Last updated on March 12th, 2021 at 11:07 am
For years, Clybourn Street has been one of downtown Milwaukee’s most forgettable streets, dominated by surface parking lots and parking structures.
But its reputation is changing due to a handful of high-profile developments happening near or along the street that sits in the shadow of the I-794 freeway.
In January, Milwaukee-based Central Standard Craft Distillery announced plans to redevelop the former Wisconsin Leather Co. building at 320 E. Clybourn St. Plans for the building include a first-floor tasting room and welcome center, distillation and production space in the basement, a second-floor private event venue, third-floor office space and outdoor rooftop area with views of Lake Michigan.
“We’re very excited about this next chapter for our business,” said Evan Hughes, Central Standard co-founder.
The Central Standard development joins a growing list of recently completed projects, under construction or planned along Clybourn Street. Just across the street, at 511 N. Broadway, is the Huron Building being developed by developer J. Jeffers & Co. One block north, developer Charles Bailey is working to convert the building at 600 N. Broadway into his second Kinn MKE Guesthouse boutique hotel.
At the northwest corner of Clybourn and Jefferson streets is a two-building, three-hotel development set to open later this year. Even farther east is the site of the planned Couture high-rise at the northwest corner of Clybourn Street and Lincoln Memorial Drive.
To the west is the Cambria
Hotel, which opened in August 2019 at 503 N. Plankinton Ave.
But not long ago there wasn’t much happening on Clybourn, Hughes said.
“It was kind of like a street-level freeway; people were really using it like an access road,” he said.
People are now starting to pay more attention to the street. Hughes said the Huron Building, the Kinn and the three-hotel development will draw the very type of people Central Standard is targeting with its project. This includes guests staying overnight in downtown as well as professionals looking for a watering hole post-work.
“We’re smack dab in the middle of tourism, and we’re proud of that,” Hughes said.
Clybourn Street hadn’t always been an under-utilized downtown corridor.
Rocky Marcoux, commissioner of Milwaukee’s Department of City Development, said the street had at one point been near the epicenter of downtown Milwaukee commerce. Before the rise of the railroads when grain was mostly transported by boat, Milwaukee was the grain trading capital of the U.S., if not the world, he said. And much of Milwaukee’s businesses were in the area around the Mackie and Mitchell buildings, near the intersection of Michigan Street and Broadway.
“That was the center of the central business district,” he said.
The center of commercial activity eventually moved northward around the 1950s and ’60s, as new office buildings went up along Water Street.
And the installation of I-794 only made matters worse by disconnecting Clybourn from the Historic Third Ward, he said.
For Clybourn’s turnaround, Marcoux credited a few things.
He said architect David Uihlein led the charge in redeveloping the former central business district area after moving his firm into the McGeoch Building at 322 E. Michigan St. Now called Uihlein/Wilson – Ramlow/Stein Architects, the firm still remains there today.
Marcoux also points to Jeffers’ projects, which include the renovation of the Mackie and Mitchell buildings and construction of the Huron Building. Marcoux said law firm Husch Blackwell’s decision to move its Milwaukee office to the Huron Building gave both the project and that particular part of downtown “tremendous credibility.”
Then there was the reconfiguration of the Lake Interchange freeway ramps at Lincoln Memorial Drive as part of the Lakefront Gateway project. Before that, the view looking eastbound on Clybourn consisted of a berm, a snow fence and trash that piled up on the snow fence, said Marcoux. Only the roof of Discovery World, just a block over, was visible.
“We’ve now turned Clybourn from a back alley to a boulevard,” he said.
Marcoux predicted good things are ahead for Clybourn. He expressed confidence in the Couture project eventually moving forward, which would include a transit center for both the city’s lakefront line extension of The Hop streetcar as well as Milwaukee County’s planned bus rapid-transit service.
Then there’s the rare development opportunity presented in the Lakefront Gateway site, a state-owned parcel that was freed up following the ramp reconfiguration work. Marcoux said nothing short of a high-rise should go there.
Marcoux added he expects development in the area to continue, particularly along Clybourn as well as the northeast side of the Third Ward.