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Milwaukee’s Historic Lakefront Opportunities

A once-in-a-generation building spree will change the skyline and lakefront access

Sep. 18, 2013
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Beginning this fall, Milwaukee leaders will be seizing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to add high-rises to the city’s skyline, improve access to the lakefront and develop under-used space in the Third Ward and beyond.

The broad public and private sector plans are anchored by a new $400 million tower to house up to 3,000 Northwestern Mutual Life employees, reconfigured ramps leading to the Hoan Bridge and I-794, and an improved street grid that will make access to the lakefront, the central business district and the Third Ward much easier for drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists.

Rocky Marcoux, Milwaukee’s Department of City Development commissioner, said the combined developments would solve the city’s age-old disconnection between a central business district established on bluffs 20 to 30 feet above the lakefront and its world-class cultural assets and view.

“People always say, I can see it, but how do I get there?” Marcoux told the Shepherd.  

The answer, Marcoux said, was fixing the infrastructure first by extending Lincoln Memorial Drive and Michigan Avenue, transforming the blighted east end of Clybourn Street into a genteel, grand boulevard, and redesigning the ramps leading to the Hoan and I-794.

And talk about shovel-ready: the projects are set to begin in October.

Here’s what to expect.


Getting from Here to There

Thanks to a state-county-local deal, Lincoln Memorial Drive will no longer terminate at the ramps leading to the Hoan Bridge and I-794.

The upcoming redecking of the Hoan gave local leaders a once-in-a-generation opportunity to tinker with the configuration of the ramps so that city traffic will flow more smoothly and no longer cut off the lakefront from the Third Ward and the southern end of Downtown.

Carolynn Gellings, who is managing the $278 million Hoan Bridge project for the state Department of Transportation, said preliminary work will begin in mid to late October with prep work for the major stages of the project, which stretches from Carferry Drive in Bay View and across the Hoan to the Milwaukee River on I-794. Traffic will always move in both directions, she said, although it will flow more slowly due to construction. “Plan ahead,” she advised, while traveling through that corridor until work is complete at the end of 2015.

The redesigned ramps will allow Lincoln Memorial Drive to stretch into the Third Ward and Clybourn Street to get a vast upgrade.

Speaking at a Business Journal-sponsored event on Friday, Moderne and Couture developer Rick Barrett shared his vision of the new Clybourn Boulevard, which includes high-end retail along the newly walkable and attractive streetscape.

“This concept has exponential growth ramifications,” Barrett said, “answering the two most critical issues to this city’s long-term success. One, economic development and jobs. And two, property tax base generation.”


The New Skyline

Improved access to the lakefront and points south and west are spurring new developments in commercial and residential real estate, a building boom that Milwaukee sorely needs. The major projects include:

* The new Northwestern Mutual Life tower: NML could have expanded its footprint in Franklin, where 2,300 employees work on its campus. But the iconic company chose to expand in Downtown Milwaukee instead.

“A lot of people watch NML for their real estate investments,” Marcoux said. “This is the best possible unpaid advertising the city could ask for.”

The company will raze its 16-story East Building on Wisconsin Avenue this fall and replace it with a 30-story, 1.1 million-square-foot tower, the largest single-tenant office building in the state. The tower will house at least 3,000 employees, up from the 1,100 currently working in the East Building.

All of the workers will be moved by October and demolition will begin in December, after the Milwaukee Police Department and Milwaukee Fire Department conduct training exercises in the vacant building. Construction is expected to begin in the second half of 2014.

Although NML is a major Fortune 500 company, the city created a Tax Incremental District (TID) for the project to help cover some of the infrastructure costs and allow the city to improve access to Lincoln Memorial Drive. Under the terms of the agreement, NML will cover the costs of the tower project, estimated to be $400 million. The company will have up to $54 million of tax payments reimbursed for up to 25 years and has agreed to employment targets with penalties if it doesn’t live up to those promises. The TID also includes $18 million of city funds for improved infrastructure and streetscaping, including the changes being made to Lincoln Memorial Drive, Clybourn and other nearby streets as part of the Lakefront Gateway Project.

* 833 East Michigan and The Couture: Just a block away from the new NML tower is the site of two in-the-works high-rises.

Irgens is developing the office tower at 833 East Michigan as state-of-the-art, technology-driven, energy-efficient office space with a restaurant on the first floor, a fitness center, on-site parking and skywalk connections to the US Bank building and its office ramp. Ground-breaking is expected to begin in February 2014 and its completion date is the end of 2015.

Nearby is Rick Barrett’s planned $160 million Couture, to be sited on the Milwaukee County-owned land currently occupied by the Transit Center. Barrett is aiming to construct a high-end residential building with a boutique hotel and commercial and public space on the ground level. Pedestrian walkways over Lincoln Memorial Drive and Michigan Avenue are part of the plans as well. Although it isn’t a done deal, he told the Business Journal gathering that he has overcome legal questions regarding his ability to build on this site and is scheduled to break ground in early 2015.

* MAM’s upgrade: The Milwaukee Art Museum is planning to add an 8,000-square-foot atrium to the eastern portion of its site to protect its artwork, provide an east entrance for those along the lakefront, and a top deck with a green roof and a memorial garden for veterans. The upgrades are part of MAM’s deal with the War Memorial and Milwaukee County, which was approved unanimously by the county board and allowed to go into effect without being signed by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele. The deal includes a $25 million capital investment, $10 million from the county and $15 million to be raised by MAM. MAM Director Dan Keegan said it would likely be completed by the fall of 2015.

* The next corporate HQ: The reconfiguration of the Hoan and Lake Interchange ramps opens up about three acres on the south side of the new Clybourn Boulevard for the development of a 750,000-1 million-square-foot structure. Marcoux told the Shepherd that land would be perfect for a major corporation’s headquarters, since it would have unimpeded views of Lake Michigan. “You can’t build across from it,” Marcoux said. He said the city plans to market that site nationally to lure an out-of-state corporation to this one-of-a-kind site.

* The ICC’s future: The planned extension of Lincoln Memorial Drive to Chicago Street and the loss of parking space under ramps and bridges on the northern end of the Third Ward provides new and rare opportunities for the Italian Community Center (ICC). In conjunction with the Marcus family, the ICC is considering redeveloping its 15-acre site. Katie Falvey, a real estate expert working for the Marcus family, said the highest and best use of that property could include residential, retail, restaurants and entertainment options, as well as underground parking for the public. Falvey said that basic amenities the neighborhood currently lacks—such as a grocery store and pharmacy—would be a good fit for the site. She said she was “hugely supportive” of Lincoln Memorial Drive’s extension into the Third Ward.

“That connection is critical and really opens up opportunities,” Falvey told the Shepherd.


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