Putting the pieces together for a strong Near West Side

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Three years ago, five companies with nothing in common except their location decided to work together to turn their Near West Side neighborhood into a thriving business and residential community.

As these things go, there was a lot of fanfare in the beginning.

Representatives from Aurora Health Care Inc., Harley-Davidson Inc., Marquette University, MillerCoors LLC and Potawatomi Business Development Corp. talked about the possibilities.

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The Ambassador Hotel has been a consistent anchor in the Avenues West neighborhood for more than 20 years.

The Near West Side Partners have four primary goals: improving the commercial corridors of the neighborhood, branding the community, improving neighborhood safety, and housing.

An energetic leader, Keith Stanley, was put in place. And in the beginning, there were small victories.

Over the years, Stanley and his dedicated board of directors, made up mainly of business leaders working in the neighborhood, quietly started putting pieces into place.

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In June of 2017, Sendik’s announced it would open a 4,800-square-foot store in vacant space on the northeast corner of North 16th and West Wells streets, on Marquette’s campus. Several areas of the city’s west and north sides are in food deserts, where there is a lack of full-service grocery stores stocking fresh and healthy food options. The Sendik’s announcement was an amazing win for the Near West Side, Stanley said.

Milwaukee developer Rick Wiegand, who owns the Ambassador Hotel, has spent the past 25 years working to revitalize the Avenues West neighborhood. He purchased the former Wisconsin Avenue School at 2708 W. Wisconsin Ave. late last year and is currently redeveloping it into a 23-room extend stay hotel.

The $15 million project, to be called Ambassador Suites, will also include meeting and banquet space, a restaurant and an outdoor beer garden.

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In 2016, Wiegand purchased the three-building City Campus complex south of West Wells Street, between North 27th and North 28th streets, for $272,000 from Milwaukee County. The campus includes two storefronts occupied by a Chinese restaurant and a clothing store, a two-story office building, and a nine story building that was formerly Family Hospital.

Wiegand, who is the board chair of the Near West Side Business Improvement District 10, has been renovating the nine-story building into office space. The property has 160,000 square feet of leasable space. FaB Wisconsin is planning an industry center of excellence that will be known as The Future Food Center in the space. Wiegand said Shelley Jurewicz, FaB Wisconsin executive director, has recently brought 20 different companies into the space that could become possible tenants.

“It takes a few years to put all of the pieces together,” Wiegand said. “You can’t turn things around until you control property so you can determine necessity. And that is what we have been doing.”

Most recently, Near West Side Partners gained control of the block southwest of North 27th Street and West Wisconsin Avenue by purchasing the final two parcels from the City of Milwaukee for $40,000.

The intersection of North 27th Street and West Wisconsin Avenue is critical for the Avenues West neighborhood and a catalytic development at the site will be key to improving the west side of 27th Street, Stanley said.

“That block is so valuable to the west side,” Stanley said. “For any developer looking at it, there are high traffic counts, access to the freeway, density, public transportation, the new Ambassador Suites. So many good things happening.”

There are currently two large projects in the works that could be located at the site.

The Department of Administration issued a request for proposals in early February to acquire land for a new state-owned office building. The DOA is planning to replace its 54-year-old downtown Milwaukee office building at 819 N. Sixth St. with a new 163,400-square-foot state office building and a 690-stall parking structure or surface lot.

The RFP stipulates the new office building will be built within the City of Milwaukee, with preference for a site somewhere between West Hampton Avenue on the north; West Mitchell Street on the south; Highway 32, Milwaukee Street, North Holton Street, Shorewood and Highway 57 on the east; and Highway 175 on the west.

Meanwhile, over the past 18 months, the Medical College of Wisconsin has discussed the idea of a “community front door” to address health disparities in the central city. MCW has issued an RFP for a 100,000- to 150,000-square-foot medical facility near downtown Milwaukee or the near north side.

Stanley said he could not comment on responding to either RFP, but said he would be interested in both projects for the North 27th Street and West Wisconsin Avenue site.

The block is one of six sites on the Near West Side identified for improvement during a design charrette in 2016 with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Architecture & Urban Planning. Others included the intersection located kiddy corner, to the northeast, where a gas station used to be located.

“If we can get the southwest corner (of 27th and Wisconsin redeveloped), maybe that will be a catalyst for the (former) gas station property (northeast of the intersection),” Stanley said. “It doesn’t make economic sense to do retail and apartments there until you have a big, catalytic project across the street.”

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