Power in numbers

    With the addition of 2,000 residences in downtown Milwaukee in the last five years, the downtown retail revival that city officials have long hoped for is starting to happen.
    A downtown plan released in 1999 laid out a lofty goal of 500 new residential units per year for the next 24 years, stating that such housing "increases the market for downtown urban services, shops, restaurants and recreation."
    The housing goal hasn’t been met, but about 400 units have been added to downtown’s housing stock each of the last five years, and another few thousand are in the planning or proposal stage, notes Maria Prioletta, a housing and neighborhood development manager with the city Department of Development.
    "We’re seeing a continuing growth in the housing market, with 40% of the new downtown residents coming from outside the area," she said. "These are not just downtown-area residents moving around."
    The housing expansion has brought interest from retailers and "has had a real impact on the city’s ability to attract businesses" to the downtown, she says. "Obviously, there’s a correlation" between housing and retail, she notes.
    "Building the housing has been key to building the retail," adds Dimitri Jordan, an economic development specialist with the city Department of Development.
    The expansion of the residential population has rounded out the daytime population of people who work downtown, leading to a good number of restaurants downtown, notes Jennifer Basile, an economic development specialist with the Department of City Development.
    "Restaurant growth is usually first to follow residential expansion," Basile says. "Retail comes after that, and now we’re seeing the re-tenanting of The Shops of Grand Avenue" and other retail developments.
    At a recent development conference in Chicago, Jordan heard from a Kohl’s Corp. representative that the retailer has determined downtown Milwaukee’s daytime population to be about 14,000.
    "And retail basically thrives on population," Jordan notes.
    Not to be discounted is the student population. Milwaukee School of Engineering’s campus is downtown, as are Milwaukee Area Technical College and a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee facility. And Marquette University’s campus touches the west edge of downtown.
    Prioletta recalled hearing from a franchiser considering a downtown location. The business owner was concerned whether downtown had the population to support the restaurant. The restaurant eventually opened and, on a drive-by, Prioletta noticed a line of customers going all the way outside the building.
    Among pending residential development are projects at the massive Pabst City, with plans for 400 to 500 apartment units and 70 to 80 condominiums there, a development at Cass and Marshall streets, the condominium project at the east end of Kilbourn Avenue, and Barry Mandell’s development of the former Pfister & Vogel tannery along Water Street, where 560 housing units are planned.
    Meanwhile, housing developments continue along Commerce Street in the "Beerline B" corridor near Schlitz Park – an area that has been transformed from blight to highly coveted.
    "The tremendous amount of investment by people in the residential market downtown shows a level of confidence that is very gratifying for us to see," Prioletta said.
    It wasn’t always that way. Prioletta says when the Beerline B plan was unveiled only two or three developers were interested. "Now, we have developers in the 10s, 20s competing for these projects. It’s really pushed the market."
    Jordan gives some of the credit for the renewal to "the visionaries of the 1990s" who saw the assets of downtown, particularly the river.
    Prioletta agrees.
    "The Riverwalk was and continues to be a catalyst for downtown development," she said.
    Some of that development will be along the river in the 26-acre Park East Freeway corridor. Despite some delays, "we have had a lot of interest from people who want to get in there with developments," Basile, adding that the interest is far more than casual. There are solid proposals for projects, she said.
    The corridor’s bridge over the river, originally scheduled to open last year, will open in May or June.
    "With the bridge in place, we’ll be able to work with the state in getting lands released for redevelopment," she said, adding that "it’s so monumental that the freeway is down; it will not only help the immediate area but will also foster redevelopment along King Drive, Vliet Street and up Fond du Lac Avenue."
    Basile said development in the
    corridor will first occur on the east side of the river.
    On the west side, some of the land will be used by the state for a staging area for Marquette Interchange reconstruction work. And some environmental remediation needs to take place on some of the property. Further challenges are posed by old foundations being uncovered – foundations of buildings that existed in the corridor before the freeway was built, soft soils and the foundations of freeway pillars that were sawed off.
    Additionally, the redevelopment plan for the corridor needs to be approved by the common council and the extent to which that plan will incorporate wage and benefit requirements for developers and employers remains unknown.
    But Basile sees beyond that to the redevelopment prospects of 26 acres of land. Add that to the 22 acres at the adjacent Pabst City, where redevelopment work has already begun, "and right there, you have 48 acres of change," Basile says. That’s an area bigger than the some communities in the Milwaukee area.
    Other major commercial projects to watch downtown include the proposal to build a 350-room, seven-story Sheraton Hotel on the 400 block of West Wisconsin Avenue, across from the Midwest Airlines Center, and the continued extension of redevelopments along Water Street south onto First Street in the Fifth Ward.
    And, like the flow of development into the Fifth Ward, other neighborhoods around downtown are seeing spillover development, Prioletta says. Among those is the area around 12th and Vliet streets, just west of the Pabst Brewing Co. complex. Milwaukee County recently spent $9 million rehabilitating its Health and Human Services building there, and a retail district has long been active there.
    Acting Mayor Marvin Pratt said downtown’s vitality is good for the entire city.
    "It’s hard to look at the development downtown and not be optimistic, not only about future development there, but for the entire city as we spread downtown’s success to our neighborhoods," Pratt said. "The market is showing faith in what we’ve been doing downtown, housing growth is skyrocketing, and the results in the retail sector are beginning to show with re-tenanting at The Shops at Grand Avenue as well as other areas. As housing continues to grow downtown, the retail sector will follow."

    March 5, 2004 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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