Momentum builds to upgrade commercial properties near airport

Last updated on June 6th, 2022 at 10:17 pm

Owners of businesses near General Mitchell International Airport and municipal leaders of communities near the airport are working to improve the area and enhance it as a gateway to Milwaukee.


In 2005, a group of business owners and top managers of businesses located around the airport formed the Airport Gateway Business Association (ABGA). A year later, AGBA formed the Airport Gateway Business Improvement District (BID). BIDs are capable of levying taxes on commercial properties within their boundaries, to be used for improvements such as street cleaning, plantings, decorative signage and private security.



Needing a strong leader for their efforts to improve the airport area, AGBA has hired Tom Rave as its executive director. Rave has an extensive background in commercial banking with First Wisconsin, Firstar, Wells Fargo and Tri City National banks.


“There was no set head to keep everybody on the same page, no central space,” said Jaime Maliszewski, president of Reliable Plating Works in Milwaukee. “That’s where Tom was needed, to keep us more focused. He can be the chase guy too, and he can follow up on stuff now.”


Rave’s presence is even more necessary because of the increasing complexity of AGBA’s plans for the neighborhood around the airport area. The group has held extensive talks with city, county and state officials, and worked with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation on its plans for improving the airport freeway spur.


“Our area really is the gateway to the whole (Milwaukee) area,” Rave said. “We all have to work together to improve the area and the airport. We have to do common things to make the Milwaukee area look good.”


Milwaukee Alderman Terry Witkowski, who represents the area of the city around the airport, formed a committee with representatives of each municipality near the airport, to work on improving the area and attracting development.


“We all gain if development happens in the area, no matter what city it occurs in,” Witkowski said. “If we all grow, we all gain.”


“There is so much more potential that I think we can make this a convenient transportation gateway for travelers and we can attract and retain the industrial uses there,” said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. “That’s why we’ve been working with the businesses on the (area’s) strategic plan and why we’ve been so supportive of AGBA and the business improvement district.”


The city is working on comprehensive plans for each part of the city. The Southeast Side Comprehensive Area Plan, which includes the airport area, will include plans for a “town center” around the intersection of South Howell Avenue and West Layton Avenue, said Richard “Rocky” Marcoux, commissioner of the Department of City Development. The town center would be a more densely developed area with a mix of office, entertainment, retail, hotel, restaurants and residential development.


The plan will also include other areas targeted for development clusters near the airport, Marcoux said.


Witkowski said he wants to see more density near the airport.


“I want to see bigger buildings,”he said.


Witkowski also said the airport area needs to attract higher-quality national chain restaurants.


“We have some restaurants in the area, local restaurants, great food,” he said. “But travelers also look for national brands.”


AGBA officials are working with the city on the area plan, which also will include improvements to the landscaping and streetscaping of the airport area as well as regular commercial lawn maintenance.


“We’re looking at the boulevards, the development of vacant land, who we want to target to bring in, the best use of parks here, creating pedestrian- and bike-friendly areas and even the potential naturalization of some of the creeks here,” Maliszewski said. “We’ve had a lot of say with working with Jim Piwani (a consultant hired by Milwaukee’s DCD to help craft the plan).”


A draft of the Southeast Side Comprehensive Area Plan will be available for public review next month and is expected to be adopted by the Common Council by the end of the year.


To further help improve the appearance of the airport area, AGBA hired Kujawa Enterprises Inc. (KEI), an Oak Creek-based landscaping firm, to design, plant and maintain landscaping in the medians on Layton Avenue. KEI has already started planting alongside a railroad bridge that crosses Layton Avenue near South 12th Street.


“They’re going to do the boulevard on the east and west side of the bridge and the wings on each side (of the bridge),” Maliszewski said.


In addition, Milwaukee Department of Public Works employees have built planters and planted decorative plants along Layton and Howell avenues in recent weeks, as part of the city’s efforts to help raise the area’s profile.


The Department of Transportation’s plans to rebuild and expand Interstate 94 between the Mitchell Interchange and the state line presents another opportunity to improve the appearance of the airport area. The project will include major enhancements to the airport freeway spur.


Roberto Gutierrez, southeast freeway chief with the DOT, said the airport spur is being redesigned with special attention to detail.


“We kept hearing that there are two gateways in this project – the freeway at the state line and the airport spur,” Gutierrez said. “We’ve always talked about doing the boulevard approach (on the airport spur). And we’ve put substantial treatment and dollars into community sensitive design elements into the spur.”


While the project is still in pre-design mode, the airport spur will look similar to the nearby Lake Parkway. Bridges, columns and walls will feature a beige coloring, columns are being designed to closely resemble architectural features common in Milwaukee’s bungalow homes and the spur will feature decorative fencing and signage, Gutierrez said.


Current designs also call for new earthen berms, extensive plantings in boulevard-styled medians and a large cityscape mural on one of the spur’s walls, said Bill Mohr, project manager of southeast freeways with the DOT.


The DOT also is talking with the airport and Milwaukee County about how to light the redeveloped highway.


“(We’d like to do) a Calatrava-style light pole with white lights and overhanging sign poles too,” Mohr said. “We’re working now to finalize treatments.”


New private developments also could enhance the airport area. Several new hotels have been proposed near the airport. A proposed 80-room Sleep Inn hotel, to be built northeast of Layton Avenue and South 6th Street, was expected to break ground this week, city officials said.


Other hotels are doing major physical improvements and upgrading to higher-end brands. The 99-room AmeriSuites hotel at 200 W. Grange Ave. is being converted to a Hyatt Place hotel. The 190-room Ramada Milwaukee Airport Hotel & Convention Center, 6401 S. 13th St., Milwaukee, closed in February for remodeling and a conversion to Crowne Plaza. Last year the 508-room Four Points by Sheraton Milwaukee Airport hotel at 4747 S. Howell Ave. was converted to a Wyndham hotel, and remodeling is expected to begin there later this year.


The U.S. Postal Service is planning a major development near the airport. The Postal Service plans to build an 820,000-square-foot mail distribution and processing center on a 64-acre site southwest of Nicholson Avenue and College Avenue in Oak Creek. Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker said improvements to College Avenue will be considered to accommodate additional traffic that will be generated by the facility.


Area businesses are marketing vacant and available properties for possible redevelopment, Maliszewsi said. By taking a more active role in marketing the area to potential developers, AGBA will be better able to help shape and steer future development, he said.


“By being a matchmaker, what we’re kind of doing is saying, ‘Now, this is what we want,'” Maliszewski said. “There are some sites along both Layton and Howell looking to be developed.”


The city is also selling a property near the airport. The city has issued a request for proposals seeking developers interested in buying and developing a 23,000-square-foot vacant lot at the northeast corner of West College Avenue and South 13th Street, just off I-94.


Rave and other AGBA officials have held preliminary talks with Department of City Development officials about creating a tax incremental financing (TIF) district near the airport. TIF dollars may be used to improve existing commercial properties or to help fund developments on vacant sites.


The city nearly took action recently to shut down the Collegiate Park trailer park at 6160 S. Sixth St. The park has had problems with code violations, including unconnected sewer systems, and calls for police service. However, aldermen decided to allow the park to stay open but demanded improvements.


“From a business standpoint, (closing the trailer park) would have been beneficial,” Witkowski said. “From a human standpoint, you don’t want to kick out 230 poor families who have nowhere to go.”


Business owners near the airport want to see all of the commercial properties in the area improve, but are not likely to support seizing properties through eminent domain, Rave said. Instead, they hope that by improving their own properties and investing in improvements to the right-of-way that will inspire all property owners.


“When values of properties start going up you can start an environment and a social environment that says you’ve got to improve,” Rave said. “That’s part of the capitalistic process that runs this country.”

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