Blair is everywhere

Main Street at Drexel Town Square, which Williams developed.

Last updated on May 15th, 2019 at 04:58 pm

From his desk on the 12th floor of The CityCenter at 735 in downtown Milwaukee, developer Blair Williams has a clear view of City Hall, the Park East corridor and a 70-inch television that is mounted to the conference room wall and tuned exclusively to downhill skiing.

Williams, president of WiRED Properties, just moved into the office space last month, but he has had his eye on the Park East for at least a decade.

Blair Williams
Blair Williams

“I think the heartbeat of downtown is moving north,” Williams said, looking out the window. “I happen to think that little stretch from (Milwaukee School of Engineering) all the way to the Pabst (brewery complex), where we have educational institutions, places of worship, apartments, retail, bars and sporting events, will be a remarkable collection of city-driven activity.”

Williams and Indianapolis-based Milhaus Development were one of two groups that submitted a plan for a mixed-use development on county-owned land in the western Park East corridor. The county selected the other proposal, by the owners of the Milwaukee Bucks, who plan to develop a mixed-use district in the Park East, anchored by the $524 million new arena that is under construction.

Williams not only didn’t harbor any ill will about the county’s selection, he also spoke in favor of the Bucks proposal shortly after the decision. The Bucks recently named Williams managing director of real estate to guide the team’s Park East development plans. In the consulting role, Williams will focus on the vacant blocks from North Fifth to North Old World Third streets, which are bounded by West Juneau and West McKinley avenues. The Bucks’ “Live Block” entertainment area and the development plan for the BMO Harris Bradley Center site also fall under Williams’ purview.

“I’ve had incredible conversations with people expressing interest in what we’re doing and wondering how they can get involved,” Williams said. “Everyone seems fascinated by the scale and scope of this project. For so long, there was so much skepticism about the Park East. Now everyone is paying attention.”

The same year Williams bid on the Park East site, he and Sean Phelan of Phelan Development purchased the nearby National Ace Hardware store building at 1303 N. Fourth St. They plan to redevelop a portion of the building and replace part of it with a four-story building. Williams is hoping for a large-scale office user on the upper floors and ground floor entertainment or retail.

The Cornerstone, 4500 N. Oakland Ave., Shorewood, was one of Williams’ first projects after starting his own company, WiRED Properties.
The Cornerstone, 4500 N. Oakland Ave., Shorewood, was one of Williams’ first projects after starting his own company, WiRED Properties.

Williams grew up in Whitefish Bay and is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison with an undergraduate degree in history. He considered going to medical school but didn’t think he had the patience, so instead opted for law school, an MBA, and a master’s of science in real estate. After graduating, he followed his wife, Stacy, as she began her career in Dallas.

They moved back to Milwaukee in 2000, when he was recruited by Milwaukee-based real estate development firm Mandel Group Inc.

After five years there, Williams left and started his own firm, WiRED Properties.

Williams won a request for proposal from the Village of Shorewood to develop a condo project on Oakland Avenue just as the Great Recession was beginning. After tapping the brakes a bit, he put the project on hold, instead buying an abandoned gas station across the street in Whitefish Bay that he and his family used to frequent.

The land was annexed into Shorewood and the project became The Cornerstone, which now includes 24 luxury apartments and 11,000 square feet of retail, including Colectivo Coffee at 4500 N. Oakland Ave.

Once the project was completed, Williams picked up the original project in Shorewood and created Ravenna, which has 20 apartments and 8,100 square feet of retail space. The village allowed Williams to give the Ravenna project an address. He chose 4523 N. Oakland Ave. – the same house number as his boyhood home, 4523 N. Murray Ave., just two blocks east.

“Shorewood was the first place I got to do a development that had a profound emotional attachment for me,” Williams said. “That abandoned gas station was an absolute blight. To be part of something that transformative was very compelling.”

The project also set the stage for the type of work Williams wanted to continue doing: Main Street development that enhances a community’s existing attributes.

His next major project was Mequon Town Center, a three-acre mixed-use development that includes 36,000 square feet of retail and 28 high-end apartments at 6006 W. Mequon Road.

While doing his passion projects, Williams also has picked up what he calls opportunistic work, including a 76-unit apartment development in Brookfield, a 274-unit apartment development in Bay View with Milhaus and a 96-unit apartment project with Phelan in West Bend.

Main Street at Drexel Town Square, which Williams developed.
Main Street at Drexel Town Square, which Williams developed.

For Williams, one of the keys to his success has been collaborating with like-minded people. It also has been necessary at times, considering WiRED Properties has been just Williams until about two months ago, when he made his first hire.

“Every envelope that has ever left this office, I’ve licked,” he said. “There are nine (other) chairs here because I engage myself with smart, engaging, creative people. But this is always just me.”

In addition to the large television tuned to Red Bull TV so Williams, an avid skier himself, can watch a steady stream of what he calls “ski porn,” the office houses “a couple of architects, a couple of real estate guys and another guy who I can’t figure out what he does.”

That other guy is Ian Abston, the co-founder of NEWaukee, who is now the president of Millenian LLC.

Abston said Williams was the perfect choice by the Bucks because he understands how the typical Milwaukee resident will want to spend his or her time at the Live Block.

“Obviously, the Bucks and Marquette will fill the arena 80 days of the year, but Blair has an eye for what businesses and programming belong there,” Abston said. “The guy knows a little bit about everything and does an amazing job of weaving in the urban footprint that would ordinarily be left behind.”

Williams’ work at Mequon Town Center led him to one of his largest projects and probably his favorite, Drexel Town Square. He and Phelan teamed up again to develop the Main Street portion of the 80-acre mixed-use development in Oak Creek.

Together, they are creating about 7 acres of a downtown at an abandoned manufacturing plant site.

“I had people tell me I was crazy for going down there, but I said, ‘There was never an opportunity like this in southeastern Wisconsin before,’” Williams said. “This is a municipality with 100 percent buy-in on recrafting their identity and civic presence. Being involved from almost the beginning helping to transform this sleepy post-war town to what it has become today has been incredible.”

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