East Side Apartment Complex Gets Key Approval
"Overwhelming" opposition doesn't stop approval of new affordable housing complex.
The last public hearing for a proposed new apartment building drew little opposition, but that doesn’t mean no one is opposing the building.
Developer Brandon Rule is seeking to build a five-story, 79-unit building at 1887 N. Water St. on Milwaukee’s Lower East Side. It would include a mix of one, two and three-bedroom units and 53 parking spaces.
But Kovac is still backing the project, as is the committee. It voted unanimously to advance a zoning change to the full Common Council.
Known as EIGHTEEN87 on Water, the building would include 60 units set aside for those making less than 60% of the area’s median income. It would replace a vacant, one-story industrial building that sits atop a bluff along the Milwaukee River. A zoning change, overriding one for a never-built 2013 project on the same site, is necessary for the project to advance.
Kovac said his office has received 13 letters in support and 24 in opposition, with the number of supporters growing following a hearing before the City Plan Commission last week and two articles by this publication. A handful of the comments explicitly reference Urban Milwaukee as their reason for writing. “I look forward to reading this article too,” said the alderman.
Following a series of public meetings and the plan commission hearing the building design has been refined, including relocating the proposed structure four feet west to open up more space between it and the Riverbridge Condominiums complex to the east.
Rule told the committee that the design process of the building has been very intentional, as was the site selection. “In order to create a sustainable community you have to also have mixed incomes,” he said.
The development team secured low-income housing tax credits in April 2020 to support the development, but Rule said presenting the final design of the building was delayed because of challenges in engineering the riverwalk that wraps the building and other structural elements. The site slopes downhill to the Milwaukee River. “It’s a really, really difficult site to build on,” he said.
The tax credits offset the expected cost of reducing rents to below-market rates and provide up-front capital to develop the project. The developer secured credits for those making 60, 50 and 30 percent of the Milwaukee County median income. Rents for the specific units will be capped at 30% of the associated income level, a rate the federal government deems is not “cost-burdened.”
Movin’ Out intends to set aside 16 of the tax-credit supported units for people with disabilities as part of its mission.
“This is an embodiment of what we have been pushing developers to do,” said Ald. Ashanti Hamilton. He added that he was happy that Rule and owner’s representative Michael Emem, both of whom are Black, are leading the development team.
The alderman delineated the criticism of the new project into two buckets: valid criticism of the design and veiled criticism of low-income housing. He said issues being raised about drug addicts, crime and property values fell into the latter.
“I think we as a community need to be honest about the implications of some comments,” he said. Kovac said his office has received a number of concerns about lower property values from the development. “The other implication of this is why would this lower property values. It won’t. It will improve property values.”
Kovac said extending the riverwalk would be an amenity for all residents.
“The neighborhood will be safer by not having a vacant lot. I don’t think that’s controversial,” he added.
Karen Coy-Romano said she lives in affordable housing on the East Side, her home for 54 years. “I am appalled by the attitudes of Milwaukee home and condo owners,” she told the committee. “We are a segregated city and poverty is growing.”
“These are quiet, law-abiding people, not drug addicts,” she said.
But Tatiana Bacellar, a condo owner in the adjacent Riverbridge complex, said Kovac was painting everyone with a broad brush to dismiss their concerns. “I found the comment Alderman Kovac made to be inappropriate and irresponsive to the current residents he represents.”
Bacellar referenced a series of mass shootings, including at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, in her testimony as a reason for the change in neighborhood support for the development of the site. She also said speeding and broken glass were concerns. But Kovac said he thought the development would bring more people watching for crime and he didn’t understand why Sandy Hook would be referenced.
Rule said the building would have full-time, on-site property management.
Department of City Development planner Ed Richardson, who lives in a Riverbridge unit overlooking the development, testified in his personal capacity. He said he welcomed affordable housing development in the area, but still had concerns with the building’s design. In addition to concerns about lighting, he brought up concerns with the height of trees to be left on the bluff and how they would interact with the riverwalk. Emem said the development team was still reviewing what trees would be left and which would be removed.
“I’m sensitive to this setback issue,” said Ald. Robert Bauman. But he placed part of the blame on the Riverbridge building, which is built nearly to its lot line. “With all due respect they really can’t come in later and say ‘oh we are too close to the building next door’ when it was their building that was too close.”
DCD is formally supporting the project. Planning manager Sam Leichtling said some conditional items remain to be worked out, including grates covering the parking structure, but that the department was comfortable with the revisions made to the building.
The Common Council will consider the zoning change at its July 27th meeting. No public testimony is taken during full council meetings.