Inside The Buckler Apartments
11 stories, 207 units and countless styles, shapes and price points for apartments.
Out go the cubicles, in come the queen beds. Chicago developers are breathing new life into a long-vacant office building by converting it to high-end apartments. Built as the Milwaukee office for insurance giant Blue Cross Blue Shield in 1978, the 11-story, modernist tower at 401 W. Michigan St. had been vacant since 2006. Now known as The Buckler, it’s home to 207 apartments ranging from first-floor, townhouse-style units to penthouses with lake and skyline views.
Designed by Dimension IV of Madison, the $30.6 million conversion is being led by a joint developer partnership of Phoenix Development Partners and CA Ventures, both of Chicago. The developers have brought in Laramar Group to serve as the building manager. General contracting is being led by Tri-North Builders. The first tenants moved in as of November, but as I toured the finishing touches were still being added to two floors. The project is scheduled to be fully complete in February.
Unique to the Area
The building is located on the west side of Downtown, known commonly as Westown, a neighborhood that is undergoing tremendous change. From the new Bucks arena on the north to the Shops of Grand Avenue getting a new lease on life on the south end, things are changing. The Buckler is no exception. It’s a high-end apartment project packed with amenities not found in other projects in the area. The rehabbed building now includes an indoor basketball court and batting cage room, large fitness center, dog washing room, patio area, conference center and lounge room. A 24-hour concierge mans the front desk.
Despite floor-to-ceiling windows on virtually every floor, there is an inherent sense of privacy in The Buckler. For one, the building is set back from the intersection of N. 4th St. and W. Michigan St. because of its pentagon form, lending extra space between it and the nearby buildings. Second, the windows are tinted, meaning residents aren’t on display to nearby office workers at We Energies and Bon-Ton.
The 11th floor, which contains 14 penthouse units, is much different than the rest of the building. It’s an additional floor that was created out of the mechanical level of the office building. In addition to large bathrooms and substantial closet space, the super-sized apartments have recessed balconies, a trade-off in exchange for the floor-to-ceilings that are on the other floors.
The unusual pentagon shape of the building is partially to blame for the litany of options, as it leaves windowless space towards the middle of each floor that is marketed as a den in addition to the bedrooms. During my tour of the units with Amy Manske, she noted that a number of tenants have found the dens make ideal theater rooms. The office-to-residential conversion has an additional side-effect in the form of storage rooms. Almost every floor has storage lockers for tenants in the middle of the floor, saving a trek to the basement to get out those Christmas decorations.
For the go-go-go resident, The Buckler offers a number of specially targeted amenities. On-site dry cleaning is available via the concierge on the first floor. A touchscreen ButterflyMX device at the front entrance provides video conferencing via a smartphone app and remote access control, so you never have to worry about logistics in letting the dog walker in to take Fido out for a walk.
Tenant parking is available underground in the building for $125 a month (45 stalls), and in a surface lot immediately east of the building (55 stalls) for $90 a month. Additional parking is available through a negotiated lease with Interstate Parking in the parking garage across Michigan St.
With the building coming online floor-by-floor and the snow coming down inch-by-inch, leasing activity has been slow to pick up at The Buckler so far. As of my tour in late January, the building was only 8.7 percent leased and 7.25 percent occupied. Laramar isn’t panicking, though, and says they’re on track. Regional manager Jamie McDonald noted that they “didn’t want to be overly optimistic.” Community manager Lindsay Pritzker said they’re “looking forward to leasing season,” which in Milwaukee kicks in when the snow melts and the sun shines.
About That Missing Sculpture
We’ve learned the fate of the missing “Peter John” steel sculpture. The 36-by-26 foot piece by artist John Raimondi didn’t grow legs and walk off. The developers “melted it down” according to Pritzker, but not until after reaching out to everyone they could and even offering to pay to transport it. Apparently not quite everyone though, as the artist himself told us last February “It’s too bad they didn’t reach out to me. I would have loved to buy that sculpture back.” Polly Morris of the Lynden Sculpture Garden also told Urban Milwaukee that when she reached out to the developer, she never received a response.
The Buckler won’t be totally absent public art though. They’ve commissioned a “small-scale replica” of the original sculpture at a height of six feet. The Milwaukee Art Museum also owns a small, bronze model of the original piece.
The sculpture was originally commissioned by Blue Cross Blue Shield for their new building and paid for by the will of an insurance policy holder at a price of $20,000. It was installed in 1978 when the firm moved into the new building. Reached by phone today, Raimondi believes that by scrapping the statue the developers “threw away a $200,000 tax deduction” had they simply given it to a non-profit, like “a college within walking distance.” The artist estimated the replacement cost of the statue today could easily exceed $250,000.