Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 10:57 am
When Milwaukee Film announced in June it had entered into a 31-year lease to operate the Oriental Theatre on Milwaukee’s East Side, some hoped the news would save the so-called dying neighborhood.
But for the business owners, developers and homeowners inhabiting the East Side, the ongoing rumors that the neighborhood has somehow died or is even on life support have been perplexing.
Over the past five years, the East Side has been transforming. The neighborhood has lost some of its mainstay bars, including Judge’s Irish Pub, Hotel Foster and G-Daddy’s BBC. But new dining and entertainment options have opened, including Good City Brewing, Yoga Six Milwaukee, The Waxwing, FreshFin Poké and Izzy Hops Swig & Nosh.
Most recently, the city’s first cat café, Sip & Purr, 2021 E. Ivanhoe Place and AXE MKE, 1924 E. Kenilworth Place, one of two ax-throwing bars opening this year in Milwaukee, were announced in the neighborhood.
When AXE MKE opens, residents and visitors will have a mini golf bar (Nine Below), a bowling alley (Landmark Lanes) and an ax-throwing bar within a one-block radius.
“The perception has been the area caters to college students, but the student population is really the northwest quadrant of the East Side,” said Tim Gokhman, director at New Land Enterprises LLP, which owns several buildings on the East Side. “There are many single-family homes with relatively high values and many multi-family homes and families. For a long time, North Avenue just catered to the college crowd. It was silly to have seven bars on the same street with the same business model.”
An announcement is expected this month about the former Rosati’s Pizza Sports Pub space, 2238 N. Farwell Ave., which has been vacant since March.
“Other than Milwaukee Film, it will be the most exciting announcement of them all,” said Gokhman, who owns the Rosati’s building. Gokhman would not elaborate on the plans for the space.
Kristin Godfrey, executive director of the East Side Business Improvement District, said the East Side is changing and making a comeback.
“The East Side doesn’t have to work on being cool. We are cool,” Godfrey said. “We’ve been cool for 90 years. We have our ups and downs and like anything, there is turnover. People might get the perception that it is not what it used to be, but it is evolving.”
Godfrey said there has been a concerted effort on the part of business owners and property owners to turn the East Side in a different direction and even turn down leases if tenants are not the right fit.
Gokhman told a national cell phone retailer he was not interested in leasing space to it because it did not fit in with the East Side neighborhood.
“I’m from Chicago and I compare the East Side to Bucktown,” Godfrey said. “It’s the place in the city where people want to hang out. Downtown has the businesses people need. We have so much space for everything people love.”
In recent years, developers including Gokhman and Robert Joseph, of Joseph Property Development LLC, have begun building larger luxury apartment buildings closer to North Avenue, drawing a different demographic to the neighborhood.
Joseph redeveloped the former Prospect Mall in 2014 into the Overlook on Prospect, 2217 N. Prospect Ave., which includes 52 apartments. Across the street, he is developing The Contour, an 80-unit apartment building, replacing a parking lot and Qdoba Mexican Eats restaurant. Rinka Chung Architecture Inc. designed the building.
In 2015, Joseph developed the Edge on North at 2310 N. Oakland Ave., at the former Pizza Man restaurant site.
Joseph lived on the East Side from 1992 to 2012 and said he still considers it home.
“It has all the character and history of what makes a near-downtown neighborhood exciting,” Joseph said. “It makes it very easy to make a commitment through my development to the neighborhood.”
New Land Enterprises is building a 153-unit, 13-story residential tower at 1832 and 1840 N. Farwell Ave. The project will be complete in September.
Milwaukee chef and restaurateur Justin Carlisle is planning to open a casual dining restaurant on the first floor of the tower.
“I think some national retailers have had tunnel vision, but we understand the housing and know that this neighborhood is up-and-coming,” Gokhman said. “Whole Foods understood. Urban Outfitters understood. We just needed to have some old uses turn over to make way for the new ones.”