Milwaukee Riverwalk a proven real estate draw

With public-private investment, economic stimulator runs downtown

The Milwaukee Riverwalk in front of Schlitz Park.

Several key parcels in downtown Milwaukee that recently have been purchased, are for sale or are under contract have one thing in common: they front the Milwaukee River and will, in turn, have access to the Milwaukee Riverwalk.

Started 25 years ago, the Riverwalk has grown to 3.7 miles of pedestrian access stretching from Humboldt Avenue on the city’s Lower East Side to the harbor in the Historic Third Ward. With another mile under construction and plans for an additional 1.2 miles, the Riverwalk will end up running six total miles.

The Milwaukee Riverwalk in front of Schlitz Park.
The Milwaukee Riverwalk in front of Schlitz Park.

With a $52 million capital investment, including $36 million from the City of Milwaukee and $16 million from the private sector, many people consider the Riverwalk a catalyst for the dozens of restaurants, offices and apartment buildings that have sprung up between the Third Ward and East Side.

“This is the greatest economic stimulator that has ever happened to downtown,” said Schlitz Park developer Gary Grunau. “The people that are here now would not be here without the public-private partnership that was formed to build the Riverwalk and it is now to the point that it is much longer than any of us ever envisioned.”

Mandel Group Inc. has based its entire business plan for downtown Milwaukee around water. The Milwaukee developer is currently working on phase four of The North End and DoMUS, both luxury apartment developments located on opposite ends of the Riverwalk.

“Water has an alluring quality for humans – a biophilic response that evokes very positive feelings,” said Robert Monnat, partner and chief operating officer at Mandel Group “It’s not voodoo science. It’s been proven to us through the developments we’ve completed.”

The desire to enhance public outdoor spaces dates back to when Milwaukee was a socialist city, Monnat said. A 1904 sketch by architect Alfred C. Clas depicts a downtown walkway along the river.

A 1904 sketch of the downtown Riverwalk by architect Alfred C. Clas.
A 1904 sketch of the downtown Riverwalk by architect Alfred C. Clas.

“(Mayor John) Norquist came into office and that wasn’t lost on him,” Monnat said. “I’m not suggesting he was a socialist, but he had the same appreciation for public spaces. It took 100 years to do it, in typical Milwaukee fashion, but it has been done.”

Norquist formed the Riverwalk Initiative in 1988 and in 1991, a public-private group, the Milwaukee Riverwalk District, was formed to help finance the Riverwalk. The MRD is still active today.

Grunau has headed the group for 25 years and has led the business community’s support of the Riverwalk, which has been essential to the success of the project, because public access is granted through easements.

While there are dozens of commercial and residential developments that can be tied to the Milwaukee Riverwalk, there are several parcels still in play along the river that will fill in the gaps of the Riverwalk once they are developed.

The owners of the Shops of Grand Avenue have the 0.79-acre parking lot at 333 N. Water St., at the southwest corner of East St. Paul Avenue and North Water Street in the Third Ward, under contract and are planning a large mixed-use development on the site.

The Marcus Corp. purchased a 1.24-acre parcel of vacant land at 1301-1357 N. Edison St., near the northwest corner of Knapp and Water streets along the Milwaukee River and across the street from AJ Bombers restaurant, in November 2015 for $3.1 million.

Baltimore, Maryland-based architectural firm InPlace Design earlier this year had renderings on its website for a 780,000-square-foot downtown development planned by Marcus at the site, which includes a movie theater, housing and offices, but Marcus has not yet commented on the project.

Once the company moves forward with development, that section of the Riverwalk will be developed, Grunau said.

Nearby at 1201 N. Edison St., an investment group led by James T. Barry III, president of The Barry Co., owns a 0.59-acre site that is currently used as a surface parking lot, but could eventually be developed, Barry said.

Barry called the Riverwalk a visionary project for the city.

“A lot of the credit goes to Gary and the Milwaukee Riverwalk District,” Barry said. “They took what was an underused asset and made it what in many ways has become the centerpiece of the whole city.”

The Barry Co. currently is selling the Rojahn & Malaney Wholesale Florist property, 1005 N. Edison St., which includes an 18,784-square-foot warehouse on 0.6 acres along the west side of the Milwaukee River.

“It’s a great asset to already have the Riverwalk in place,” Barry said. “I don’t know if all of the restaurants along the river would have developed as quickly without the Riverwalk and I know the Mandel Group saw it as a major amenity for the people who rent from them.”

Over the past 25 years, 1,559 new residential units have been completed along the river, another 875 are under construction and 428 are planned, for a total of 2,862 units. The property value has increased $870 million along the Milwaukee River during that time, according to the city.

Mandel Group Inc.’s North End development, which began work on its fourth phase in January, filled a significant gap along the Milwaukee River between downtown Milwaukee and the city’s Lower East Side neighborhood with its 650-unit mixed-use development along the Milwaukee River.

A rendering of the fourth phase of Mandel Group's The North End development along the Milwaukee Riverwalk.
A rendering of the fourth phase of Mandel Group’s The North End development along the Milwaukee Riverwalk. By Engberg Anderson Architects

On the other end of the Riverwalk, Mandel Group is constructing its 132-unit, six-story DoMUS apartment development on East Erie Street in the Third Ward.

Atlanta-based Atlantic Realty Partners also is building the first phase of The River House Development, 450 apartments at the former Gallun tannery site at 1775 N. Water St., on 1,047 feet of the Milwaukee River.

Wauwatosa-based Wangard Partners is building a 113,830-square-foot office building at the former Laacke & Joys site, 1433 N. Water St., anchored by marketing firm Bader Rutter & Associates.

The Riverwalk has proven to be an effective tool for leveraging adjoining real estate values adjacent to the Milwaukee River. The condominiums and apartments with river views command higher prices or rents, are seldom vacant, and if offered for sale, move fairly quickly, Monnat said.

However, participating in the Riverwalk system is not without its costs. While a large part is paid for by the city, Mandel Group has invested more than $2 million in private funds as part of its developments and has ongoing maintenance and repair costs.

“We feel the return on investment is very favorable,” Monnat said. “Investment in thoughtful public urban spaces has been demonstrated time and again to have beneficial impact on private real estate values.”

Get our email updates