North Avenue gains development momentum

Several real estate developments in recent years along North Avenue between Lake Drive on Milwaukee’s East Side and Humboldt Boulevard in the city’s Riverwest neighborhood have increased the vitality of the area.

Last year, three major projects were completed: the 700-bed Cambridge Commons University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee residence hall; the $417 million expansion of Columbia St. Mary’s hospital; and the 90-unit Latitude Apartments building, located about a block south of North Avenue.

Other major projects completed on or near North Avenue since 2006 include: UWM’s 475-bed RiverView Residence Hall; the mixed-use Kenilworth Square project; and the Prospect Medical Commons building, which includes a 54,000-square-foot Whole Foods grocery store.

More developments are planned for the North Avenue corridor. Milwaukee-based HD Development Group plans to build a five-story, 122-unit apartment building just west of RiverView Residence Hall. And three developers have submitted proposals in response to an RFP seeking plans to redevelop the East Library property at 1910 E. North Ave.

In addition, two other residential developments with ground floor retail space are in the works on or near North Avenue, said Department of City Development Commissioner Richard “Rocky” Marcoux, who declined to provide details.

All of the development along North Avenue, which is a major East Side hub, creates more vitality for the area and makes it even more attractive for additional development.

“Success creates more success,” said Marcoux. “(More development) bodes well for all of the businesses there. Obviously, they need body heat. It’s an incredibly dynamic area.”

A major sign of the strength of the North Avenue market is that it is one of the few areas in the city of Milwaukee that is attracting development without the assistance of a tax incremental financing (TIF) district.

“The market is figuring it out over there,” said Blair Williams, president of Milwaukee-based WiRED Properties which is a co-developer with Town of Brookfield-based HSI Properties for one of the East Library site proposals.

HSI and WiRED have proposed a $8.98 million, four-story development with 71 apartments and a 16,000-square-foot library space. They want to offer the apartments at market rates, Williams said. But if they cannot obtain financing for a 100-percent market rate project, they may seek financing through a government program that would require them to offer 20 percent of the units at subsidized “affordable” rates, Williams said.

The other two proposals for the East Library site are from Oregon, Wis.-based Gorman & Company and Madison-based Stone House Development.

Gorman & Company is proposing a $14.3 million, four-story building with 65 apartments and a 16,500-square-foot library space. The apartments would be a mix of market rate and affordable housing units with possible financing from Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA) tax credits or new markets tax credits.

Stone House has proposed a $15 million, four-story building with 81 apartments. Some of the apartments would be market rate units. Others would be affordable housing units with financing from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Section 42 affordable housing program.

The proposals for the East Library site will be reviewed by neighborhood groups and need the approval of the city’s Library Board and Common Council.

HD Development Group plans to offer the apartments in its project at market rates. The project would be a major boost to the area just west of the Milwaukee River in the Riverwest neighborhood. The site is about one block east of a BP gas station and convenience store that was looted and about three blocks east of Kilbourn Reservoir Park, where several people were beaten, in a highly-publicized incident on July 3.

Marcoux described that as an isolated incident that does not reflect on the true character of the Riverwest neighborhood.

“Riverwest is a fabulous place,” Marcoux said. “One incident is not going to slow down the development potential. I’ve never subscribed to the idea that that is a challenged area. It’s not. That area has great potential.”

The neighborhoods around North Avenue are more diverse than most of the city, which is a major reason for its appeal, said Williams, who lives in the area.

“I see people of all shapes, sizes, colors and lifestyles and to me that adds value,” he said. “If you want homogeneity, you can live in the Third Ward, where everyone is the same. There’s no affordable housing in the Third Ward.”

The combination of Whole Foods, other stores, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, a hospital and a variety of housing makes the North Avenue area a vibrant and authentic mixed-use urban neighborhood, said Ald. Nik Kovac.

“What Bayshore (Town Center in Glendale) is pretending to be, an urban village with shopping, housing, dining and entertainment options, we’re that already,” he said. “Bayshore is successful, but it still feels a little fake.”

“North Avenue has got all of the things you want from an urban location,” Williams said. “You can do everything right there. It’s more of a neighborhood certainly than Commerce Street or the Third Ward.”

Other East Side commercial districts such as Brady Street and Downer Street have experienced little change in recent years as North Avenue has been going through a major transformation that has established its own identity, Williams said.

“I think North Avenue for a long time people thought of as Cans, BBC, Cush,” he said. “The thing that now has started to happen is North Avenue is its own thing. It’s not UWM, it’s not Brady Street and it’s not downtown.”

With more change on the way for North Avenue several other sites along and near the street are likely in play for redevelopment projects, Williams said. One high-profile site is the former Pizza Man property northeast of North and Oakland avenues. The home of the longtime East Side restaurant burned down early this year.

“Long term, I’d like to see North Avenue become the top shopping, housing, entertainment and dining option in the region,” Kovac said.

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