Real Estate Spotlight: Milwaukee suburbs seeing changes, challenges

Aerial view of the Spur 16 mixed-use development in Mequon.
Aerial view of the Spur 16 mixed-use development in Mequon. Credit: James Meyer/Shutterstock

Last updated on November 26th, 2019 at 11:20 am

Downtown Milwaukee isn’t the only part of the region enjoying a building boom.

Some of the metro-area suburbs have also seen significant developments in recent years, which officials say have “urbanized” some neighborhoods, reinvented suburban business districts and transformed their reputations among residents and visitors. But along with the new developments and positive attitudes also come challenges.

“We’ve been blessed with (a good) location, and developers want to develop and people want to live there,” Wauwatosa Mayor Kathy Ehley said of the growth her community has seen in the years following the Great Recession.

Ehley was part of a panel of suburban mayors who participated in a recent Marquette University event that focused on suburbs. She was joined by the mayors of Mequon, Oak Creek and West Allis.

It appears another migration from cities to suburbs has begun at a national level. A March 2018 report from Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution, which analyzed U.S. Census Bureau data, found the suburbanization that had been “put on hold” in the post-recession years was again picking up.

Mike Mooney, principal, chairman emeritus and co-founder of Brookfield-based MLG Capital, predicts this movement back to the suburbs will occur in the Milwaukee area over the next decade.

“I think there will be a gradual shift back to the suburbs, where the people can have a house with some, I refer to it as, elbow room,” he said in a recent interview.

But a common theme that has been seen in some suburban communities in recent years is the more urban-like development that’s been occurring, in which the emphasis has been placed on walkability in neighborhoods.

“People are, I believe, buying homes in our community because they are able to walk to a certain breakfast place, coffee shop,” said West Allis Mayor Dan Devine. “It’s a complete package of bringing in not only employers, but places for employees.”

Mequon, meanwhile, is experiencing growth that differs from the other three communities, according to Mayor John Wirth. He said Mequon has been more resistant to certain kinds of growth.

“Some people call me a more pro-growth mayor, but we don’t want to change what Mequon is. We want to make it a better case of itself,” he said.

Suburbs are becoming more diverse in general, according to research from John Johnson, research fellow for Marquette Law School’s Lubar Center for Public Policy Research and Civic Education. Johnson noted younger populations in the suburbs are looking more diverse than previous generations.

“Just a third of suburban whites are under the age of 30, compared to 41% of suburban Asians, 43% of suburban blacks and 54% of Latinos,” he said.

But with all that growth and change in the suburbs are challenges that leaders say need to be addressed.

Some of the biggest issues revolve around race and ethnicity, such as segregation and ensuring minority groups are having their voices heard at city hall. Oak Creek Mayor Dan Bukiewicz noted that, while not everyone wants to run for office, they may be more apt to sit on a committee in an appointed position. This has been a focus of the city, he said.

“Those boards and commissions do a lot of groundwork for the Common Council and that’s where we’re getting a diverse look at things,” he said.

Then there’s the long-standing issue of segregation, which occurs based on both racial and economic lines.

To address that, Ehley said it’s important communities have a good mix of rental properties. She also noted Wauwatosa just approved an ordinance that allows auxiliary dwellings in certain areas.

“I think we always have to be tuned into how our communities are changing and making sure we’re not pricing ourselves out of the market for the vast majority of people,” she said.

Devine said one way to make West Allis more attractive to both a younger and more diverse crowd is to have a workforce that is representative of the community as a whole. This is something the city can still improve on, he said.

“One thing I really like about the city of West Allis is our diversity isn’t clumped,” Devine said. He later added, “A lot of the investment and a lot of the entrepreneurs have been diverse, that are opening small mom-and-pop shops. I think that helps to send a message that this is a place for everyone.” ν

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Alex Zank
Alex Zank covers commercial and residential real estate for BizTimes. Alex previously worked for Farm Equipment magazine and also covered statewide construction news at The Daily Reporter. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he studied journalism, political science and economics. Having grown up in rural western Wisconsin, Alex loves all things outdoors, including camping, hiking, four-wheeling and hunting.