Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Council Approves New Deal for The Couture

After infighting, City Hall clearing way for $188 million tower.

By - Mar 19th, 2021 09:37 am
The Couture as seen from the north. Rendering by Rinka Chung Architecture.

The Couture as seen from the north. Rendering by RINKA.

The Common Council, aimed at ending infighting within City Hall, unanimously adopted a revised development agreement for The Couture on Friday morning.

The 56-page agreement details the terms and timeline for how developer Barrett Lo Visionary Development is to proceed with completing the 44-story luxury apartment tower with a streetcar station in its base. The city, through tax incremental financing, is providing $19 million to build the three-story transit concourse and relocate a sewer on the site at 909 E. Michigan St.

The latest deal comes after City Attorney Tearman Spencer refused to sign the prior agreement, approved March 2nd.

The attorney, in multiple letters to the council, argued that the council overstepped its authority by superseding the Department of City Development and adding a $100,000 anti-displacement donation requirement for Barrett Lo to the deal. Barrett Lo, however, agreed to the provision.

The council saw leverage given that developer Rick Barrett, no relation to the mayor, failed to start construction by February 1st, as required in the December 2020 version of the agreement.

Barrett was back before the city earlier this year seeking a liability shield for his investors. The institutional investors were concerned that if the streetcar line wasn’t completed in time, the federal government would seek a refund on a portion of the $14.2 million grant given to the city to build the extension, and the city would in turn go after the investors.

The city has until summer 2022 to complete the line under a Federal Transit Administration extension.

The Department of City Development forwarded a deal to the council in February that would have Barrett and partner Tan Lo personally guarantee $1.41 million, the unspent portion of the grant, and the city waive any future claim for the remainder of the grant.

But the council, led by Alderman Robert Bauman, unanimously adopted the amendment for Barrett Lo to contribute $100,000 to the non-profit operated MKE United anti-displacement fund.

That amendment said Spencer, and Mayor Tom Barrett, was overstepping the authority of the council. Though it has amended deals in the past, Spencer argued the council has only the authority to approve, not alter the agreements.

The council dug in, with Common Council President Cavalier Johnson ultimately negotiating a compromise with Spencer.

Under the latest deal, the council and Spencer will jointly select an outside attorney to review the legality of the council’s action. In the meantime, Barrett Lo will place the $100,000 into an escrow account. The funds will be refunded if the outside attorney determines the provision to be invalid, but the rest of the agreement will still be in force.

A special meeting was called for Friday morning to approve the deal.

But at the meeting, not a single member discussed the resolution. The resolution title was read into the record and the council voted. Less than 10 minutes after it started, the meeting was over.

“I believe I have made very clear my procedural and ethical concerns about the late inclusion of requiring The Couture developer to make a $100,000 donation to the Milwaukee development fund, I have not changed those concerns in any way,” wrote Spencer in a statement after the vote. “However, in light of impending financial deadlines which if missed will greatly add to the cost to the project, the city’s best interests require us to move forward or lose the opportunity to avoid these unacceptable costs.”

Barrett Lo also praised the revised agreement.

“We applaud City leadership in reaching a solution that enables The Couture to advance. In particular, we’d like to thank Common Council President Cavalier Johnson, DCD Commissioner [Lafayette] Crump and Alderman Bauman for their tireless work and leadership in crafting this resolution, and the entire Common Council and City Attorney for their support in moving it forward,” said Rick Barrett in a statement. “With this action and prompt signatures by City officials, we will be able to move towards an early April closing and start of construction.”

For more on the disagreement, see our article from Wednesday.

The tower was first proposed in response to a county request-for-qualifications process in 2012. The tower is being designed by RINKA and will be constructed by J.H. Findorff & Son.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is providing a loan guarantee on a $103.5 million loan to develop the project.

Under the latest agreement, Barrett Lo must begin construction by July 1st. The developer has 42 months to complete the tower once construction starts.

The streetcar extension, for which track down E. Michigan St. and E. Clybourn St. is already in the ground, must be able to be put in service by June 30th, 2022. Barrett Lo must provide the city $100,000 to hire a consultant to monitor the developer’s progress in delivering the public transit concourse. Milwaukee County‘s East-West bus rapid transit line will also use the transit concourse.


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Related Legislation: File 2015723

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