Developers plan 6-story office building on historic Wisconsin Avenue block

Milwaukee attorney Robert Levine, his son Michael Levine and a group of investors are working on plans to build a 6-story office building on the block southeast of Wisconsin Avenue and Broadway in downtown Milwaukee.
Michael Levine is also an attorney and is the owner of Next Generation Real Estate Inc., which is the developer for the project.
Current plans for the $35 million project includes 130,000 square feet of office space, 17,000 square feet of first floor retail space and 270 structured parking spaces. The developers say the building would have environmentally-friendly “green” features and a fitness center.
Robert Levine proposed a larger office development for the site several years ago, but that project never materialized.
The developers will need to secure an anchor office tenant to get financing for the project.
Several potential anchor tenants are in the market for office space and could anchor a new downtown building including: Von Briesen & Roper S.C. (seeking about 75,000 square feet), Godfrey & Kahn S.C. (seeking about 90,000 square feet), Baker Tilly and CH2M HILL.
The Levines declined to say which potential tenants they are talking to, but said they are talking to tenants interested in their project.
“We’re in talks with several of the names that are out there,” said Michael Levine. “I think if we land any one of those tenants we’re good to go.”
However, the most difficult aspect of the project for the developers could be convincing city officials to allow them to demolish four historic buildings on the block to make way for a new building. They plan to seek a yet to be determined amount of tax incremental financing (TIF) for the project, Michael Levine said.
On the block, about 90 percent of the buildings along Wisconsin Avenue would be demolished to make way for the new building, Michael Levine said, with only the Johnson Bank building remaining. About 60 percent of the buildings on the block along Broadway would be demolished, he said. The buildings along Michigan Avenue would remain and 95 percent of the buildings along Milwaukee Avenue would remain.
The buildings the developers want to demolish are well over 100 years old. They are in poor condition, have been altered significantly from their original appearance and are mostly vacant, Michael Levine said.
“Their lifecycle has come to an end, unfortunately,” he said.
The buildings lack the historical significance of the nearby Mitchell and Mackie buildings and are not worth saving, Robert Levine said.
“I’m a believer in historic buildings, if they have significance,” he said.
Some historic preservationists want the developers to preserve the historic facades of the buildings but that would be a “huge challenge,” Michael Levine said.
Some of the few tenants that are in the buildings include the Ethiopian Village restaurant, 307 E. Wisconsin Ave., and Downtown Books, 327 E. Wisconsin Ave.
Wisconsin Avenue has had numerous retail space vacancies for years and the problem has only gotten worse from the Great Recession.
A new building would have a better chance to attract retail tenants the Levines said, and would provide a boost to revitalize the area.
“That area needs something,” Robert Levine said. “There has to be a shot in the arm over there. East Wisconsin Avenue is a disaster. There are so many vacancies. It’s a block that needs work.”
A new building on the block could also help enhance Broadway as a gateway from downtown into the Third Ward, Robert Levine said.
The proposed 6-story height of the building will allow it to fit in with the historic buildings that will remain on the block, such as the Johnson Bank building, Michael Levine said.
“We’re respecting our neighbors,” he said.
The proposed building is also smaller than many of the other office buildings that developers are proposing downtown, which makes their project more realistic, Michael Levine said. By comparison, Rainier Properties LLC’s proposed Park East corridor development would have 280,000 square feet of office space in addition to a Marcus Theatres movie theater complex. That project would have an additional 110,000 square feet of office space to fill than the Levine project.
"I scaled down the size of my project," Michael Levine said. "There aren’t any 200,000-square-foot tenants out there. But there are 60,000 to 100,000-square-foot tenants out there."

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