Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Mass Timber Vertical Farm Proposed

Beyond Organic now envisions 5-story, mass timber, solar-powered structure on near South Side.

By - Jan 31st, 2023 04:33 pm
716 W. Windlake Ave. Image from City of Milwaukee land management system.

716 W. Windlake Ave. Image from City of Milwaukee land management system.

A proposed five-story vertical farm took its first public step forward Tuesday morning.

The Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development unanimously recommended giving Beyond Organic an exclusive right to negotiate to buy a city-owned parking lot at 716 W. Windlake Ave., just south of W. Historic Mitchell St.

Beyond Organic, a Wauwatosa-based 501(c)(3) organization, is led by Laura Michele.

“Her vision is to create a vertical farm that is compact enough that it can be put into urban food deserts,” said project architect Jason Korb in an interview Friday. The architect said the 85,000-square-foot building would be constructed from mass timber. A solar power system would cover three sides of the building. “The idea is we make the thing as carbon neutral as possible.”

Korb + Associates Architects designed Ascent, the tallest mass timber building in the world, for New Land Enterprises. The 25-story apartment tower was completed last year.

Michele’s plans call for a mix of uses within a five-story structure. The first floor would have a cafe, retail store and aquaponics operation. The second floor would have an education center. The third and fourth floors would have soil-based planters. The fifth floor, which would be set back to allow rooftop farming, would be used as an event center. A large basement is also planned said Korb, and brings the effective structure size to 100,000 square feet.

“It was very important that the organization had some property that made sense,” said area alderman and Common Council President Jose G. Perez on Tuesday. “We are excited and hopeful this will come together.”

Korb, on Friday, credited Perez for being highly supportive of the project and helping find a site.

The zoning committee quickly recommended approval of the exclusive negotiation period. Korb was the only representative of the development team to appear before the committee. Potential financing sources for the project have not been disclosed.

Currently used as a parking lot, the site is listed as covering 0.71 acres between S. 7th St. and S. 8th St. Perez said if the Beyond Organic deal falls through he would seek to have the parking lot, one of several city-owned lots in the area, sold via a request-for-proposals process.

On Friday, Korb said the prototype vertical farm plan called for a seven-story building on a generic site. That height would maximize the structure size given the building code constraints on mass timber. But upon finding a specific site that was bigger than expected, the building height was reduced to five stories because the individual floors grew in size.

Beyond Organic would have the exclusive right to negotiate for the purchase of the property through Nov. 30 with a possible three-month extension. The Common Council would need to approve any future land sale and might need to approve a zoning change for the property.

Michele was a business partner with urban agriculture pioneer Will Allen on his business, Will Allen’s Beyond Organic LLC. That entity, according to state financial records, was dissolved in 2021. Michele’s organization was incorporated in 2020.

Allen launched Growing Power at 5500 W. Silver Spring Dr. in the 1990s and grew it into an internationally-recognized urban farming operation, but the organization shuttered in 2017 amidst financial difficulties. Allen and his partners were pioneers in developing aquaponics, where fish support the growth of hydroponically grown (water-based) plants. Growing Power was also a pioneer in training urban youth for careers in sustainable agriculture.

In 2010, Growing Power announced plans to develop its own five-story, vertical farm on the Silver Spring Drive site. Those plans never publicly progressed after being announced.

Allen’s Beyond Organic entity was created following Growing Power’s demise. It has worked with hemp and sold CBD oil.

As a result of the Ascent tower, Korb and his firm have become a nationally-recognized specialist in mass timber. The engineered product, made by combining layers of lumber that competes with steel and concrete, demonstrated its safety in a three-hour fire test conducted for the Ascent project. It’s been lauded for its sustainability benefits, including reduced weight and construction time, as well as its aesthetic benefits.

Korbs is also supporting Sid Grinker Restoration in the development of a seven-story, mass-timber office building in the Haymarket neighborhood north of Downtown.

The architect could also break the world record he helped set. In St. Louis, his firm is designing a 29-story building that would be approximately 30 feet taller than Ascent. That project, said Korb, is moving towards approval and ultimately groundbreaking. A number of other projects in the nation are also vying to break the record.

Korb said the firm has other mass timber projects under development in additional cities. The firm also has a large portfolio of more conventional buildings in the Milwaukee area.

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Related Legislation: File 221536

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