By Alan H. Marcuvitz
von Briesen & Roper s.c.
A recent Milwaukee County Circuit Court ruling has paved the way for the development of the Couture project.
On June 26, Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Christopher Foley granted summary judgment in favor of Milwaukee County, represented by von Briesen & Roper s.c., and the city of Milwaukee, affirming the validity of the statute setting the boundary between lake bed and non-lake bed lands at the city of Milwaukee lakefront.
Milwaukee County owns the underused and outmoded Transit Center, which stands on Lincoln Memorial Drive between Michigan and Clybourn streets. Not long after the developer Rick Barrett announced his plans for the Couture project, Preserve Our Parks, a local non-profit organization “concerned with protecting the public’s interest in parks, parkland, and land in the public domain,” expressed its intent to challenge the private development. Preserve Our Parks representatives took the position that part of the Transit Center is on land that had previously been on Lake Michigan lake bed. They argued that the state’s public trust doctrine prevents that land from being developed for private purposes.
In 2014, the Wisconsin legislature enacted Wis. Stat. § 30.2038 to “fix and establish” the boundary line between lakefront land that the public trust doctrine places out of bounds for private development, and land which the doctrine does not. The boundary line is one established in 1913 and runs roughly down Lincoln Memorial Drive from Lafayette Place through the Third Ward to the harbor wall.
According to the boundary established by the Legislature, the Transit Center is not subject to the public trust doctrine. In December 2014, Milwaukee County entered into an option agreement with Barrett Visionary Development LLC, allowing for the sale of the selected site and development of the Couture.
The Couture is planned to be a residential and retail development with a public-transportation component. The project is to include about 30,000 square feet of public plazas, as well as natural indoor and outdoor space. The current development cost for the Couture is estimated to be $122 million. The Couture site is in a City of Milwaukee Tax Incremental Financing District created to pay for public infrastructure and to provide additional public financing for transportation improvements.
Milwaukee County also owns O’Donnell Park, which lies across Michigan Street from the Transit Center.
Because Preserve Our Park’s threat gave rise to uncertainty for the proposed development, Milwaukee County and the city of Milwaukee started an action in Milwaukee County Circuit Court seeking a declaration that the boundary established in Wis. Stat. § 30.2038 is valid.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation and Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel intervened in the lawsuit. The Department of Transportation is in the process of rebuilding parts of the Hoan Bridge, including its northern approaches. That project is expected to result in there being 2.5 acres of developable land bordered by the nearby I-794 westbound entrance ramp, Lincoln Memorial Drive and Clybourn Street. It is believed that the Department of Transportation parcel has a value exceeding $13 million. The court ruling means that the Department of Transportation parcel is also not subject to the public trust doctrine and can be privately developed.
Foley’s ruling provides certainty for the development of the Couture and other important properties, such as the Department of Transportation parcel.