Local group wants to redevelop Grand Avenue with major educational component

A group of Milwaukee civic and business leaders wants to buy and redevelop The Shops of Grand Avenue mall in downtown Milwaukee into a mixed-use complex with a major educational component.

“That’s one idea,” said Stephen Chernof, a leader of the group, WAM DC LLC (Wisconsin Avenue Milwaukee Development Corp.). “We’re in the process of developing game plans.”

Similar redevelopment projects anchored by educational institutions in downtown Phoenix, Ariz. with a satellite campus for Arizona State University and a development shared by several educational institutions in Greensboro, N.C. have been highly successful and are models for what could be done with The Shops of Grand Avenue, Chernof said.

A planned online auction sale of the Shops of Grand Avenue has been postponed, according to Rockwood Real Estate Advisors, which is the selling broker for the property’s owner, a subsidiary of Bank of America investors. The mall had been scheduled to be sold in an online auction from June 17-19 at auction.com. The minimum bid for the shopping center was set at $4.75 million. Now it is unclear if or when the mall, which has struggled for years with a high vacancy rate, will be sold. Rockwood Real Estate Advisors said it will be sold at auction later this year.

WAM is a group of volunteers that is working to come up with a plan to fix the Shops of Grand Avenue. The group includes Chernof, developer Gary Grunau, Mandel Group Inc. chief operating officer Robert Monnat, Greater Milwaukee Committee President Julia Taylor, Marianne Lubar, Kahler Slater CEO George Meyer and developer Ron Sanfilippo.

“We’re trying to make this work for the community,” Grunau said. “It’s a big effort. We’re just starting to get into this stuff. If we’re going to fix this, we’ve got to do it right. Having the whole thing as retail has failed three times. That’s not going to happen.”

A major goal of the WAM group is to make sure The Shops of Grand Avenue is taken over by an owner that is committed to repositioning the property in the marketplace.

“We want to make sure it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands, someone without a vision,” Chernof said.

The proximity of Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (which already has its School of Continuing Education at The Shops of Grand Avenue), Milwaukee Area Technical College and the Milwaukee School of Engineering could create an opportunity to create a complex in downtown Milwaukee that is used by multiple educational institutions, which could also collaborate with industry, Chernof and Grunau said.

“It just makes sense that these (educational institutions) start looking at downtown to create this hub,” Grunau said. “There’s got to be a focal point where students can study, be educated and recreate.”

In addition to a major educational component, WAM’s Shops of Grand Avenue redevelopment could have residential and retail components, Chernof said.

WAM is working with city officials supportive of the initiative, Chernof said. The project will require a public-private partnership, he said.

When asked if the group has funding to redevelop the Shops of Grand Avenue, Chernof said, “I believe we do,” but declined to provide additional details.

Grunau said educational institution tenants could provide funds to make the project work.

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