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New Skyscraper Could House Hotel, Apartments

Milwaukee’s skyline could have a distinct new feature in a few years: a 44-story tower. County Executive Chris Abele outlined the plans Wednesday. The building would be located across the street from Discovery World and the northern entrance to Summerfest. As WUWM’s Ann-Elise Henzl reports, the development would include hotel rooms and housing to meet what planners call a growing demand.
The high-rise would replace Milwaukee County’s Downtown Transit Center. That’s the structure where bus drivers change direction or take a break. For years, leaders have suggested the property could have a better use. Milwaukee County Executive Abele’s answer is a tall, slim white building with rounded corners.

“The use for this location is perfect. It will provide breathtaking views – breathtaking views – of Lake Michigan and downtown, and it will, itself, be a breathtaking view,” Abele says.

The developer, Rick Barrett, is calling the proposed building The Couture. He says it would have about 180 hotel rooms and the same number of apartments, as well as retail space and 700 parking stalls. The Couture would feature walkways, offering pedestrians safe passage to downtown and lakefront amenities.

“Let me say it in a metaphorical way, it is almost like a lung. It breathes people in and breathes people out, and people can traverse through the buildings, and I think it activates an eventuality of something on the other side of Clybourn, it activates O’Donnell, it activates the lakefront and that’s what I think we need to do at this particular site. So it is more of an epicenter-type site, it is more of a hub,” Barrett says.

Alderman Robert Bauman says The Couture would be a major improvement. He represents the district. Although quite a bit of apartment and condo development has taken place there, Bauman says the heart of the city needs more housing.

“Rental housing in the greater downtown, which would include Brady Street, Lower East Side, Walker’s Point, occupancy rates are at 97-98 percent. And rents are starting to increase significantly, all of which suggests that there’s a lack of supply,” Bauman says.

The hotel space also could prove beneficial, according to Paul Upchurch, the CEO of Visit Milwaukee. He says The Couture would help showcase the city to groups planning conventions.

“It’s a beautiful building. And certainly when we bring people into Milwaukee for the first time, and we bring them to the lakefront right there by Discovery World and the art museum. I mean, it doesn’t get any better than that. Their jaw drops, the perception of Milwaukee changes immediately. That’s an important front door for the city,” Upchurch says.

Nearly 800 new hotel rooms in or near downtown are already in the works -- including the Potawatomi Casino hotel, which has its groundbreaking ceremony Thursday. Still, Upchurch believes the city would fill additional rooms.

“The downtown market has been successful in the last couple of years and shown good growth. Now, that growth comes from a lot of sources, business travel is strong again and we have a lot of vitality in our local economy. We have had great growth in leisure travel and convention. The last couple of years have been extremely strong convention years,” Upchurch says.

When County Executive Abele introduced The Couture project Wednesday, it appeared the building was almost a done deal – simply needing the County Board to sign off on it. But Supervisor Patricia Jursik says the matter is more complicated.

“I wasn’t at the press conference he held, but apparently he made the statement that this is, in his opinion, the highest and best use of that property. I don’t know if that’s true, I mean that’s someone’s opinion. You usually rely on experts, appraisers architects, etc. to tell you what the highest and best use is. That’s something the Board is going to have to look at,” Jursik says.

Jursik wants to know what the land is worth.

“Where’s the due diligence? What should that transit site be sold for? What does the public want at that important lakefront location? There are a lot of questions there and we need to have a good, public process to establish those issues,” Jursik says.

Jursik says she’s not necessarily opposed to The Couture, but wants the County Board and public to weigh in on the plans. She calls the Downtown Transit Center property “the most important development site in the entire state.”

Ann-Elise is WUWM's news director.