Downtown Milwaukee has experienced an exciting revitalization during the past 20 years. But that revitalization has been on pause during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yes, some downtown building projects have been completed, continued or started during the past year, but the office buildings, hotels and restaurants downtown have been largely vacant. Theaters are closed. Fiserv Forum went almost a year without spectators. It’s been quiet downtown.
Then came stunning news that Johnson Controls plans to leave downtown, and will pull out 1,300 employees, to consolidate its operations at its headquarters in Glendale. It’s the worst news in decades for downtown.
In recent years several companies have moved their offices to downtown Milwaukee. Those companies and their employees provide an economic boost that helps support restaurants, hotels, shops and other businesses. But that momentum has been lost during the pandemic and it might be difficult to get it back, especially now that the culture of working from home has become more accepted.
Why should we care about this? Because downtown Milwaukee is the economic heart of southeastern Wisconsin, and regions need a vibrant central business district to attract businesses and talent.
As successful as downtown Milwaukee has become in recent years, it has still been unable to attract some of the region’s largest companies, which are typically the occupants of downtown office towers in major cities. Kohl’s considered moving its headquarters downtown and passed. GE Healthcare looked at downtown, but chose to build a massive office building in Wauwatosa instead and now has big growth plans in West Milwaukee. Milwaukee Tool expanded in Brookfield and now is adding a second campus in Menomonee Falls. Fiserv has considered a headquarters move to downtown, but hasn’t pulled the trigger.
And now Johnson Controls is leaving downtown.
All is not lost for downtown, of course. A lot of exciting things are happening there and once the pandemic finally ends, downtown could spring back to life. The Bradley Symphony Center will be an absolute gem. 3rd Street Market Hall at The Avenue is going to be a wonderful spot to eat and hang out. New hotels and office buildings opened just last year.
And the Johnson Controls complex itself offers an exciting opportunity to attract new office tenants or for a redevelopment that could include residences.
Ultimately residential development is the most important component to increasing the vibrancy of downtown. The greater the population density of downtown the better. The more people that live there the more businesses will want to be there and those residents will help support restaurants and retail downtown.
Downtown is the place for dense residential development. As we have seen in Bayside and Wauwatosa, apartment tower projects planned outside of downtown are resisted by those communities. But those projects will always be what downtown needs and should continue to embrace.