A $100 million mixed-use development, featuring offices, apartments and a possible hotel, is planned for a site overlooking the Kinnickinnic River in Milwaukee’s Harbor District.
Dubbed River 1, the project would be anchored by an office building housing around 400 Michels Corp. employees.
“This would be our Milwaukee presence,” said Dave Stegeman, Michels Corp. chief legal officer and vice president of mergers/acquisitions and real estate.
The 6-acre site is owned by affiliates of Brownsville-based Michels Corp., an underground utility contractor with 8,000 employees nationwide.
River 1 would be on a bend of the Kinnickinnic River, west of South First Street and north of West Becher Street.
That’s within Milwaukee’s new Harbor District, which covers 1,000 acres bordered roughly by South First Street, the lakefront, the Milwaukee River and Bay Street/Becher Street.
The district’s water and land use plan, approved in February by the Common Council and Mayor Tom Barrett, envisions a dramatic, long-range transformation of the area from former heavy industrial sites into housing, offices and other new uses.
River 1, which would include a RiverWalk, “would be a really wonderful jump start to the Harbor District,” said Stegeman, who also chairs the Harbor District Business Improvement District.
But Stegeman said much of River 1’s conceptual plans depend on demand from prospective office users, as well as a market reaction to the proposed apartments, hotel and restaurant space.
“This is a really revolutionary development in this area,” Stegeman said Monday. “It would be impossible to predict how the market would react.”
There have been positive reactions from prospective office tenants, he said, as well as potential partners for the apartments and hotel plans.
Michels Corp. plans to begin construction of River One’s first phase yet this year, Stegeman said.
That would feature an eight-story building with around 120,000 square feet, he said.
The company’s new infrastructure division, which is seeking road, bridge and rail system projects throughout North America, would be housed in that building, Stegeman said.
Michels plans to hire 250 employees for that division over three to five years, he said.
The building would house other Michels field offices from Wisconsin and Illinois, Stegeman said. Those plans are still in flux, but would likely total another 150 employees.
Michels Corp. would use about three to four floors of the office building, with remaining space leased to other companies.
The company’s headquarters will remain in Brownsville, said Tim Michels, vice president of Michels Corp.
The new Milwaukee offices will help attract younger employees, he said.
The first phase also would have the RiverWalk, which would be partly funded by the city, and a two-deck, 800-space parking ramp for the entire site.
Michels said his company expects to finish that first phase by summer 2020.
Additional phases would be developed when demand for those buildings makes them feasible.
Those additional buildings could include two more office buildings, each with around 50,000 square feet; an apartment building with around 70 to 100 units and a restaurant on the ground floor; and a hotel with roughly 100 rooms, said Blair Williams, operator of Wired Properties LLC, who is advising Michels on River 1.
There also would be a public square, according to the plans.
River 1’s site includes the 4-acre former Horny Goat Hideaway brewpub site, which a Michels affiliate bought in April 2017 for $3.6 million.
The buildings there are being demolished to make way for River 1.
Michels executives were attracted to the Harbor District for a variety of reasons, Stegeman said, including its access to I-94, Mitchell International Airport and downtown.
There also is ample room for parking for employees who are frequently driving from the office to project sites.
Much of the Harbor District is now marked by vacant or underused industrial sites.
But that’s changing.
New developments include Freshwater Plaza, which features apartments and commercial buildings east of South First Street and north of East Greenfield Avenue, as well as The Cooperage, a renovated building at 818 S. Water St. that houses Boone & Crockett tavern, food truck Taco Moto, Milwaukee Pedal Tavern and Brew City Kayak.
The area has lots of remaining development potential, Stegeman said.
“The Harbor District is somewhat of a blank canvas,” he said.
The River 1 plans were praised by city officials, including Barrett and Ald. Tony Zielinski, whose district includes the site.
Barrett plans to seek Common Council approval to help finance the public RiverWalk, as well as improvements on West Becher Street and help with an environmental cleanup at the site.
Those funds, which could be over $1 million, could come from River 1’s new property tax revenue. Those details haven’t yet been finalized, said Jeff Fleming, Department of City Development spokesman.
“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,” Barrett said in a statement.
The project team includes Rinka Chung Architecture, Barry Co. real estate brokerage and Nation Consulting.