The Renaissance Place complex in West Allis, where city officials say Johnson Controls Inc. plans to establish an office, provides a major example of the economic transformation that has occurred in the Milwaukee area over several decades. It also shows how efforts to revitalize West Allis have progressed since Allis-Chalmers went bankrupt in the 1980s.
The 400,000-square-foot complex at 801 S. 60th St. was built in the 1940s by Allis-Chalmers. At that time, the facility was used to make equipment necessary to make the first atomic bomb. Workers at the facility made electromagnetic equipment, gaseous diffusion equipment, power plants and an atom smasher for the Manhattan Project. It was a secret federal government project and the workers were not told what the equipment was for. However, according to a 1946 Milwaukee Journal report, they suspected the equipment was for development of the atom bomb.
“They made the machinery that helped make the bomb possible,” said Milwaukee historian John Gurda. “They made more equipment, by weight, than any other contractor on that project.”
After World War II, Allis-Chalmers used the facility for producing its own products, until the 1980s when the company hit hard times and eventually filed for bankruptcy.
Milwaukee-based Van Buren Management Inc. bought the facility in 1985. It was one of several pieces of the Allis-Chalmers complex that would be reborn for other uses, including the Summit Place office complex, 6737 W. Washington St., and the West Allis Towne Centre shopping center at 6734 W. Greenfield Ave.
After acquiring the 60th Street facility, now known as Renaissance Place, Van Buren converted half of it into 200,000 square feet of office space. The other half was occupied by a 100,000-square-foot Sam’s Club store from 1985 until 2010.
Then, Van Buren Management added a second floor to the former Sam’s Club space and converted it into 200,000 square feet of office space. Recently, city officials and real estate industry sources said Johnson Controls is leasing 143,000 square feet of space in the former Sam’s Club portion of Renaissance Place. The firm will have about 800 employees in the building.
Johnson Controls will join several prominent existing tenants at Renaissance Place, including U.S. Bank (70,000 square feet of space), Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare (45,000 square feet of space) and CBS TV-58 (30,000 square feet of space).
Earlier this year, Van Buren Management submitted plans to build a four-story, 630-space parking structure at the Renaissance Place complex. Van Buren Management owner Joel Lee said the plans for the parking structure were created in anticipation of getting the Johnson Controls deal.
“If they come in with 800 people, we don’t have enough parking,” Lee said.
With the addition of Johnson Controls, the 400,000-square-foot Renaissance Place office complex will only have about 30,000 square feet of available space, Lee said. The property also has a free-standing Blast Fitness center.
With a vacancy rate of only about 7.5 percent (after Johnson Controls moves in) the office space at Renaissance Place is far outperforming the rest of the market. The entire metro Milwaukee office market had a vacancy rate of 19.6 percent in the first quarter, and the West Allis submarket had a vacancy rate of 20.1 percent, according to Xceligent.
Renaissance Place is well-located near the freeway and in the middle of the metro area, and the facility is well-designed for large office space users, said Mike Fardy, chief operating officer of Colliers International|Wisconsin, who leased the building for Van Buren Management.
“It’s just a real neat facility the way they have redone it,” Fardy said. “Tons of natural light, tall ceilings and natural woodwork. It really lends itself to the large user. It’s a big block of space type of building.”
“It has wood beams that are absolutely stunning,” said Patrick Schloss, community development manager for West Allis.
The facility’s location near the Hank Aaron State Trail is an attraction for some employees there, Fardy said.
“It’s literally a 10 minute bike ride and you’re (in) downtown (Milwaukee),” he said.
City of West Allis officials have worked to assist with the revitalization of Renaissance Place. Through its First-Ring Industrial Redevelopment Enterprise Inc., the city has provided new markets tax credits worth $3 million to Van Buren Management for the facility. Lee said he is seeking an additional subsidy worth about $2 million, in the form of new markets tax credits or tax incremental financing or both, for the $6 million parking structure project. That deal has not been finalized yet, but Lee said city officials indicated they were eager to assist with the project.
“West Allis is very helpful,” he said.
Renaissance Place is just one of several redevelopment projects that West Allis officials have assisted in an effort to revitalize the city.
“The tax credits were provided to help (Van Buren Management) position the property in the marketplace,” Mayor Dan Devine said. “The city has worked to support redevelopment projects, rather than decline. We can’t build new (because the city is fully developed). We have to do redevelopment projects.”
Efforts to revitalize West Allis have been assisted by the city’s centralized location near downtown Milwaukee and the Zoo Interchange, city officials say.
“Our location is great for a company to locate to access the freeway and the entire metro area,” Schloss said. “We have many opportunities for more office development throughout the city.”
Like the Renaissance Place complex, Summit Place also has a high office space occupancy rate, of about 97 percent, according to city officials. Summit Place was hurt by the loss of Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield. But early this year, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin announced plans to move 475 employees and multiple divisions to 80,000 square feet of office space at Summit Place, occupying space formerly filled by Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield.
“Summit Place is becoming our largest taxpayer in the city.” Schloss said. “It’s become an icon.”