conley6.gif (2529 bytes)


Moderne Man
Developer Rick Barrett is making Milwaukee cool

Photos by Dan Bishop

March 2013

Rick Barrett is doing something no other Milwaukee developer has ever done. He’s building a high-rise development in downtown Chicago.

"It’s exciting,’" says Barrett of the Blanc, a mixed-use luxury midrise that will be constructed on the corner of Ontario and Wells streets. "Milwaukee developers typically don’t go south."

It used to be that when Milwaukee wanted a signature downtown development, city officials felt the need to bring in nationally renowned architects and developers. (The Calatrava, the US Bank building and the University Club Tower all were built by outsiders.) "Everybody says you have to get someone from Chicago or New York to design a great project in Milwaukee. I don’t believe that’s true," Barrett says.

In 2007, Barrett, then a relatively unknown Milwaukee-based developer, proposed a 30-story residential high-rise in Milwaukee’s struggling Park East corridor.

Before setting his sights on the Park East corridor, Barrett had focused his development projects in Milwaukee’s Beerline neighborhood — a former industrial corridor located along the Milwaukee River that stretches from Pleasant Street to Humboldt Avenue. There he built several luxury condo and townhome projects, including the Rivercourt Condominiums and the Park Terrace Row Houses. "Rick is young, but he’s not new to the Milwaukee development scene," says Rocky Marcoux, commissioner for Milwaukee’s Department of City Development.

Although Barrett and his team at Barrett Visionary helped transform the Beerline neighborhood from a neglected industrial corridor to a humming community defined by distinctive residences, it was a stretch for his firm to propose a high-profile residential development in another much debated area of the city. "People thought I was crazy; that I was too ambitious," Barrett recalls.

Despite the skepticism, Barrett pushed forward. "It’s something I’ve always had a great desire to do," says the Glendale native. "Macro developments on a small footprint are a time-tested convention in the core of downtowns."

Growing up in the North Shore, Barrett remembers thinking of Milwaukee as a rust belt city. Yet even after heading to California for college and then Maryland to play professional baseball, Barrett always yearned to return to the Midwest.

"People here are much more real," says Barrett.

After four years playing in the Baltimore Orioles’ farm system, Barrett came back to Milwaukee and finished his education at Marquette University, earning a business degree in 1995. After graduating, Barrett started a real estate holding company, buying and selling parcels of property around Wisconsin. Developing mixed-use properties seemed like a natural progression, and after some initial success, Barrett ventured into downtown Milwaukee.

"I was fortunate the way it happened," says Barrett, who lives on Milwaukee’s west side with his wife, Maggie, and their four children.

While building condo projects along Commerce Street, the vacant land west of the Milwaukee River kept beckoning to Barrett. "I spend a lot of time dreaming about what can be done in the Park East area," he says. "It will be a vital area of the city."

When he first proposed The Moderne at the corner of Juneau Avenue and Old World Third Street in 2007, the project was to include a 120-room hotel and 10 floors of condo units. Then the housing market imploded in 2008. Plans for a hotel were scrapped and most of the condos were replaced with high-end apartments. "Getting financing for The Moderne was a 24/7 job," Barrett says. "We were right in the middle of the buzz saw of what turned out to be the worst recession since the Great Depression."

Despite the financial challenges and project setbacks, Barrett remained determined to move forward on the 30-story high-rise. In 2009, he secured financing in the form of a $41.4 million loan from the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust. The city of Milwaukee loaned Barrett another $9.3 million. Barrett and his business partner, investor Tan Lo, put up the remaining $4.3 million in equity capital.

Construction on The Moderne finally began in late 2010 and the first tenants began moving into the building last August. Barrett also announced last spring that Carson’s, a Chicago-based rib-and-steak restaurant, had leased the entire 8,000 square feet of commercial space on the ground floor of The Moderne. The restaurant is expected to open in April.

Today, the once controversial residential high-rise is being hailed as a catalytic project for the Park East corridor. Marcoux says The Moderne has spurred significant development interest in an area that previously hadn’t been attracting much attention. "I think Rick has gained a lot of well-deserved praise," Marcoux says. "He strongly believes that Milwaukee has tremendous potential."

While it might be tempting to sit back and enjoy the accolades he’s earned for The Moderne, Barrett isn’t one to rest on his laurels. Last summer, he won support from city and county officials to build The Couture, a 44-story hotel and residential tower, on the site of the Downtown Transit Center on Milwaukee’s lakefront. "The transit center site called out for a beautiful piece of architecture, and The Couture feels like it fits there," Marcoux says. "It will put the city on the map for the 21st century."

Though he’s still in negotiations with Milwaukee County to buy the property, Barrett believes the parties will come to an agreement in the next month or two. "We’re looking to start construction in 2014," he says.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of The Couture for Barrett is the opportunity to re-team with architect Matt Rinka. The principal of Milwaukee-based Rinka Chung Architecture, Rinka also designed The Moderne. "He has supreme architectural talent," Barrett says. "For two guys from Milwaukee to be up for national design awards is pretty cool."

Rinka has equal admiration for Barrett, who shares his passion for great urban design and Milwaukee. "Rick has a strong vision for the future of Milwaukee," Rinka says. "I’m proud to be a part of it."

Barrett hopes The Couture will help spark a renaissance for an area of downtown Milwaukee that currently lacks vitality. He envisions a vibrant retail and cultural corridor springing up along Clybourn Street. "We want people to realize that Milwaukee is a cool place and want to come back," Barrett says. "That’s the job of a developer."



This story ran in the March 2013 issue of: