led county supervisors to cover their bases in a resolution to be brought at a special meeting Monday.

The resolution stipulates that if the Economic and Community Development Committee lets the county negotiate with Rick Barrett, the developer who has proposed the mixed-use high-rise, then the county must work with Sue Black, director of the county’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Culture, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to determine whether the project is appropriate.

If the land is on former lakebed, the site would belong to the public trust. Commercial enterprises cannot be on public trust land, said John Lunz, executive director of Preserve Our Parks and a volunteer with The Park People of Milwaukee County Inc. Both are nonprofit groups dedicated to protecting parkland in Milwaukee County.

Lunz said land that fell under the public trust doctrine, which governs waterways and land beneath them, must be used for navigation or public recreation. He said museums were allowable on public trust land because they’re available for public use, but shops and hotels were commercial uses and therefore not permissible.

“The federal government leaves it up to the state to enforce it,” Lunz said. “The DNR is the real arm that has to weigh in on it.”

Lunz said it was possible development could be disrupted if it was decided the transit center was built on a filled-in lakebed.

“Legally it certainly should,” he said. “The question is: Are they going to pay attention to it?”

DNR representatives could not be reached for comment by deadline Friday afternoon.

Supervisor John Weishan Jr., one of the sponsors of the resolution, said supervisors included the stipulation after hearing from The Park People, as well as other groups, about concerns the site might not be appropriate for Barrett’s vision.

“We just want to make sure that the proposal is compatible with the site,” Weishan said. “It’s not meant to do anything to stop or stall the project.”

Weishan said he’s confident the project would move forward.

“If there is a small portion of the property that may fall under the public trust,” he said, “maybe there’s some adjustments that can be made in Madison.”

Supervisors Patricia Jursik, Marina Dmitrijevic, David Bowen, Willie Johnson Jr. and Theodore Lipscomb Sr. also sponsored the resolution. Dmitrijevic declined comment about the resolution, and the other supervisors could not be reached for comment by deadline.

Harold Mester, public information manager for the County Board of Supervisors, confirmed that if the resolution is passed, negotiations will not move forward unless the designation of the land is clarified.

“If there are issues with the lakebed, then that would have to be worked out separate from the County Board,” he said. “Those things may have to be hashed out later.”

Brian Taffora, the county’s director of economic development, could not be reached for comment by deadline.

John Zapfel, deputy chief of staff for County Executive Chris Abele’s office, provided an emailed statement attributed to John Hammen, then-acting southeast regional director for the DNR, from 2011. According to that statement, which was provided to the committee assembled to pursue development of the property, the transit center site “is not on lakebed and therefore is not subject to the Public Trust.”

Hammen could not be reached for comment Friday.

Monday’s special meeting was called at the request of the majority of the committee so supervisors could consider letting negotiations begin between Barrett and the county before the full board meeting Thursday.

Barrett’s proposal calls for an approximately $120 million, 44-story building with a mixture of apartments, a hotel, retail space, restaurants and parking.

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