Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Supervisors Question Couture Project

Staskunas says county should consider other options, doubts 44-story tower will happen.

By - Sep 11th, 2019 10:10 am
The Couture as seen from the north. Rendering by Rinka Chung Architecture.

The Couture as seen from the north. Rendering by Rinka Chung Architecture.

Supervisor Anthony Staskunas is the latest county board member to express concerns about the fate of The Couture project, a 44-story residential high rise planned for Milwaukee’s Downtown.

At a meeting of the Milwaukee County Board’s Committee on Economic and Community Development, Staskunas told the developer Rick Barrett, president of Barrett Lo Visionary Development, that he will inquire into whether or not the county could “move on” to another developer to advance the $120 million project on the lakefront.

For years, Barrett Lo has been working to put together the financing for The Couture. The company still doesn’t have everything in place. The firm recently hired Baird to help it find investors for the project in order to secure the final amounts of equity they need, Barrett told the committee.

In all this time Barrett Lo has been working on the financing, they have missed several important deadlines from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The department is underwriting a major loan that will comprise approximately 60 percent of the financing for The Couture.

In 2018 the company’s leaders received preliminary approval for a loan guarantee from HUD. But they were required to submit a final application once its financing was in place. They received two deadline extensions for this application. At the end of July they let the deadline lapse, as they still didn’t have financing in place. Assuming they get the final equity needed with Baird’s help, they will apply again to HUD, this time through the direct-to-firm program, which, Barrett, said, shouldn’t alter the project timeline from where it currently is.

But the continued delays are starting to agitate county officials. This time Staskunas was most noticeably troubled by the project. But in the fall of 2018, Supervisors John Weishan, Jr. and Marcelia Nicholson questioned Barrett Lo’s competence in a committee meeting.

Aaron Hertzberg, Economic Development Director for Milwaukee County said, “We all remain optimistic, at least from our side, that we will get there.”

The Couture project is intertwined with both Milwaukee County and the City of Milwaukee. And the delays have put funds and projects at risk. The Couture site is land that Milwaukee County sold to Barrett Lo. The developer first got an option on the land in 2014 and took over site control in late 2016. After that, the developer demolished the county transit center that was on the land, with the understanding that Barrett Lo would build a first floor station for the city’s streetcar and Milwaukee County’s planned Bus Rapid Transit line.

Hertzberg said the Downtown Transit Center that was demolished in early 2017 still had $6.7 million in value from a Federal Transit Administration (FTA) investment in the transit center. The FTA is allowing the construction of transit facilities in the first floor to offset the investment loss from demolition, but it set a construction deadline of Dec. 31, 2020. If it’s not built by then, the county will owe the FTA $6.7 million.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele’s administration is working with the FTA to secure an extension on the deadline for those funds Milwaukee County could potentially owe. And Barrett told the committee Monday that he feels confident, with the help of Baird, that his firm will get the financing they need. He added that he understands the concern over how much time the project has required so far. But he added: “Good things take time.”

Staskunas, though, told Barrett, “I’m having my doubts about whether this is going to come to fruition or not.” As a result, he said he would look into, “what can we as a county board do to move on from Barrett.”

Barrett’s response: “How many 40 story buildings do we have in Milwaukee, we have one. I know how hard this is. And if you were sitting on this side of the table, I don’t think you’d say what you’ve said.”


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