New Apartments for N. Water St. Draw Opposition
Brandon Rule seeks to build workforce housing development along Milwaukee River.
Developer Brandon Rule wants to build a new apartment building at 1887 N. Water St. on Milwaukee’s Lower East Side. But he needs to do it quickly and at least one area resident is promising to organize to stop him.
Rule Enterprises, in partnership with nonprofit developer Movin’ Out, secured low-income housing tax credits in April 2020 to support the development of a five-story, 79-unit building with 60 units set aside at below-market rates for people making less than 60% of the area median income.
The credits, which will form the core of the equity in the building’s financing package and ensure the units remain affordable for at least 30 years, will lapse if Rule doesn’t get a zoning change that will allow him to start construction.
Alderman Nik Kovac held a virtual meeting Wednesday that was attended by nearly 50 people. After more than two hours of discussion and half the attendees leaving, two thirds of those that remained said they opposed the project.
“This is really targeted at people that are working in the area,” said Rule in explaining the plan. He noted that the area has seen a substantial amount of market-rate housing development. “For me, a sustainable community needs to have all types of incomes.”
The strength of the nearby market is a deviation from Rule’s past two Milwaukee projects, SEVEN04 Place at 704 W. National Ave. and THIRTEEN31 Place at 1331 W. National Ave. The latter project is currently under construction.
Rule’s latest proposal, EIGHTEEN87 on Water, is for a waterfront site that has been targeted by developers for more than a decade. The long-vacant, one-story Pro Graphics Inc. building would be demolished to clear the 41,469-square-foot lot. The Common Council last approved a zoning change to support a four-story, 87-unit building on the site in 2013, but that project didn’t advance.
The new plan calls for a mix of one, two and three bedroom layouts. The building will have a community room, fitness center, free WiFi, in-unit washer and dryers and a rooftop patio on the third floor overlooking the Milwaukee River.
Two-story townhouse units would line the base of the building, shielding the parking structure from the street. Many of the units on the upper floors would have balconies.
“We’re really intentional with the programming we’re doing here,” said Rule.
A new Milwaukee RiverWalk segment would be constructed high above the river, similar to the adjacent Riverbridge Condominiums, because of the height difference between the street and river. A natural bluff would be maintained between the building and river.
A vacant lot to the west is planned for the second phase of the River House apartments which are located further west near N. Holton St.
“They’ve been as responsive as they can be,” said Kovac of city requested design changes centered around material selection and building depth. “I do know that they are on a pretty compressed schedule.”
Another change is to connect the western riverwalk segment with a planned trail down to the river and the River House riverwalk. A portion of the vacant lot to the west is protected by an easement for Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and wouldn’t be developed.
Movin’ Out, Rule Enterprises’ partner, intends to set aside 16 units for people with disabilities as part of its mission. It would be the Madison-based nonprofit’s first Milwaukee development, but it has a number of projects elsewhere in the state including in nearby Brown Deer.
The building would have only 53 parking spaces, which Rule said end up at a close to one-to-one ratio for units where people are expected to drive. He said that is based on experience at his other developments and from information from past project partners.
“We are hoping to host people that work in this neighborhood so the appeal is not needing to own a car,” said Movin’ Out representative Megan Schuetz.
But real estate agent and Highbridge Condominiums resident Christine Caponigro, in a speech lasting more than five minutes, said Rule’s project didn’t have enough parking, could have up to six people per unit living in it and would negatively impact her property value. She pledged to form a coalition of nearby condo associations to object to the project and address other neighborhood issues.
Caponigro asked if the disabled residents would include drug addicts. Schuetz said the disabilities were determined by federal standards, evaluated by a doctor and did not regularly include drug addiction.
The real estate agent said she has lived in her unit since 2019, moving from Brookfield, but was very familiar with the neighborhood. She said the East Side, including her building, were already diverse.
A resident of a multi-story residential building with no commercial space, she asked Rule multiple times what his building, another multi-story residential building with no commercial space, would add to the neighborhood.
Rule cited the opportunity for people of all income levels to live in the neighborhood, citing an earlier speaker who said they had to move out of the neighborhood because of rising costs. He said issues with drag racing and other quality of life problems cited by Caponigro weren’t the fault of his proposed building, but he looked forward to being part of the solution.
Schuetz added that the new building would replace a blighted, vacant building and new residents would serve as eyes on the street to deter and report crime.
Caponigro said she disagreed.
Kovac said he wished he had interrupted to reject the question. He said that the East Side was not that diverse, being the whitest area of the city and having only a single new affordable housing development (Greenwich Park Apartments) developed during his 13 years in office.
The alderman said he would support the associations working together to address issues, but wouldn’t support intentionally increasing the parking supply.
Other attendees had different feedback.
Ed Richardson, who lives next door in Riverbridge and is a planner with DCD, said he supports affordable housing at the site, but wanted to see a better plan for the space between the buildings or a setback. He said removing some of the trees would allow more light in and asked for a shadow study be completed. “I feel like this building is being kind of shoehorned in here,” said Richardson.
Other residents of Riverbridge echoed Richardson’s concern.
A diagram presented by the development team shows a 15-foot gap between the buildings. The five-foot EIGHTEEN87 portion of the gap would be used as private access to a townhome and a green space.
“If we weren’t able to build this way there would be no building there,” said Rule of the challenges with the site. “There is no other way that we can design this building and build it, unfortunately.”
“I really like the building design,” said former Kovac aldermanic opponent Jacob Marek. “I think it’s a great addition to the neighborhood and I will be living down the street from it.”
One nearby resident complained about having bought a unit across the street in Highbridge and that renters would now block their view, occupy street parking and damage their resale value.
“The city has always contemplated that there would be a building here,” said Kovac. The new building is 10 feet taller than what is currently approved.
A zoning change for the project will next go to the City Plan Commission for a recommendation and the Common Council for a final decision.
Rule would purchase the property, currently assessed for $1.24 million, from Carl Tomich.
Update: An earlier version of this article misspelled Caponigro as Capanigro.
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