Closing the Gap: UWM housing proposal brings Beerline Trail closer to reality


by Michael Timm

Pending review of an environmental audit and federal approval, developers plan to build a 470-bed student apartment building on a triangle of land immediately north of North Avenue and west of the Milwaukee River, currently owned by Milwaukee County. This land would be “swapped” for a slice of privately owned land vital to the completion of the Beerline Trail along the west side of the river.

Property owner Readco and its partner Direct Development, Inc. showed preliminary site plans and a project rendering of the 6-story, U-shaped building at a meeting of the Riverwest Neighborhood Association (RNA) held Feb. 14 in the Gordon Park Pavilion.

The proposed 140,000 square foot structure is one building with three wings connected by glass-enclosed walkways. Its relative height would match the surrounding building heights, because the elevation of its foundation would be below Humboldt Avenue. An extant tree line would remain between the building and the river, partially masking the façade as viewed from the east on North Avenue.

The structure is tentatively designed to have 126 apartments for University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee students and 75 underground parking spaces, said Todd Davies, vice president of Direct Development.

Milwaukee’s Epstein Uhen is the lead architect, in collaboration with the Baltimore-based Design Collective, Inc., brought in because Direct Development’s partner, Capstone, has worked with them before with success, Davies said. They also bring extensive student housing experience to the table.

Chris Johns, co-chair of the RNA Development Committee, anticipates access to more specific plans by early March, after an environmental audit of the county parcel is reviewed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). These plans will be shown to the neighborhood at a meeting to be announced.

Student Housing Demand

The Readco proposal would provide much needed additional university housing, said Scott Peak, UWM director of university housing.“The demand that’s out there now is significant,” Peak said. “This [development] just happened upon us and it really makes a lot of sense.”

Peak said he will have to turn away 1,500 students from campus housing this year, and even with next fall’s addition of the Kenilworth Building’s 374 new beds, UWM’s housing capacity will be 3,100. The university serves approximately 28,000 undergraduates and graduate students.

So 470 new beds would make a significant impact.

Peak also sees the opportunity to create a “live/learn environment” in the proposed building, with classroom space and instructor offi ces on the first floor. Classroom space might be accessible for public events such as Saturday morning workshops, though Peak said the university’s discussion has not yet extended that far. UWM would provide students with shuttle service to and from the apartment, which would only have one street egress point – off North Avenue. Peak said students would be encouraged to take advantage of the university’s vans and public transit. He said the university has not yet determined any policy regarding students having cars at the proposed apartment.

District 3 Alderman Michael D’Amato said students who choose to live in Riverwest bring vitality, stability, and money into the neighborhood. He’s optimistic about the proposal but reserving judgment.

“I think the concept can work,” D’Amato said in January. “I think the area needs to be developed in a way that’s integrated into the rest of the neighborhood.”

The student housing proposal would be the first phase of development. Readco, which has an option to purchase the city ward yard west of the proposed student housing site, also has plans to develop its nearby properties into mixed use and condo developments, but these plans are less specific than the student housing proposal at this time.

Before it will consider the student housing proposal, “the city of Milwaukee is requiring us to come to them with a general development plan for the site, and that will lock us in for what we are allowed to develop on it,” Davies said.

Riverwest Currents online edition – March, 2006