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Shoreline Bill Would Allow Highrise on Milwaukee's Lakefront; Critics Fight to Keep the Land Public

S Bence

The "shoreline bill" goes before a state Senate committee on Thursday, with an immediate goal of kick-starting a development.

The measure deals with a specific stretchof the Lake Michigan shore along Milwaukee’s downtown lakefront. Almost two years ago, a local developer proposed erecting a 44-story hotel and apartment complex - the Couture - at the corner of Michigan and Lincoln Memorial Drive.  It would replace the existing county Downtown Transit Center.

The debate persisting, is whether the land can be privately developed or whether it must be held as publicly protected lake bed. Supporters of the bill say it correctly honors a deal approved in 1913. Opponents point to the state constitution's Public Trust Doctrine.

Last week, an Assembly committee listened to what people had to say, and members heard 60-minutes filled with support for the plan.

Kenneth Kramer stepped up on behalf of the Construction Labor Management Council of Wisconsin. “I am hoping that you guys can support this AB 655 so we can start moving forward. People keep talking about the Transit Center site, it should no long be called the Transit Center site; it should be called the Couture. That’s 2,880 jobs. Eighteen-hundred of those jobs are going to be high-paying construction project. Those will be my jobs,” Kramer says.

A committee member quizzed one author of the bill – Representative Joe Sanfelippo. “This is something that the city and the county, everybody seems to agree this is a good thing; who is against it,” Rep Mike Kuglitsch asked.

Sanfelippo responded, “There’s a small group, small park activist group. Really their whole issue here is well, we have to stop the building on this land because otherwise they are going to be building on the lakefront.”

According to Sanfelippo, the City of Milwaukee established the downtown shoreline in 1913 through an agreement with the Chicago and North Western railway company. He says the accord draws the line midway along what is now Lincoln Memorial Drive and allows land to the west, to be developed.

Melissa Scanlan insists the issue is more nuanced She served as a water law and policy scholar for the UWM School of Freshwater Sciences. She says Wisconsin’s Public Trust Doctrine - enshrined in the state constitution, requires the state to keep shorelines open and accessible to the public.

“ The legislature has from time to time – over the last 100 years – granted lake bed usually to public entities and allowed it to be filled for public purposes and those grants are really clearly limited, usually, to public purposes,” Scanlan says.

A pivotal piece of the debate centers around whether the existing transit building rests on land where Lake Michigan once flowed. Sections of the lake have been land-filled over the decades.

Charles Kamps, a founder of Preserve Our Parks,says it has uncovered maps dating back into the 1800s that reveal two-thirds of the transit site sit on lake bed. Kamps insists every acre counts.

“It’s the public trust doctrine that has given Milwaukee its free, open and clear lakefront; I think that’s one of Milwaukee’s most valuable assets and we think we have to preserve the doctrine in full force and effect in order to protect our lakefront and our lakefront parks. It’s significant that our community through the years, since statehood, 1848, has observed it,” Kamps says.

Shoreline bill advocates such as Laurie Rohlings are not deterred. “I represent more than 150 contractors employing thousands of trades people across southeast Wisconsin. On behalf of those contractors and their employees I urge you to support Assembly Bill 655 because it will create much-needed jobs in our industry,” Rohlings says.

They hope to win the day – based on a 1913 shoreline agreement.

Credit S Bence
If approved, the Couture project would stand where transit building is today.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.