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A Port Called Home
Lake Country boaters drop anchor in the Third Ward.

Photo by Adam Ryan Morris 

For Rosemary and Jim Dolan, an empty nest was a cue to migrate. Minus their three sons, their 7,000-square-foot home on Dover Bay in Delafield just wasn’t the same. “Once the kids moved away, there wasn’t anything for us to do out there anymore,” says Jim, an obstetrician and gynecologist based in West Allis.

They downsized. Sort of. In 2006, they bought a 2,000-square-foot condo on the Milwaukee River, one of the units at Harbor Front Condos on East Erie Street in the Third Ward. Like other Lake Country boat owners who have since moved Downtown, these trendsetters happily immersed themselves in city living without losing water access.

Today, even more are making the migration. “We’re getting a tremendous amount of people from Brookfield, Delafield and Pewaukee who are boat lovers moving down to the city,” says Mary Beth Gaspar-Waite, owner of Metro Condo Connections. These residents, she says, want to boat on the river and don’t want large-home maintenance. “They want to reinvent themselves in the city.”

Many developments that adjoin the river near the Downtown RiverWalk or the Port of Milwaukee – such as Hansen’s Landing, the River Renaissance building, the Riverwalk Plaza Condominiums, the Riverfront Lofts and the Water Street Lofts – have units with private boat slips. Prices start at around $300,000. The most upscale, ranging from $600,000 to $1 million or more, tend to be at Hansen’s Landing and Harbor Front, according to Laura Kruschka, a Shorewest Realtors agent who also lives in a Third Ward condo.

Several years ago, Kruschka and her husband left Pewaukee Lake for a 1,100-square-foot one-bedroom unit at Harbor Front. Water access attracted her, she says, along with the condo’s southern exposure, the Third Ward neighborhood and the building itself. “I hit the jackpot,” she says. Simply gazing at the waterway from her balcony, which developer Renner Architects outfitted with track lighting, is often enough. But taking advantage of the many riverfront bars and restaurants with boat parking slips is also a perk. “Having your boat slip right there is invaluable for a night out.”

Riverfront condos have also become attractive to commuters and vacationers looking for a second home. “There are quite a few [buyers], maybe 10 percent, who are primary residents of another state,” Kruschka says, noting that some have hailed from Indiana, Illinois and even Alaska.

“It’s kind of hypnotic, the way they get drawn into this life, the pace on the river and wanting to be a part of that,” says Gaspar-Waite.

But life on the Milwaukee River is best suited for an active condo dweller, says Kruschka. “I can walk to more than a hundred attractions,” she says. “With a condo on Pewaukee Lake or Lake Nagawicka, you’re going to have three or so restaurants, and that’s about it.”

Marlene Simmons, former president of the Historic Third Ward Association, and her husband, Rick, can attest to the difference. They joined the club of Third Ward condo dwellers who traded a large Lake Country home for life on the water, though their 2,700-square-foot unit at Harbor Front lacks a private boat slip. Watching tugboats, small yachts, rowing teams and kayakers glide upon the river makes up for it. “The Third Ward,” she says, “is perfect for us.”

In the first three months of 2012, agents listed eight condos with deeded boat slips, including a two-bedroom, two-bath unit at Hansen’s Landing for $459,900 and a three-bedroom, three-bath condo at Harbor Front for $850,000. Gaspar-Waite closed two sales in mid-March alone.

Kruschka says the market is more balanced now, whereas before, “We had a huge glut of inventory.” Particularly in demand are units with boat slips.

“The vacancy rate is very low,” says Milwaukee Realty agent David Price. “There’s not a lot of excess inventory out there.”

Taxes on these condos and others Downtown are double, if not triple, those assessed on similar units in Waukesha County. But the zeal for waterfront condos is evidence that the Downtown market is rebounding after flagging in 2008 and 2009. It’s “really taken off in the last couple of months,” says Mike Ruzicka, president of the Greater Milwaukee Association of Realtors, “like a light switch.”

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