Members of a parks advocacy group say they will not appeal a recent court decision allowing the proposed Couture development to proceed at Milwaukee’s Downtown Transit Center site.
But Preserve Our Parks “will continue to oppose any private development of public park lands or any further privatization of Milwaukee’s public lakefront,” said John Lunz, the group’s president, in a statement released Tuesday.
A June 26 court ruling cleared the way for the Couture development, as well as the construction of a station for the lakefront line for the city’s long-planned streetcar.
In an oral ruling, Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Christopher Foley agreed with arguments put forward by County Executive Chris Abele to justify the redevelopment of an underused Downtown Transit Center as part of the Couture plans. The decision came over the objection of Preserve Our Parks, which had argued that the Couture project would infringe on land that the state constitution has set aside for public purposes.
The developer of the Couture, Rick Barrett, has an option to buy the transit center — a hub for city buses — in order to replace it with the proposed 44-story, $122 million development. 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 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.
In a previous statement, Abele said the project will prove to be part of a vibrant public space that improves access to the lakefront, creates thousands of jobs and adds a prominent building to the growing Milwaukee skyline.
In February, Milwaukee County sued Preserve Our Parks, claiming the group’s actions had hindered the county’s ability to sell land at Milwaukee’s lakefront to the Couture developers.
Because the land sits on former lake bed that was filled in by rail companies, Preserve Our Parks has long claimed the sale would violate the Public Trust Doctrine, a provision of the state constitution mandating that lakes and rivers remain open to the public. But the state Legislature passed a law in March 2014 the redefined the shoreline so the sale of the Couture site would not violate the doctrine.
In response, representatives from Preserve Our Parks had publicly stated that they would sue the county to halt the sale and redevelopment of the property — endangering the developer’s ability to get title insurance. The county countered with a lawsuit of its own meant to settle the dispute once and for all.
The lawsuit, filed in Milwaukee County Circuit Court, sought a declaratory judgment stating that the Legislature’s actions had established that the transit center site is not subject to the public trust doctrine.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation and Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel intervened in the lawsuit as well. The Department of Transportation is in the midst of rebuilding parts of the Hoan Bridge, including its northern approaches. That project is expected to result in 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 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 now be built on by private developers. Accordingly, in May, the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Milwaukee awarded Johnson Controls $250,000 to study the parcel as a possible site to build a new corporate headquarters
Previously, the county had petitioned the state Supreme Court to take up the case directly, but the justices denied the request, resulting in the county re-filing in circuit court.
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The Daily Reporter staff writer Erika Strebel also contributed to this report.