Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Northwestern Mutual Makes ‘Skyline-Defining’ Bet On Downtown

Insurance company celebrates construction start on $500 million tower overhaul.

By - Oct 3rd, 2023 01:09 pm
Northwestern Mutual North Office Building rendering (left), grounding photo (top right), CEO John Schlifske (bottom right). Rendering by Pickard Chilton, photos by Jeramey Jannene.

Northwestern Mutual North Office Building rendering (left), grounding photo (top right), CEO John Schlifske (bottom right). Rendering by Pickard Chilton, photos by Jeramey Jannene.

A drumline. Pyrotechnics. Golden sledge hammers.

Northwestern Mutual is fired up and ready to get to work overhauling its 19-story North Building as part of a $500 million plan to improve and expand its downtown campus.

“The project that we’re embarking on today marks a new chapter for our company and, I think, for downtown Milwaukee,” said chairman and CEO John Schlifske at a groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday morning in the middle of E. Mason Street. “The growth that we have achieved over the past decade is amazing and the manifestation of that growth is what you see happening to my left today.”

The insurance company will completely overhaul its 18-story, 540,000-square-foot North Building, turning the granite-clad structure into a peer for its signature glassy 32-story tower to the south. The company’s suburban Franklin campus will be shuttered, with the 2,000 employees relocated to Downtown.

“What we are celebrating goes far beyond a skyline-defining project,” said Mayor Cavalier Johnson of the construction jobs dedicated to unemployed city residents, philanthropic support from the company’s foundation and its vote of confidence in expanding in the city.

It’s also a pivot away from the company’s move to become a suburban employer. In 2001, Schlifske’s predecessor Ed Zore started the process to build the 800,000-square-foot Franklin campus, but the current CEO first committed to building the 32-story in 2013 and now is doubling down on Downtown with the second tower replacement.

“For us to have the confidence to put up another tower should just make everyone feel very comfortable that this is a city on the move and that more and more people want to work here, play here and live here,” said the CEO..

Schlifske said the process started almost two years ago. Describing a conversation with architect Jon Pickard, the insurance executive said he made it clear he didn’t want to put “lipstick on a pig.” Pickard’s firm, Pickard Chilton, came up with a plan to strip the 1990 tower down its core structure and repurpose it into a modern, more flexible office building that matches its Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons project on the south side of Mason Street.

“The modernized North Office Building that we’re working on today will provide even more room for us to collaborate, to welcome people to Milwaukee, to celebrate the culture of our company, expand what we do across the country and bring all these advisors from around the country into Milwaukee to sort of see, taste and experience what Northwestern Mutual is all about,” said Schlifske.

The complex will be able to house up to 9,000 employees said the CEO, with a current roster of 8,000 employees split between Milwaukee, Franklin and New York City. A network of 7,600 field representatives, who work for outside firms, sell the company’s products across the globe.

A city subsidy agreement, approved in March, calls for up to $30 million to be provided to the company across nearly two decades. It would be structured effectively as a property tax rebate on the increased revenue generated by the project. Northwestern Mutual, the city’s largest property taxpayer, would need to have at least 5,750 employees at the downtown campus by 2030 to be eligible for the full amount. A city report says the company has 4,480 employees in the city currently, including 3,958 actively working at the downtown campus.

“Ultimately, it’s all about attracting talent,” said Rebecca Villegas, vice president of enterprise compliance, in an interview when the project was announced in February. Villegas, who leads the project for the company, served as the emcee for Tuesday’s event.

Also speaking were Marquette University president Mike Lovell, CG Schmidt vice president Bryce Unger and Gilbane Building Co. vice president Alicia Dupies. A drumline from Carmen Schools of Science and Technology, a charter school supported by the company’s foundation, opened and closed the event.

The company hopes to complete the project by 2027. Starting at the end of 2023 and lasting through 2024, the building will be stripped from the top down. The revamped structure will then rise from the bottom up. Villegas said the company hopes to see as many materials as possible recycled or reused. The first tower project saw the East Building deconstructed into repurposed carpet, crushed granite for road building and recycled steel.

Pickard Chilton is leading the project’s design, with support from Houston-based Kendall/Heaton Associates. Eppstein Uhen Architects is providing interior design services. Cross Management Services will work on compliance with city hiring and contracting requirements. Hines is serving as project development manager.

Because the project is receiving more than $1 million in city financing assistance, NM is required to have 40% or more of the project’s work hours completed by unemployed or underemployed city residents certified through the Residents Preference Program. It must also contract with certified Small Business Enterprises for 25% of the project’s construction and supply costs and 18% of the professional services costs.

Northwestern Mutual’s 2017 project was highly lauded for two subcontractors leasing space in Century City to fabricate and assemble the glass curtain wall facade. Unger, of CG Schmidt, told the audience of one employee who started by learning how to install door frames on the 2017 project and has worked consistently for the contractor since starting through the Residents Preference Program.

Groundbreaking Photos

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Project Renderings

Current Site Photos

Cass Street Closure

The only part of the proposal to get any public pushback was the request to close one block of N. Cass Street between E. Mason and E. Wells streets. A skywalk current spans the street, connecting the North Building with the company’s parking structure. But Northwestern Mutual intends to build a connector building and plaza atop the street, creating an event space and lobby that would be open to the public. It will also reclad the parking structure at 777 N. Cass St. to match the other buildings.

“It’s so important to have this not just for our employees and sales folks, but also for the community so that you can come here, socialize, relax, connect with other people. And we’ve made it a point to open up parts of our campus to the Milwaukee community because community is what we’re all about,” said Schlifske.

But the like the tower to its south, which includes a Starbucks cafe, the building would open be Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. The council approved the street vacation, but only after the city’s Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee opposed the closure and triggered the Department of City Development to add a clawback provision and improve signage that clarifies access.

The city, several decades ago, vacated the block of N. Cass Street between E. Mason Street and E. Wisconsin Avenue. Northwestern Mutual built a plaza atop what effectively became a pedestrian street until it was demolished alongside the East Building and replaced by the 32-story tower.

Public Improvements

As state law allows, the city would expend increased revenue from the tax incremental financing district on a number of public improvements within a half mile of the district. A total of $10 million was allocated.

The E. Kilbourn Avenue protected bicycle lane is to be extended to N. Astor Street from N. Jackson Street. It would also include “better protection” for the existing protected lane east of N. Water Street, which is separated by plastic bollards and frequently has vehicles parked on top of it ($1 million). An additional north-south bike lane would be added from E. Mason Street to E. Kilbourn Avenue ($500,000).

The district would partially fund ($6 million) the reconfiguration of E. Michigan Street between N. Lincoln Memorial Drive and N. Cass Street, a leftover project from the Lakefront Gateway project that relocated the nearby freeway ramps. The proposal includes, amongst other changes, preparing the street for the streetcar to begin operation and removing the high-speed turn lanes that pedestrians must cross to access the lakefront festival grounds.

The intersection of E. Kilbourn Avenue, N. Astor Street and N. Prospect Avenue would be redesigned to better connect with Juneau Park as part of the funding allocation ($1 million).

Juneau Park would also see upgrades, including lighting, building and landscape improvements ($400,000) and a wider Oak Leaf Trail segment from E. Mason Street down to the main trail at the bottom of the bluff ($250,000). Cathedral Square Park would see its long-disused fountain removed and pathways rebuilt ($100,000).

The east side of N. Lincoln Memorial Drive between the Milwaukee Art Museum and landing of the E. Mason Street bridge would receive a sidewalk, replacing a well-trodden informal path created by pedestrians that signals the demand for such an improvement ($250,000).

A $500,000 public infrastructure contingency fund is included to cover any potential cost overruns or changes in scope.

The subsidy agreement also requires Northwestern Mutual to expend $2.5 million over five years on youth programs for economically disadvantaged youth or affordable housing efforts. Through its foundation, the company has recently backed a substantial effort to improve an entire block in the Amani neighborhood.

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2 thoughts on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Northwestern Mutual Makes ‘Skyline-Defining’ Bet On Downtown”

  1. Keith Prochnow says:

    Wonderful, just wonderful!!

  2. DAGDAG says:

    What really would be a great idea is for them to put in an observation deck open to the public. Once upon a time, the “First Wisconsin” building had one. I bet that even if there was a charge to visit it, it would be a big attraction. And, it would be a great way to promote both NM and the city.

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