Momentum builds in Bronzeville

    Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:36 pm

    After almost 10 years of planning, Bronzeville, a cultural and entertainment district planned for an area just northwest of downtown Milwaukee, will begin taking physical form this year. The Bronzeville district is being designed to recreate a piece of Milwaukee’s past. The former Bronzeville district featured many night clubs, restaurants and entertainment venues owned by African-Americans along West Walnut Street. The businesses were demolished in the 1960s to make room for freeway construction.

    The new Bronzeville will be an African-American neighborhood featuring businesses, cultural entertainment venues, restaurants, stores and residences.

    "We need to bring catalytic projects to African-American neighborhoods to boost local businesses and showcase Milwaukee’s cultural heritage," said Mayor Tom Barrett. "Bronzeville will help us promote the city as it also empowers entrepreneurs and raises community spirit."

    Bronzeville’s boundaries are West Meinecke Avenue on the north, North Seventh Street on the west, West Garfield Avenue on the south and halfway between North Fourth Street and North Martin Luther King Drive on the east. Bronzeville’s commercial district runs along West North Avenue between North Seventh Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Its cultural anchor is America’s Black Holocaust Museum, 2233 N. Fourth St.

    Some new businesses already have opened in the district.

    In February, Garfield 502, a music club and restaurant at 502 W. Garfield Ave., opened within the Bronzeville district. It replaced Boobie’s Place, a blues bar that was owned by Everett "Boobie" Moore, who died two years ago.

    Just Jazz & Blues Lounge opened last August at 634 W. North Ave.

    The Milwaukee Urban League plans to move from 2800 Wright St. to 435 W. North Ave. in Bronzeville.

    Last year, the city installed new street lighting in Bronzeville along North Avenue, between King Drive and North Seventh Street. This year, more noticeable improvements will be installed.

    Traffic-slowing enhancements similar to elements on Brady Street and East North Avenue on the city’s east side will be installed this spring.

    Decorative street stamping will be installed at crosswalks, and decorative elements will be placed at the entrance to the district. Street furniture will be put on and near sidewalks, and an information kiosk, similar to one currently located at East North and North Farwell avenues, is being designed. Signage and banners are also being designed.

    The enhancements are being designed to make the area more pedestrian-friendly, said Rhonda Manuel, economic development marketing manager and project manager for Bronzeville with Milwaukee’s Department of City Development (DCD). The city is providing $4.6 million in funding for the area, including a $3.6 million tax incremental financing (TIF) district. About $1.2 million of those funds will be used for street improvements.

    The city has earmarked about $1 million in the TIF district for development grants and loans to open and improve businesses in the commercial district, Manuel said.

    "What we want is to have the Martin Luther King (Drive) area be retail, and a mixed-use of shops (restaurants and entertainment venues), on North Avenue between Fourth and Seventh (streets)," Manuel said. "We’d like a nice mix. The interest is to have people travel throughout the district."

    Grant’s Soul Food Restaurant, 411 W. North Ave., has been in the neighborhood for decades, and DCD staff members are working with Albert Grant Jr., the restaurant’s owner, to improve the storefront. Grant said the business is planning to install new awnings and a new sign this year.

    "We’d like to expand and capitalize on evening (traffic) if Bronzeville blossoms," Grant said.

    The DCD also is working with the owners of the Value Village thrift store, 324 W. North Ave. to improve its storefront. The city will not try to force out existing businesses, but instead work to improve their buildings to make them more attractive, Manuel said.

    "That was one of the concerns some of the existing (business) owners had," she said. "Our focus is to make sure the business owners there are strong and stable. In developing the TIF (district), there were resources included for existing businesses as well."

    The DCD is in the process of acquiring the former Inner City Arts Council building at the northwest corner of North Seventh Street and West North Avenue, Manuel said, which city officials want to see redeveloped as a cultural arts center.

    The city’s Bronzeville plan calls for that area to be developed as a theater, arts and cultural center, including performance venues, galleries, a retail anchor, restaurant and banquet hall.

    DCD staff are also starting work on a plan to retrofit and find the best uses of the former Garfield Elementary School, 2215 N. Fourth St., using $200,000 in federal funds. Garfield Elementary was closed in the fall of 2005.

    Possible uses of the former elementary school include an arts incubator for theater and cultural arts groups, mixed-uses including gallery space, and even potential residential uses, Manuel said.

    Inner City Redevelopment Corp., a Milwaukee-based nonprofit development firm, is in the early stages of planning the redevelopment of the Northtown Mall, located at the northwest corner of West North Avenue and North Martin Luther King Drive. The mall currently houses a Walgreen’s store, a Time Warner Cable sales and service office, a Chase Bank branch, Shekinah Printing & Design Inc. and several other retail stores.

    The redevelopment could include retail and office uses, several parking ramps, apartments, condos and townhouses. The project would be called Brooks Plaza and would cost $10 million to $16 million, said J. Allen Stokes, executive vice president with Inner City Redevelopment Corp. The mall was built in 1984.

    "This area is underserved," Stokes said. "You need to have different kinds of retail outlets. If you have more people coming in, you want to have somewhere they can shop."

    The redevelopment plans are in the conceptual stage now, Stokes said, but they call for a staged demolition of the existing mall.

    The project will need some type of city assistance, Stokes said.

    The Milwaukee office of Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC), the nation’s largest community development organization, is processing a predevelopment loan request from Inner City Redevelopment Corp.

    "We’re very excited about the prospect," said Leo Ries, director of the Milwaukee LISC office. "I think it will bring new activity and vitality to the (Bronzeville) district. They’re talking about housing and commercial services. And they will help bring the district to the critical mass of activity to be successful."

    Bronzeville’s next steps

    • Mid-March – City-sponsored facade grant workshops for commercial property owners along the Bronzeville commercial corridor.
    • April – Community feedback meetings on streetscaping concepts.
    • Spring – Street banners and logo for the district will be developed.

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