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City to pursue other options if Couture doesn’t move ahead by June

(Rendering courtesy of Rinka Chung Architecture)

(Rendering courtesy of Rinka Chung Architecture)

Milwaukee officials told a committee on Wednesday that they remain confident the delayed Couture high-rise will ultimately be built — but that they may also have to pursue other options to complete a branch of the city’s streetcar line that now depends on the construction of the Couture.

The $122 million, 44-story Couture tower has been planned for years for the southwest corner of East Michigan Street and Lincoln Memorial Drive. The closely watched project carries risk for both Milwaukee city and county, which could each be hit with millions in federal penalties if a transit hub for the city’s streetcar isn’t operating at the site by the end of 2020.

But despite the many delays, City Development Commissioner Rocky Marcoux and Public Works Commissioner Jeff Polenske once again urged members of the city’s Public Works Committee on Wednesday to remain confident that the site owner, Barrett Lo Visionary Development, will pull through.

Alderman Bob Bauman, the committee chairman and a streetcar backer, was not so optimistic.

“This is a disgrace that we’ve allowed this to fester for this long,” he said. “It’s music to the ears of the opponents of the streetcar.”

“We’re looking like complete fools right now, complete idiots,” he later added.

The streetcar branch that depends on the Couture runs along on East Michigan and East Clybourn streets. Tracks have already been laid for what’s ultimately to become a 0.4 mile-long lakefront line. The loop is supposed to eventually be completed by a transit hub that will form part of the Couture. But with the high-rise project in limbo, the route can’t be operated.

Even worse than having tracks sitting idle, the city is at risk of losing a $14.2 million Federal Transit Administration loan it received for the streetcar if the lakefront line isn’t up and running by the end of 2020.

Marcoux said city and county officials recently met with federal officials to discuss an extension of that deadline. But even amid all the contingency planning, Marcoux said he remains confident Barrett Lo will break ground on the Couture in time.

“We feel very strongly that we should give this developer every opportunity to get the building out of the ground,” Marcoux said. “At some point, if that money is not forthcoming, yes, we’ll have to make a decision.”

After being pushed by Bauman to provide a timeline, Marcoux said the city would need to explore other options — such as establishing a temporary transit hub — to ensure the lakefront line can be completed by mid-2020. But a temporary station might not be enough on its own, Marcoux said. He noted the FTA’s grant was awarded to Milwaukee partly because the streetcar extension was intertwined with the Couture high-rise project.

Public Works Commissioner Jeff Polenske said building a temporary transit hub to ensure the completion of the lakefront line could also undermine future attempts to develop the Couture property.

“Talking about looking like idiots, we would really look like idiots if we broke ground on a temporary extension and then broke ground (on the Couture) a few months later,” he said. “I don’t think we need to rush into the second choice until we’ve exhausted the first choice. And the first choice is far preferable.”

This isn’t the first time Barrett Lo has pushed the limits on this project. The developer missed a final deadline in late July for securing an $80 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The firm said it was looking for more investors for the project and could submit a fast-tracked loan application in the future.

Barrett Lo first announced plans to develop the property in 2012, but it took years of legal battles for the developer to win the right to build on the property. Barrett Lo bought the property in 2016 for $500,000.

About Nate Beck, [email protected]

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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