Jeramey Jannene
Transportation

City Confident Couture Won’t Block Streetcar

Federal grant at risk if lakefront extension to The Couture isn't running by end of 2020.

By - Jun 5th, 2019 12:45 pm
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The Couture Rendering. Rendering by Rinka Chung Architecture.

The Couture Rendering. Rendering by RINKA.

Department of Public Works Commissioner Jeff Polenske seems sure that a streetcar extension through The Couture will be operating by December 31st, 2020.

“We still feel confident in having that loop completed in the time we need it,” said Polenske at a meeting today of the Public Works Committee.

Polenske said that even if the 44-story building wasn’t complete, which seems all but certain based on a projected 28-month construction timeline, the streetcar could still be operating through the site with a temporary stop on E. Clybourn St.

The city, through contractor Kiewet Infrastructure, has completed approximately two-thirds of the lakefront extension of The Hop which will run via E. Michigan St. and E. Clybourn St. to The Couture site at 909 E. Michigan St.

The extension, approved as part of the original $124 million streetcar approval in 2015, is being funded in part by a $14.2 million federal grant that requires the line to be operational by December 31st, 2020.

“Do we have a plan B? Have we investigated a plan? What’s the drop-dead date to make a decision?” asked committee chair Alderman Robert Bauman.

“We have a project that’s moving forward,” said Polenske. “You keep saying that, but it’s not,” responded Ald. Michael Murphy. Construction, much of which was completed in 2018 alongside the system’s first line, has been idle for months.

Polenske said in order to complete the project in time the city would have to begin exploring other options by “mid summer, late summer.” That’s only six weeks away, Murphy fired back.

A mid-to-late summer date would line up with another key deadline. The Couture, which would include more than 300 luxury apartments and a three-story concourse in its base, has been delayed repeatedly since it was first proposed in 2012. Developer Barrett Lo Visionary Development was recently given an extension until July 26th to submit a final application for a federal loan guarantee. As part of that application, developer Rick Barrett (no relation to the mayor) has said he’s working to raise the remaining $15 million in equity needed to fulfill a federal requirement.

Sources have told Urban Milwaukee that the equity requirement on the project was raised to approximately $50 million.

“HUD would not have extended the deadline if they weren’t pleased with the progress that has been made,” said Department of City Development economic development specialist Dan Casanova. He told the committee that the city holds weekly conversations with Barrett’s team. “It’s a very challenging project.”

“Would it be useful to apply for an extension just in case?” asked Ald. Cavalier Johnson.

Not feasible, Polanske suggested: “There is a federal process that I believe the Federal Transit Administration doesn’t even want to go down,” he noted.

Polenske said that integrating the project into the base of The Couture was a key component in securing the federal grant from the administration of President Barack Obama.

Bauman suggested that the city should have its engineers studying what would be involved in constructing an alternative station in front of Discovery World on the east side of N. Lincoln Memorial Dr. Polenske said they haven’t started a formal process on alternatives yet, but any change is likely to require additional funding.

Bauman also said that a final engineering study of the route for Milwaukee County’s East-West Bus Rapid Transit line, which was proposed to also use the first-floor station in The Couture, shows the line circling the area instead of stopping in the building. Polenske said he wasn’t aware of such a change. A representative from the Milwaukee County Transit System did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

What happens if The Couture never gets built and no transit provisions are made on the site? Milwaukee County would owe the Federal Transit Administration millions of dollars. The integration of the transit lines into the base of the building was designed in response to demolishing the federally-funded Downtown Transit Center that was not yet 30 years old.

Milwaukee County sold the multi-acre site to Barrett for $500,000 in part because of the need to build a transit station in the building’s base or pay back the federal government.

The debate over the lakefront line comes as the Common Council has put a hold a $51.8 million proposal to extend the line to the convention center by 2020, build a new public plaza and plan extensions to Bronzeville and Walker’s Point.

Fare Collection on The Hop

A companion file regarding the plan and timing to install fare collection equipment on The Hop was held by the committee at the request of the Department of Public Works.

An initial project budget estimated that fares would only cover 20 percent of The Hop’s annual operating cost.

In 2019, The Hop’s operations are planned to be funded by a federal grant for operations ($3,457,754), the Potawatomi Hotel and Casino sponsorship ($691,670) and other advertising deals ($250,000).

For more on the potential of maintaining the streetcar system as a free service, see our January column “Should the Streetcar Be Free?”

Late 2017 Renderings and Site Plans

Renderings Released for Design Approval

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Related Legislation: File 190352

More about the Couture

More about the Milwaukee Streetcar

For more project details, including the project timeline, financing, route and possible extensions, see our extensive past coverage.

One thought on “Transportation: City Confident Couture Won’t Block Streetcar”

  1. Virginia Small says:

    RE: “Milwaukee County sold the multi-acre site to Barrett for $500,000 in part because of the need to build a transit station in the building’s base or pay back the federal government.”

    Jeramey, could you confirm the above? I recall price, discounted by about $9 million, was established by the Abele Administration, to make the project “feasible.” Was the streetcar even approved at the time?

    RE: What happens if The Couture never gets built and no transit provisions are made on the site? Milwaukee County would owe the Federal Transit Administration millions of dollars. The integration of the transit lines into the base of the building was designed in response to demolishing the federally-funded Downtown Transit Center that was not yet 30 years old.”

    So what was the rush in doing demolition before the project was actually funded? The Transit Center included an event space (Harbor Lights Room) that was generating income for Milwaukee County. That space could still be generating money and now it’s just another unsightly, highly visible vacant lot. And County taxpayers are now on the hook if the project does not get built.

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