44-story Tower in Milwaukee Gets Mixed Reaction

Downtown Milwaukee's skyline could have a new tower added to the mix, but county leaders and residents seem split just hours after its announcement.

Yesterday we read and watched on the news that Milwaukee County's underutilized waste of space, the Milwaukee County Transit Center, could soon be replaced with a 44-story mixed-use tower that would house retail, a hotel and apartments.

This tower could also be a significant catalyst in encouraging more economic development in Downtown Milwaukee, especially along the lakefront. The County, via County Executive Chris Abele and its Economic Development arm, announced this tower and complex in what was supposed to be much fanfare and support. Instead, such heavy support seems to be slowly diminishing to a more neutral status among County leadership. Furthermore, a rather odd twist seems to be emerging in terms of city-suburban relations at both the citizen and political levels.

Going into this with the announcement, it was almost predictable for the general response - city residents were generally supportive and suburbanites generally questioned the need for such a project and if it should go at that location. But then hours later things go topsy-turvy.

While it looks like County Executive Abele wanted the project fast-tracked for negoiations and approvals, those that should be supportive of the project, the "Milwaukee" members of the Board, are slowing things down. This is going all the way up to the top of the Board, with Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic openly siding with the decision to curb the fast-tracking nature of this project. Meanwhile, those that usually are against Milwaukee projects, the suburban leadership of the Board, is rallying behind moving the tower project forward. Then, reviewing some of the comments posted on various Facebook walls of County leaders and bloggers, it's continually flipping over. Now it's the city residents being more vocal about questioning the project and suburbanites getting warmed up to the idea and giving it a green light.

I think what's causing this is a lot of new discussion about the present Transit Center, and new information that popped up in terms of whether or not any development should occur there at all and whether the site falls under the Public Trust Doctrine (aka no no private development can occur on land which was at one time part of Lake Michigan and has since been filled in).

This is causing those who champion various causes to step in and raise concerns, and since it's likely that these people support the Milwaukee leadership of the County Board, the waters got more rough.

These environmental concerns, though, should likely result in suburban leaders and residents to push the project, citing various economic development and job creation talking points, and if anything be of great interest in watching how the Democratic-leaning leadership of the County Board responds and handles this. The questions now are: How influential are the people preparing to oppose this project? Will the Democratic side of the County split over this?

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Bren July 13, 2012 at 06:05 PM
Milwaukee's current commercial vacancy rate has dropped to 11.2% which is an improvement over 19% in 2009 (http://www.costar.com/News/Article/Market-Trend-Milwaukees-Office-Vacancy-Decreases-to-112/139789) and Milwaukee hotel peak season occupancy rates are in the 80% range on average (http://www.bizjournals.com/milwaukee/print-edition/2012/06/15/hotels-hope-for-busy-summer-season.html). These are steps in the right direction, but I'm not convinced that the existing market can support an additional influx of retail/hotel, and high-priced apartments when wages and employment rates are stagnant. I would hold off review of a construction project of this size and impact for at least two years.
Cricket July 14, 2012 at 02:09 AM
I heard something on the radio about people shying away from the condo market in favor of high end apartments. Makes sense for empty nesters or retiree's who no longer wish for the maintenance and hassle of a home. Downtown they are close to everything and still just a 10 minute drive or so to family and friends from the old neighborhoods. While I am no where near that stage of my life there are times where I long for a plushy apartment and any fixing is free and a phone call away. Hope it works out.
Bren July 14, 2012 at 03:00 PM
Cricket, you could be right about the apartments. A friend who recently took a job in NYC is trying to sell their high end condo on the East Side and has had no success in 6 months. But I'm still concerned about more retail space when the city is still looking at a commercial vacancy rate of more than 10%.
Jay Sykes July 14, 2012 at 03:12 PM
I thought that this piece of property also carried a specific public use restriction, placed upon the deed,from the time it was acquired for a freeway that was to connect the 'park-east' freeway with I-794 and the 'lake freeway'(Hoan bridge) section.
Cricket July 16, 2012 at 03:32 PM
Bren, I also agree that the retail space. I don't know if the building could support it. Perhaps a cafe or something like the Metro Hotel has, that's always busy, I go there for breakfast a lot but you are right - we need to fill up some of these other existing spaces first.


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