Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Western Hemisphere’s Tallest Timber Tower Okayed

New Land's 21-story apartment tower, Ascent, gets approved by council committee.

By - Feb 20th, 2019 01:25 pm
Ascent, 21-story mass timber apartment building. Rendering by Korb + Associates.

Ascent, 21-story mass timber apartment building. Rendering by Korb + Associates.

A zoning change for the tallest wood building in the Western Hemisphere was given unanimous approval by the Common Council’s Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee Wednesday morning.

New Land Enterprises is planning to build Ascent, a 21-story tower with 201 apartments, on a long-vacant site at the northeast corner of N. Van Buren St. and E. Kilbourn Ave. The tower would be largely built of a man-made lumber product that is designed to be environmentally friendly and more attractive than steel or concrete. “The goal of the glazing in large part is to expose that material,” said architect Jason Korb of the tower’s many windows.

“I think the design is outstanding,” said committee member and area alderman Robert Bauman.

New Land, led by director Tim Gokhman, hopes to begin construction this fall. Should it proceed on schedule, construction would take 17 months according to Gokhman. The building could open as early as 2021.

The firm, always looking to push technological or design boundaries, has packed a number of amenities into the proposed tower. On the sixth floor, a four-seasons indoor pool would be surrounded by operable windows. A sauna, steam room and entertainment center are also planned for the floor. The top floor would be a resident amenity level with two outdoor decks, fire pits, grilling stations, a clubhouse, kitchen and co-working space. Every unit has a recessed balcony.

Mass timber is an engineered product made by combining layers of lumber into a stronger material. The material is capable of building much taller buildings than conventional wood construction methods because it only chars (rather than burning through) in a fire and offers enhanced strength. “The entire wood structure, and this would never happen, could burn down and the cores would be left standing,” said Korb in January. He compared it to Trinity Church, which even after a devasting fire in 2018 still had its old-growth lumber trusses standing.

The engineered material offers substantial environmental benefits over steel or concrete. Because of its reduced weight, it also can reduce the size of a building’s foundation allowing faster construction. Construction speed is further enhanced with the use of prefabricated components. “It can go up incredibly quickly. We estimate the 16 floors will go up in four months,” said the architect at a prior hearing. New Land and Korb + Associates Architects are working with engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti on the building’s structure.

Approximately 8,000 square feet of commercial space is planned for the southwest corner of the site at 700 E. Kilbourn Ave. “Do you have any confirmed tenants or likely tenants,” asked Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs. “Yes, likely,” responded Korb with a smile on his face. New Land recently opened a food hall on the East Side and has worked with James Beard Award finalist Justin Carlisle to open or plan restaurants in many of its other buildings.

New Land released plans in July to build a seven-story mass timber office building, the city’s first, along the Milwaukee River in Westown.

The apartment tower would be taller than an 18-story, 174-foot-tall mass timber building in Canada. A larger, but not taller, mass timber, two-building complex is planned for Cleveland.

The 238-foot-tall tower would be 10-to-12 feet taller than the conventionally-built Yankee Hill apartment tower located across N. Van Buren St. according to Korb.

A number of other big timber towers are proposed across the globe. An 80-story, 748-foot-tall tower is proposed for Chicago. A 300-foot tower is proposed for Portland. But the biggest proposal is a 1,148-foot-tall tower planned for Tokyo, Japan.

The plan, which requires a zoning variance, must next go before the full Common Council. It was previously recommended for approval by the City Plan Commission.


How Much Parking is Enough?

Bauman, the council’s leading transit advocate, asked if New Land could reduce the number of parking spaces in the building. The plan currently calls for 270 spaces, approximately one per bedroom.

“If we could, we would,” said Gokhman. “Building parking is a loser, we lose money on it.” Even though the spaces are leased for an additional amount, developers frequently can’t recoup the full cost of building and maintaining the spaces in a large garage.

The developer added: “We are so far not seeing any drop in car ownership on the high end of the market, and that’s nationwide.” Gokhman said the firm intends to design the garage’s layout so that portions of it could be repurposed should that change in the future.

Rents in the building, according to Gokhman, are expected to be comparable to the nearby 7Seventy7 tower.

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2 thoughts on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Western Hemisphere’s Tallest Timber Tower Okayed”

  1. TransitRider says:

    Just 3 days ago, UM’s weekly “Urban Reads” post included a story about the upsurge in taller wooden buildings (including “mass timber”—which seems to me like just another name for “plywood”). The gist of the story is that this type of construction has become popular because it is cheap and better in earthquakes (which might explain why wooden buildings are considered in Vancouver or Japan). It’s only recently become legal because of relaxed building codes.

    Just 3 years ago, a modern, high-end, luxury 408-unit apartment building burned to the ground across the river from New York City; it was made of wood. Nobody was killed (the building had only 4 stories), but everything inside (including all the cars parked in the garage) was destroyed.

    Is the Milwaukee Fire Department up to facing a fire in a high-rise, wooden building?

  2. Jeramey Jannene says:

    @TransitRider – At the City Plan Commission hearing in January, the development team said they were scheduled to meet again in mid-Marchg with the fire department and code enforcement division to review the plan.

    My understanding of the technology is that CLT/Mass Timber is not supposed to burn like what happened in New Jersey, where the building collapsed and fire was able to spread quickly. The multiple layers of wood are designed to char, not burn. That helps slow the spread of the fire. In my reading on the Vancouver tower (the current tallest) other fire safety measures were put in place to slow any fire from spreading.

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