Photos by Janica Yoder
Trudy and Rich Snyder were ready for the good life. They were ready for a move to the North Shore.
They had bought their first home in South Milwaukee 10 years earlier – a 1930s colonial that oozed vintage charm. But after two sons, they found they had outgrown it.
So they started shopping. In Shorewood and Whitefish Bay, Trudy relished the cute cafes, the boutiques and bread stores dotting the sidewalks. She imagined loading the kids into their royal blue double stroller and enjoying anew the neighborhoods of her college days. Rich liked the idea of being near co-workers and friends who lived in the area. But they couldn’t get over the cost.
“We were basically seeing the house we already had at a higher price,” says Trudy. “The houses had great old architecture, but the kitchens and bathrooms needed work,” says Rich. “We already had a house that needed work on the kitchen and bathroom.”
Coming up in their price point would mean they couldn’t send their children to parochial school. And Rich’s work as an accountant Downtown made a move west undesirable. “We never even considered looking west because of the highway drive to Downtown,” says Trudy.
Then one Sunday in early June, a year into their search, the Snyders finally found their dream home – in a place they least suspected. They had spent the morning touring homes in Shorewood, 2- and 4-year-old sons in tow, only to find one more open house on the drive back, just two blocks from their home.
Red brick, white trim, window boxes bursting with petunias, the house – a Cape Cod – sat on a three-quarters-of-an-acre lot shielded by birch, pine, maples. The boys ran for the hill in the backyard, tumbling and laughing down the incline. Inside, the house was newly redecorated, with French doors opening to a patio and a large addition with skylights.
“It was pretty instant,” says Rich of their feelings for the house. “Especially considering what we would have had to pay to get this in other neighborhoods.”
Within two months, the Snyders had moved, while staying put in South Milwaukee.
The Snyders are not the only ones who’ve come to realize the strengths of Milwaukee’s South Shore. Average home-sale prices over the last five years show communities like South Milwaukee (up 75 percent), St. Francis (64 percent) and Cudahy (45 percent) are decid-edly on the rise. The access to the lake that has long increased property prices on the North Shore has finally become a factor on the South Shore.
In between, the city of Milwaukee is also booming, with some neighborhoods seeing assessment jumps of more than 150 percent since 2001. The city ranked fifth among 55 communities in the five-county area, with average home-sale prices increasing 60 percent over five years. City values haven’t risen like this in at least 50 years.
Throughout the metro area, it’s been a spectacular half-decade: Metro Multiple Listing Service (MLS) data shows that, since 2001, communities in the five-county area have all seen average sale price increases that surpass the rate of inflation.
As for the buyers, they are a tale unto themselves. Some are dropping the suburbs for the city, while others are swapping the city for suburbs like Slinger (up 62 percent) or Menomonee Falls (up 48 percent). Still others are trading a family home for a condo; an established neighborhood for a rough gem on the rise.
Together, the stories behind this surge shed light not only on specific communities, but on the widely varied choices locals are making about where to live, and the increasingly dynamic nature of the metro area.
How the South Shore Got Chic
Cruising South Lake Drive toward Milwaukee at dusk, glimpses of a pink and metal city skyline counterbalanced by the wooded quiet of the St. Francis Seminary, it’s easy to miss the old-time farewell a wooden sign bids as you enter Bay View. “See You Back in St. Francis.”
Expectant, cheerful, it’s the kind of nicety you might expect of a distant relative who, let’s face it, you like just fine, but don’t expect to make plans with anytime soon.
That is, until now. Thanks to new development, easy access via the Lake Parkway and continued affordability, St. Francis and its South Shore neighbors stand on the cusp of a dramatic transformation from oft-ignored, even looked-down-upon communities to desir-able places to live.
The key event in St. Francis was the reclamation of Wisconsin Electric land which had lain fallow for years – “It was going to waste, it was just junk,” says St. Francis Mayor Al Richards. Now it has been redeveloped to host upscale, lakefront condominium and townhouse projects as well as a 22-acre extension of Sheridan Park replete with a bike path. Across the street, Lakeside Market Square, a pedestrian-friendly outdoor shopping mecca to be built by the Mandel Group, will start construction this year. Just north of these developments, the 44-acre Cousins Center is up for sale by the Milwaukee Archdiocese, offering lakeside land that could grow offices or ranch-style condos.
All told, “you have a concentration of new development the likes of which the South Shore hasn’t seen in 50 or 75 years,” says Rob-ert Monnat, chief operating officer for the Mandel Group.
The contrast between the omnipresent 1,000-square-foot ranch – a staple in St. Francis – and the multi-story, balcony-laden, brick-and-stone constructions along Lake Michigan is a dramatic one. ParkShore, developed by Kimball Hill Homes out of Illinois, and The Landing, by Thomson Developments, start at $160,000 (low $400s for lakefront villas) and $154,000, respectively. When completed, there will be approximately 1,400 new condominiums on the lakefront, city officials estimate.
Besides expanding St. Francis’ tax base, the condos are solving a problem the city has long struggled with: a lack of diverse housing stock. “We had always been a place for starter homes,” explains Richards. “When people grew out of their homes, they would often have to move somewhere else.”
The same went for empty-nesters looking for condos, both in St. Francis and South Milwaukee, says Linda Ryan of Nicholson Realty. “Up until recently, those communities have not had options for people who no longer want to do yard work and home up-keep.”
Apart from offering a greater variety of housing options – a plan for a single-family home development is also in the works – St. Francis encourages younger residents to stay with incentives for expanding existing homes. The city offers free permits to anyone ex-panding their home by more than 50 percent of its assessed value. “We’d like them to stay here instead of moving out,” says City Ad-ministrator Ralph Voltner.
The result has been a widespread increase in property values. “The price increase has been steered by condo sales, but good begets good,” says Voltner. “People move into the area and look at trends, and we have had a tremendous amount of people buying homes and either expanding them or improving on them.”
The trend plays out all along the South Shore. “When I started in the business, you could find homes for under $100,000 in South Milwaukee, Cudahy and St. Francis,” says Ryan. “Now it’s getting tougher and tougher to find anything for under $150,000.”
An influx of new buyers has also contributed to price increases, changing a culture that literally kept real estate in the family. In the past, “when Grandma wanted to sell, there was family that wanted to buy or friends of relatives,” says one real estate agent. “I think that kept the market depressed. But now, you’re seeing more diversity in the population that’s buying, in terms of where they’re coming from to buy. They’re used to seeing higher prices.”
Dawn Hutchison and her husband Chris Weiss are part of that new generation. When they moved to St. Francis three years ago, they purchased their home from a woman who’d lived in the house from the time it was built in 1955. Since then, they’ve watched their block change. “There are a lot of people who are retiring and moving on to different housing situations. We’ve seen a lot of young peo-ple moving into the neighborhood, late 20s, early 30s,” says Hutchison, vice president of marketing and development for Public Allies.
With their first child on the way, the couple is considering adding a second story to their home, a 1,000-square-foot ranch with a 2 1/2-car garage for which they paid $135,000. “People are telling us any money we put into our house, we’re definitely going to get back,” says Hutchison.
Sandwiched between St. Francis and South Milwaukee, Cudahy is also seeing an increase in home values. The suburb has more var-ied housing stock than St. Francis, with ranch homes, Cape Cods, English Tudors, tri-levels and Milwaukee bungalows. It also has a bigger retail area, one now in revival. The suburb is even exploring the creation of its own public market, inspired by the one in Mil-waukee’s Third Ward.
“Cudahy is doing a super job with the downtown area,” says Mark Nicholson of Nicholson Realty.
While South Milwaukee has seen some new condos, it hasn’t experienced new construction on the same scale as St. Francis. “We’re a community of over 100 years and we have pretty well been developed,” says former mayor David Kieck.
In short, the five-year, 75 percent increase in average sale prices hasn’t been driven by fancy new developments, but mostly represents current homes jumping in value. “I think the demand has increased because the affordability is there,” says Gary White, community development coordinator with Pyramax Bank and a longtime South Milwaukee resident. “Wauwatosa, the East Side, the Downtown condo market – those are high-demand areas, but not very affordable for the average first-time buyer.”
Like Cudahy, South Milwaukee also offers a wide range of housing styles.
“I would imagine people looking for homes in that price range had the same reaction I did when I really studied the area. I drove through parts of South Milwaukee, and I thought, ‘This is just as good as stuff on the East Side and the North Shore,’” says Monnat of the Mandel Group. “There are beautiful, beautiful neighborhoods down there, and Grant Park is an absolute gem.”
Danielle Devlin, executive director of South Milwaukee’s Community Development Authority (CDA), extends Monnat’s metaphor. “South Milwaukee,” she says, “has been kind of a hidden jewel on the South Shore.”
The city’s many assets, says CDA Chair John Lange, include a strong school system featuring a brand-new high school with “a fabulous performing arts center,” beach access, extensive parkland and a municipal golf course. Plus, he says, “you’re outside of the city of Milwaukee, yet have easy access to all it has to offer.”
That access became even easier after the Hoan Bridge was extended through the South Shore via the Lake Parkway. “Freeway ac-cessibility has really blossomed this area,” says Nicholson. White agrees: “I think the Parkway kind of opened up access in people’s minds. You can get from South Milwaukee to Downtown in virtually ten minutes.”
The possibility that the KRM (Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee) commuter rail line could come through the South Shore, with stops in South Milwaukee, St. Francis/Cudahy and Bay View, could do even more to boost growth.
South Milwaukee Mayor Thomas Zepecki’s only worry is that the area could get too popular. “When you’ve got a good thing, word gets around,” he jokes. “I’m not so sure we don’t want to keep it a little bit quiet.”
The Lure of the Lakes
Every Sunday, Gary and Gena Murray would climb in their car and drive west. Natives of Janesville, they moved to Milwaukee 16 years ago so Gena could attend Marquette University. They settled in the Washington Heights neighborhood and Gary found a good job as a plant supervisor in a pharmaceutical lab. But something wasn’t quite right. Gary missed small-town life – the unlocked doors, the walks he could take with his dog at any hour of the night. So on weekends, they began to explore. “We kept driving until we found a community we liked,” says Gary.
That community was the town of Summit, a little more than 30 miles from Milwaukee, population 5,100. There, the Murrays “bought lake,” eventually building a total of eight houses (two to live in; six to sell). And Gary found a new career. Usually, people choose where to live based on where they work, he notes, laughing. “We chose where to live, and then I made up work.”
Now a realtor for First Weber, Murray’s career move was more calculated than he lets on. “I understood what was going on around me, and I wanted to be involved in it.”
And what was going on was development in Waukesha’s Lake Country.
Compared to its more established Lake Country neighbors – small and exclusive communities such as Chenequa, Lac La Belle and Oconomowoc Lake – Summit is a child, or perhaps a teenager, still enduring growing pains. But it has the potential to be much bigger as an adult, given the sprawling lines of the township, with footage along some 16 lakes, the largest being Upper and Lower Nemahbin and Silver lakes.
In five years, the average sale price for a home in Summit has jumped 84 percent, from $302,349 in 2001 to $556,484 in 2006, according to MLS.
That jump is attributable to two factors, says Town Manager Henry Elling: the natural rise in values for lakefront property, and new, high-end homes that are
Town Chairman Leonard Susa has a less technical explanation. “This is God’s country,” he says. “Once people get to Summit, they don’t want to leave.”
But as Susa will attest, God’s country is changing. Once farmland and summer cottages, the town has seen a gradual shift to permanent residences – with new subdivisions such as Genesee Lake Farms and new year-round homes on lakefront property, most far grander than the cottages and fishing shacks they replaced.
“The selling price of a lot with two summer homes that weren’t even inhabitable went for $720,000 for the land,” says Plan Commission Chairman Paul Schmitter, citing a recent sale on Lower Nemahbin Lake. “You can see what kind of a home you’d have to build on it to justify the price.”
It was a change foreseen by former town chairman Maurice Sullivan, now mayor of Oconomowoc. “The evolution of Summit was not by happenstance,” he says, citing stable leadership, the town’s accessibility to I-94, and the lure of its 16 lakes. But the transforma-tion is far from over. The once agricultural township will ultimately become “a more suburban-like and permanent, family-oriented community,” he predicts.
“Before, a lot of people thought this was kind of the boondocks,” says Christine Doyle, who grew up on Oconomowoc Lake and now lives in Summit with her husband and two children. “Now, with the Pabst Farms development, the development in Delafield, the development in Oconomowoc, it’s bringing people further and further out this way.”
Elling agrees. “We’ve had a substantial change in the perception of our neighborhood. It’s the new hot spot.”
An upscale mall – the Pabst Farms Town Centre – and a multimillion-dollar Aurora Health Care hospital and clinic will soon take root in and around Summit.
But will the rural character of “the lakes,” the very asset drawing new
homeowners, be lost?
“We’ve always tried to keep the rural character, but it’s impossible beyond a certain point,” Schmitter concedes. “There’s no stopping it really. It’s just a question of trying to do it properly.”
Susa is more optimistic. “We’re being very careful to guide that growth,” he says. “That’s another reason why people like to come to Summit. We’re not allowing development willy-nilly.”
A 35-year resident of the town, Schmitter feels the changes. “All of sudden there’s the aura of lights; light pollution is one of the big-gest [differences]. … Everybody shrugs their shoulders and says it’s inevitable, it’s a sign of the times, and I guess it is.”
Still, his 20-acre, tree-lined property keeps him buffered from traffic; there, he and his wife count deer and turkeys in the yard in the mornings. For now, it still feels like God’s country.
The New City
Anthony and Jen Lyons bought a home on North Booth Street in the Riverwest area of Milwaukee in 2000. It’s the heart of the city, but they talk about their neighborhood almost as though it’s a small town.
“We’ve got fantastic neighbors,” says Jen. “I think this is the first time since I’ve lived in Milwaukee that I’ve had so many neighbors that are my friends as well.”
Organizations such as the Riverwest Neighborhood Association, Riverwest Currents newspaper and Greenfolks community gar-den have helped create a close-knit community, the Lyons say.
“What I love about the garden is it’s kind of like our block club,” says Jen.
“It’s a way for us to really be in the community and see and be seen,” adds Anthony.
The rise in values in Milwaukee’s more elite neighborhoods has garnered considerable news coverage. New condos in the Third Ward and just to the south in the Fifth Ward are sending property values skyward. The Brady Street area, Bay View, Brewers Hill and the East Side continue to climb in value.
But the latest and most surprising development is the ripple effect in values these areas have had on surrounding neighborhoods over the last five years. Proximity to Brewers Hill and (to a lesser extent, the East Side) has helped the western portion of River-west rise by 209 percent in assessed value on the southern edge and 138 percent on the northern edge. Being sandwiched between Bay View and the Fifth and Third Wards has contributed to a 124 percent increase in assessments on the near South Side. These areas, along with redeveloping portions of the central city, have helped drive the 60 percent jump in average home-sale prices in Milwaukee over the past five years.
Established city dwellers who liked the diversity and proximity to their jobs Downtown are now being joined by newer residents who like the rising home values and ever louder urban buzz created by new coffeehouses, bars and restaurants.
Susan Potts, development director for Community Advocates, and her husband David, a public policy consultant, are longtime city residents, having lived in the Walker’s Point Historic District on the South Side since 1989. It’s near Downtown, “but it’s still in a neighborhood of single-family homes,” she says. “It’s walkable, there are lots of amenities to be had, and they’re very close.”
In Riverwest, new homehowners are arriving in flocks, and upgrading the neighborhood.
“When I first bought in Riverwest in 1995, some people thought I was crazy,” says Gaby Boutillier, a neighborhood resident and realtor with Coldwell Banker. “Years ago, the values were so low, you could pick up some of these houses for a song. Some land-lords didn’t care who they had renting, and you got a lot of riff-raff. Now, we’re seeing people adding great value to their homes. They’re landscaping, they’re adding on decks and porches and painting their houses fun colors.”
Anthony Lyons has seen similar changes. “The homeownership rate has skyrocketed on our block. A lot of the absentee land-lords have been shifted out, and the people who purchased those properties live in them and take care of them.” As a result, what he saw as “a pretty serious problem with drugs” in the neighborhood when they moved in has significantly diminished.
Renters for years in the Brady Street area, the Lyons discovered Riverwest was simply a more affordable option for their first home. Plus, it offered all the amenities they were looking for: opportunities for community involvement, unique architecture, and easy access to local businesses and Downtown (Jen, a properties carpenter at the Skylight Opera Theatre, often bikes to work).
But as more homeowners discover the neighborhood, the Lyons worry about the long-term impact. “I think some people have moved with the notion that, ‘Oh, the property values are going up, it’s going to become another Brewers Hill’ or something like that,” says Anthony. “I don’t want that.”
“Riverwest is one of the more diverse neighborhoods in the city, and I’m proud of that,” says Jen. “I would think long and hard about wanting to stay here if the neighborhood gentrified to the point where that diversity went away.”
Anthony emphasizes that the diversity they value is not limited to race. “It’s socioeconomic diversity, where it’s perfectly acceptable for people of different income levels to live in the same place. I don’t ever want to lose sight of the possibility that many people are a paycheck away from homelessness. Because that could be me.”
Creating and maintaining that kind of economic diversity is a main goal of numerous central city initiatives launched by the Depart-ment of City Development (DCD).
“You don’t want to see the old model repeated, which was to concentrate
low-income housing in one area, elderly housing in another area, affluent housing in another area – that doesn’t work,” says DCD Commissioner Rocky Marcoux. “In a thriving city, you need to have a broad mix of incomes.”
That philosophy has directed city investment in the central city, where assessment values roughly from Holton to 30th between Wal-nut and Center streets have risen anywhere from 138 percent to 191 percent over the past five years. This may be the biggest surprise among all the rising values in the five-county area.
“We often refer to it as the quiet redevelopment renaissance,” says Andrea Rowe Richards, communications manager for the DCD.
City Assessor Mary Reavey has tracked the numbers. “Some of [those areas] had been neglected in the past and now, with the changing perception of the city, I think people are feeling more comfortable living in lots of different areas. They’re willing to put the money in [to their homes] and they feel like they’ll get it back when they resell,” she says.
City initiatives have led to the construction of approximately 500 units of new infill housing on vacant lots and the renovation of hundreds of existing homes in the central city, through projects such as the City Homes and Lindsay Heights subdivisions. Similar projects in Bronzeville, Metcalfe Park, and the 20th and Brown area will offer more opportunities for new construction and rehab loans as well as rent-to-own options.
According to city officials, the initial public investment has already attracted private investors and led to a demand for market-rate housing.
“The city’s investment by essentially underwriting a portion of the initial build-out costs … has paid for itself many times over,” says Marcoux. “Demonstrating the city’s commitment to a particular neighborhood builds confidence in the folks who already live there, in the real estate community and in potential buyers. You get people confident there is a future in that neighborhood and it’s a safe place to invest.”
These neighborhoods provide affordable housing with appeal for a broad range of buyers, says Maria Prioletta, Housing and Neighborhood Development manager. “Not everybody can afford a $350,000 condo Downtown, but many can afford a $175,000 house in a redeveloping neighborhood only five minutes from Downtown,” she notes.
Some of those buyers are former neighborhood residents lured back by new construction options, says Prioletta. New residents also include large numbers of the emerging African-American and Hispanic middle class, Marcoux adds.
Marcoux sees the re-emergence of a middle class in the central city as a watershed development. “That is the key to the city’s future,” he says. “We can build as many condos as we want Downtown for affluent, aging baby boomers and younger profession-als, but at the end of the day, if the younger people choose to put their roots down outside of the city, we don’t have that middle class.”
Whereas many of the first-ring suburbs are completely built out, Marcoux says, vacant or underutilized landmass in areas such as the central city means there’s great potential to continue Milwaukee’s ongoing renaissance. “If you’re looking at it strictly from an investment standpoint, you’d be hard pressed to walk away from the city of Milwaukee.”
Going Back to Slinger
Empty-nesters trading the hedge-clipping and clutter of a suburban family home for the clean lines of a city condo have become the new trend in Milwaukee. But Jim and Kim Gehl offer a reverse spin on the story.
Both Gehls were born and raised in Milwaukee, but Jim “dragged [his] wife kicking and screaming to Hartford” almost two dec-ades ago, where they raised their family. Two years ago, their children grown, they decided to move back to the city, purchasing a condo at Brady Street and Farwell Avenue on the East Side.
The twist? They didn’t like it.
“After 15 years of being gone, the city was just too much,” Kim explains. “Many people love the city, and I really thought I would too. But it’s just too many people, the hustle and bustle, and I don’t know my neighbors like I did when I lived in Hartford. I miss that close-knit kind of thing.”
Driving around their old stomping grounds in Washington County, they found a lot in Slinger that fit them so much better. “Our dream had always been the end-of-the-road type of house, back in the woods, and that’s the lot we found,” says Kim, describing the land they bought in Slinger’s new Sherman Heights subdivision.
The move will mean a 30- to 40-minute commute for Kim, who works in Milwaukee, but less driving time for Jim, who is employed in Fond du Lac. Compared to the condo, they’ll have more room for their son, currently stationed in Iraq, to pay visits. And Kim will be back to a community that, as Jim puts it, “she didn’t know how much she liked until she left.”
According to Village President Russell Brandt, the Gehls are not the only empty-nesters choosing this life. “We seem to be get-ting a lot of people whose kids are out of school, but want to get out of the metropolitan area. They would rather live where it’s a little calmer,” he says.
Younger couples come because of the schools’ reputation, and empty-nesters because they can get better bang for their buck, notes Pete Neuville of Realty Executives. “As the other suburbs started to get more expensive, Slinger became a more affordable alternative,” he says.
The typical house in Slinger before the year 2000 was pretty modest, notes Brandt, “basically a starter home.” But in the last couple years, he adds, high-end subdivisions such as Whispering Pines have added bigger and more expensive houses in the village.
“All the growth is on the edges of town; Slinger is expanding out,” says Larry Gundrum, village historian. “Each year the cost of new homes goes way the heck up.”
Still, says Brandt, those traditional, modest Slinger homes have risen with the tide: “Those have had a good run-up in price too.” The average home-sale price in Slinger increased 62 percent since 2001.
A slower pace of development has kept demand – and thus prices – high for homes in Slinger, Neuville says. “There hasn’t been overbuilding in Slinger. Right next to us, Hartford has experienced monumental growth, subdivisions that have literally hundreds of lots. When you get 25 different builders putting in 100 spec homes in the course of a year, the prices don’t come up because you’re meeting the demand.”
But while growth has been far less frenetic, Slinger has still seen “phenomenal growth” in population, Gundrum says, from around 1,600 residents in 1980 to more than 4,200 today. And more housing projects are on the horizon; among them, the Farm-stead Creek subdivision by Bielinski Homes and the Gehls’ choice, Sherman Heights.
That will mean fewer familiar faces in the street, the grocery aisles or the church pews, and, ultimately, a different way of life. It’s a possibility Paul Schmitter, watching encroaching lights blot out the starry skies in Summit, knows well; one Anthony Lyons, worrying over a loss of diversity in Riverwest, knows too. Change, with all its benefits, also comes with a cost.
Caroline Goyette is an assistant editor with Milwaukee Magazine.