$100 million project planned for Milwaukee riverfront land

Published Monday, August 6, 2018
by The Business Journal

Michels Corp. plans a $100 million Milwaukee development on the former Horny Goat Hideaway property, anchored by one of its offices, that would combine apartments, a hotel and shopping around large plazas and a river walk, the Milwaukee Business Journal has learned.

It is planned for six acres along the Kinnickinnic River at First and Becher streets. Michels Corp., which is among the largest utility and civil construction companies in the country, acquired that land in recent years and on Monday released its redevelopment plan to the Milwaukee Business Journal.

Michels is the lead developer, and worked with Milwaukee firms Rinka Chung Architecture, WiRED Properties and the Barry Co. to develop the vision. The project is called River 1.

“Michels recognized they have an opportunity to do something that nobody else has,” said WiRED president Blair Williams. “Milwaukee just hasn’t quite seen this mix, and it hasn’t quite seen this level of effort.”

The project would have 220,000 square feet of office space in three riverside buildings, the first of which would include a regional office for Brownsville-based Michels. That first building, standing eight stories tall, could start construction this fall and be complete by summer 2020.

“Michels is proud of our heritage as a Wisconsin company that has been, and always will be, headquartered in Brownsville,” said Pat Michels, president of Michels Corp. “Our new Milwaukee office will be an important part of serving our customers and attracting top talent to our growing business.”

Michels would occupy the top three floors of the building, amounting to about 46,000 square feet. The first five floors, with 74,000 square feet, are being marketed to other tenants.

A 103-room hotel would be built at the corner of First and Becher. A neighboring apartment building would have 67 units on First Street. New storefronts would line First Street, and a restaurant would have public seating on a walkway along the river at First Street. Those contribute to the 20,000 square feet of retail space in the overall project.

All of the buildings would share two levels of new underground parking that Michels would build over the top of the entire property. The buildings would stand atop that parking structure, with 1,000 spaces.

New river walks, built with funding support from the city of Milwaukee, and a large public plaza off of Becher Street would provide public gathering spaces.

“It’s great that Michels Corp. continues to grow, and it’s great that Milwaukee is a big part of the company’s plans,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said. “What the Michels Family proposes on the banks of the Kinnickinnic River adds economic activity, public access to the water, and a transformative new investment in the Harbor District.”

Those uses are all planned for the first phase of construction, with a summer 2020 opening. The second and third planned office buildings would come in future phases.

Ald. Tony Zielinski, whose district includes the property, said he supports Michels’ concept, including the density of development and public spaces along the river, and has been in talks with the company through its planning process. Zielinski said he also supports the city financial help that is expected for the project.

“The city is going to be doing a number of things to make this a reality,” he said. “This is a catalytic project.”

Michels, in its press release, said the city is expected to help build the river walk, improve the right-of-way on Becher Street and assist cleaning the publicly accessible portions of the development site.

As Williams pointed out, the project could pack a lot of different activities into the six-acre site. Boaters could dock and come ashore for a meal at the restaurant, or for live music at the river walk. Corporate execs flying in through General Mitchell International Airport could stay at the hotel. Folks could work in the office buildings and live in the apartments. An outdoor, stepped amphitheater along the Kinnickinnic River on the site’s northwest corner could host music series. 

It would be a substantial investment for that part of Milwaukee. The immediate area is surrounded by active neighborhoods, but hasn’t seen this kind of large-scale, mixed use development before. Bay View is immediately south, Walker’s Point and the Harbor District are to the north.

“This is in our view a rapidly up-and-coming area of Milwaukee,” said Jim Barry, president of The Barry Co. “When you look at where other successful office developments have occurred in the 3rd Ward and 5th Ward, this is in our view the next hot office location.”

Barry said the underground 1,000 parking spaces are a big draw to potential tenants, and could make the site appeal to suburban users concerned with higher parking costs downtown, or a short supply in the 3rd Ward.

Michels already has itself as an anchor tenant for the first building, clearing a big hurdle to making it a reality. Barry will market remaining space in that building to other tenants. The second and third office buildings would come online based on leasing activity.

Williams said the hotel property has not yet been put on the market for operators. The hotel and apartment buildings could be built through Michels partnering with other developers, he said.

“The Michels are creating something that is generational in character,” Williams said. “Whoever it is that owns those pieces needs to be closely aligned.”


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