Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Barrett, Officials Celebrate Couture Groundbreaking

Nine years after building was first proposed. 'Like making sausage. It's not pretty.'

By - Jun 16th, 2021 05:54 pm
The Couture groundbreaking with Common Council President Cavalier Johnson, Mayor Tom Barrett, developer Rick Barrett, developer Tan Lo, Alderman Robert Bauman and County Executive David Crowley. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The Couture groundbreaking with Common Council President Cavalier Johnson, Mayor Tom Barrett, developer Rick Barrett, developer Tan Lo, Alderman Robert Bauman and County Executive David Crowley. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Construction work on the tallest residential building in Wisconsin is underway. In fact, it’s been underway for more than a month. But that didn’t stop developers Rick Barrett and Tan Lo from gathering with public officials Wednesday to ceremonially break ground on the $190 million The Couture. The 44-story, 322-unit luxury apartment tower was first proposed in 2012, but a seemingly never-ending list of hurdles delayed the project. Many of the officials that spoke Wednesday weren’t even in office when the project was proposed.

“We came this close to it not happening,” said Common Council President Cavalier Johnson, first elected in 2016, while holding his fingers close together. “That would have been tragic for Milwaukee, that would have been tragic for Wisconsin, for our region, for our economy.”

Johnson praised Department of City Development Commissioner Lafayette Crump, first appointed in 2020, for stewarding the project to a groundbreaking while a fight emerged between the council and City Attorney Tearman Spencer.

“I am excited to see this building go up and more excited to the impact it will have on Milwaukee County and the state of Wisconsin,” said Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley, first elected in 2020. He was previously in the Wisconsin State Assembly, but only since 2017.

Both Johnson and Crowley praised the transit terminal in the building’s base that will serve both The Hop and the East-West Bus Rapid Transit line.

Crump praised the jobs it would create, noting that 400,000 work hours will go to unemployed or underemployed city residents as a result of the city’s $19.5 million tax incremental financing contribution that pays for the transit terminal and relocating a sewer.

Alderman Robert Bauman credits the inclusion of the streetcar in the building’s base, added after the tower was first proposed, as a reason the streetcar system got built at all. “The mere existence of that plan had a transformative effect on the impression that the streetcar was having on key people,” said Bauman, praising Barrett as one of the five most important people in making the streetcar happen.

“What we are seeing here today is the product of some incredible dreams,” said Mayor Tom Barrett, no relation to Rick Barrett. “But more importantly [the developers] took that dream and made it a reality.”

But in addition to the mayor and Bauman, there is one key city employee who has been on the project from the start.

Lori Lutzka has spent the last nine years of her life on this project and I want to thank her very, very much,” said the mayor. The DCD special projects manager appeared repeatedly before the council in recent years pledging that progress was being made while council members, including Bauman, expressed skepticism. Wednesday she watched from stage right, standing alongside her former boss, retired development commissioner Rocky Marcoux.

“I have been part of this for nine years too,” said Chang Suh, CEO of the AFL-CIO’s Housing Investment Trust. The union’s investment of its pension funds in the project, its third-largest transaction on record, is an essential piece of the project’s complicated financing stack.

A $104.7 million construction loan from Old National Bank is paired with $70 million in equity and the city funds to finance the development. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is providing a loan guarantee, the largest it has provided in the Midwest since 2000.

“It goes to show you what it takes to do a deal,” said HUD deputy regional administrator James Cunningham. “It’s like making sausage. It’s not pretty, but when it comes out it tastes really good.”

Architect Matt Rinka was the last to speak before Rick Barrett. The fortunes of the two have risen simultaneously since their first collaboration, the 30-story The Moderne apartment and condominium tower in Westown. They’ve completed other projects together since The Couture was first proposed, including apartments in Oak Creek, but this will be far be the biggest.

“One of the great beauties of architecture is that each time we start designing and constructing a new building it is like life starting all over again, in a sense it is a rebirth,” said Rinka, paraphrasing famed architect Renzo Piano.

Barrett, ever the dreamer, used the stage to sell a vision for the future of Milwaukee.

“We have swagger, we have city vibe and, most importantly, we in Milwaukee can compete to be great on the national scene with anyone at any time,” said the developer. He thanked all of the public partners for backing the project. “This is a huge win for Milwaukee.”

“The Couture will serve to sway people’s mindsets on Milwaukee being the best place to raise a family and start a business,” he said.

When Urban Milwaukee interviewed Barrett in May as the first construction equipment arrived on site, the developer was already talking about building an even bigger building.

It will be 2022 before the first levels of the new tower appear above ground. Given that each floor plate is about 9,600 square feet, Barrett hopes that general contractor J.H. Findorff & Son will be able to complete the structure of two floors per week.

The dirt tossed by officials won’t help the construction effort, but was the traditional part of the ceremony, held across the street atop the O’Donnell Park parking structure. But the two sites could one day be connected. A pedestrian bridge is planned to link The Couture with the park as well as bridges to the east and south.

Lincoln Property Company, Barrett Lo’s property management partner, will begin marketing apartments for lease in about a year said the developer. Floors four to 25 will be available first. A second elevator lobby on the 25th floor will service the upper units which will be available when the building is completed in 2023.

Approximately 30 units, all at the top of the building, have been pre-leased via $500 to $1,000 deposits. Barrett said those individuals, all Milwaukee area residents, are treating the units like condominiums they intend to reside in for a long time. The lower units will attract younger renters more likely to move frequently.

The Hop streetcar line through the building is expected to enter operation in June 2022, satisfying a federal grant awarded to the city. The East-West BRT project, for which construction kicked off last week, will use a temporary stop until the terminal is fully ready.

Barrett Lo Visionary Development acquired the 2.2-acre site at 909 E. Michigan St. in 2016 for $500,000 from Milwaukee County. The discounted cost came because Barrett Lo agreed to preserve a transit use at what was the Downtown Transit Center after demolishing the facility or pay back a federal grant of approximately $6 million.

The project was first proposed in 2012, a transit concourse was added to the base of the building in 2014 and a legal challenge to whether the site was on filled lakebed was resolved in 2015. Barrett Lo demolished the transit center in 2016, a revised design with 45,000 square feet of commercial space was approved in 2017 and in November 2018 the company announced it had been asked to formally apply to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for a loan guarantee. But Barrett Lo didn’t raise the required equity in time and the company spent much of the time since securing investors with the help of Robert W. Baird & Co.

Aside from Rinka and Barrett, only one of the six individuals that spoke at a 2012 press conference announcing Barrett’s selection as the winner of a request for qualifications process still holds elected or appointed office in Milwaukee. That is Russell W. Stamper, II, back then a county supervisor and now an alderman. He wasn’t at today’s groundbreaking.


May Construction Photos


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One thought on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Barrett, Officials Celebrate Couture Groundbreaking”

  1. NickR says:

    Rick Barret owes the city big time for letting that spot sit vacant for 5 years. I hope the city never lets him build another project here again.

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