Long plagued by vacant storefronts and the drawn-out demise of a once-vibrant shopping center, the heart of West Wisconsin Avenue in Downtown Milwaukee is poised for a revival.
Not long ago, the city’s Westown section was so pocked with prominent empty spaces that former police chief Edward Flynn once proposed moving the 1st District police station there just to fill the void. Now, an array of projects is breathing life into the neighborhood.
Transformation, however, doesn’t necessarily equate to hot and trendy. Local real estate and development experts say Westown has to carve out its own identity, and it doesn’t have to be like the bustling reinventions of the Third Ward or Walker’s Point to be a success.
“I don’t see this becoming a wildly popular part of the city. It’s just so different,” says Andy Hunt, director of the Center for Real Estate at Marquette University. “But I see it coming back and being a place people want to be.”
Department of City Development Commissioner Rocky Marcoux views Westown as a “bridge” linking the Third Ward and Walker’s Point to the northwest section of Downtown, where the former Pabst brewery complex and the Deer District around Fiserv Forum have become hot spots. “It knits it all together,” Marcoux says.
Westown’s rebirth is being fueled by an influx of new residents who live in buildings converted from offices and a series of major projects.
One of the latter is Graef USA’s decision to move its headquarters and 170 employees from Milwaukee’s West Side into a sparkling new space in the former Shops of Grand Avenue. The move comes with some challenges for the engineering, planning and design firm, but the opportunities it presents made it worthwhile, Graef Vice President and Principal Lori Rosenthal says.
“There are certainly some folks that loved our [previous] location and its ease of access,” Rosenthal explains. “But those who were willing to make a change really wanted to make a big change. We can be part of something that continues to energize that part of the city, and that’s really exciting to us. We want our existing staff to be happy and excited about the space, but this is about attracting future talent, as well.”
Graef’s new 35,000-square-foot leased office space, the main portion of which occupies the mall’s former third-floor food court, includes renovated skylights that had been a main design feature of the mall. There are 30-foot high ceilings, an interior balcony that opens to a new food hall and a patio overlooking Wisconsin Avenue.
Across from the former mall, crews are working to renovate the long vacant Warner Grand Theatre, which will become the new $90 million home of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. “Our initial investment and commitment [were] a catalyst for this neighborhood turning around,” says Mark Niehaus, MSO’s president and executive director. “There is going to be a blossoming in this area, without a doubt, and Downtown will actually become cohesive.”
These projects and others are going a long way toward boosting Westown’s image, Ald. Bob Bauman says:
“There’s little doubt that Westown has turned the corner.”
The effort to reinvigorate Westown isn’t without its challenges. Several vacant storefronts remain, and development of a prominent lot immediately west of the former Boston Store building has been bogged down, in part due to stalled plans to extend the Hop streetcar service.
Working to change perceptions about Westown needs to go hand in hand with the redevelopment of the neighborhood, says Carolyn Esswein, a professor at UW-Milwaukee’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning.
“You want to try to bring people to an area that they wouldn’t normally go,” Esswein says. “When it’s quiet at night and there’s not a lot of activity, there’s a perception that it’s not safe. As you bring in more people, it tends to feel safer.”
More programming – NEWaukee’s Night Market is one notable success – is needed to draw people in, she says. And transforming a prominent but underused plaza in front of the 310W building would create a much-needed gathering spot. “If you program activities, that gives people a reason to stay there,” Esswein says. “Right now, you walk right past it.”
There’s more to be done, but the revival of Westown’s epicenter is gaining momentum. “It used to be about what shoe was going to drop next,” Marcoux says. “Now, there’s a unified sense of optimism along West Wisconsin Avenue.”
Several projects and major investments are reshaping West Wisconsin Avenue in Milwaukee’s Westown neighborhood. They include:
A proposed $300 million expansion of the Wisconsin Center convention facility.
A pledge by New York City-based Time Equities Inc. to spend $30 million to renovate the former Henry S. Reuss Federal Plaza, now called 310W, the massive 14-story cobalt blue glass building plagued by high office vacancy rates.
Redevelopment of the space long occupied by Boston Store, which closed its Downtown location in August 2018. Chicago-based North Wells Capital LLC purchased the building, which also housed the corporate offices of Bon-Ton Stores Inc., Boston Store’s parent company, for $25 million in 2017. The building is now known as HUB640.
Transformation of the former Shops of Grand Avenue mall. Now known as The Avenue, the $53 million redevelopment project will feature a 20-vendor food hall, known as the 3rd Street Market Hall, as well as the corporate headquarters of Graef USA.
Renovation of the former Warner Grand Theatre, which will become the new $90 million home of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.