Reinventing the Port of Milwaukee

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:24 pm

For decades, the privately held land surrounding the Port of Milwaukee has resembled an industrial war zone that time has forgotten, a maze of discarded refuse, tangled barbed wire fence, rusty barrels, coal piles and abandoned, crumbling factories and warehouses.
Amid the debris, the grit and the grime, real estate developers such as Tom Short and Jeff Klement are standing tall and asking a rather conceptual question: Can the land around the Port of Milwaukee be developed into a bustling commercial center, replete with hotels, restaurants, shops and office buildings?
To be sure, naysayers would have a long list of reasons for negative responses to that question, ranging from environmental contamination to the lack of a vision for the port by the City of Milwaukee.
No matter.
Short has purchased the former Milwaukee Solvay Coke & Gas Co. site at 311 E. Greenfield Ave., where he is proposing a $1.5 billion development that would include 14 new office towers. (See accompanying article.)
In addition, Short and Klement jointly purchased a 2.6-acre parcel at 435 S. Water St. in February and hope that one day they will be able to construct a hotel at the site.
The former National Warehouse Corp. site south of Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward is directly west of the port, where the Milwaukee and Kinnickinnic rivers meet.
Klement and Short are tearing down the industrial buildings at the Water Street site.
And they’re dreaming of the possibilities.
“If this site were to be developed as a hotel, it would change the complexion of Milwaukee,” said Klement, a member of the family that operates Klement Sausage Co. in Milwaukee and the founder of Franklin-based Icon Development Corp. “The port is a natural resource. It’s almost tragic that it hasn’t been developed.”
Klement envisions a hotel, where visitors could look out at the port and watch ships and barges depart and arrive from the Great Lakes. Boaters could make use of a marina that could be constructed at the hotel.
Klement’s Icon Development would develop the site.
“I think this area is probably the next frontier in the city of Milwaukee, because of its proximity to the water,” said Michael Krill, development director and general counsel for Icon. “The lake and the rivers are underused resources. It offers an incredible opportunity to the City of Milwaukee, as far as expanding the downtown.”
The developers say the City of Milwaukee should take its cue from other Great Lakes ports, such as Cleveland, Ohio, which have maximized their waterfront resources with mixed real estate uses that coexist with functioning ports.
“If you go down to the port now, it’s crap. That’s the word for it,” Klement said. “I think they can work together, and they can complement each other. There are areas down there that are just sitting there.”
Klement and Short aren’t alone with their visions of the possibilities. Bill Hansen, president of the Hansen Storage Co., anticipates selling his firm’s warehouse at 541 E. Erie St. in the near future to make better use of the riverfront property.
“Where I couldn’t see it happening before, I do now. We know we’re sitting on something that could be significant in the future,” Hansen said.
Hansen also envisions selling his company’s warehouses at 412 S. Water St., across the street from the site owned by Klement and Short, for redevelopment as condominiums. He refers to the area as the “Fifth Ward,” and is discussing the notions of creating a business improvement district (BID) and a tax incremental financing (TIF) district to spur development near the port. The city refers to the area as the Harbor View neighborhood.
Hansen is hoping the momentum of development in the Third Ward extends into the land surrounding the Port of Milwaukee. After all, few people could have envisioned the development in the Third Ward 15 years ago, Hansen said.
However, before the dreams of a viable commercial district coexisting with a functioning port could be realized, the city would need to create its vision of the port.
Julie Penman, commissioner of the Department of City Development, agrees that the land surrounding the port has been underutilized, but the city has its hands full with the Menomonee River Valley redevelopment plan and the rebirth of the land beneath the downtown Park East Freeway, which is being torn down.
From the city’s standpoint, Penman said, the Port of Milwaukee will have to wait its turn.
“It’s a ways off yet,” Penman said. “We would need to put together a master plan that looks out 20 years into the future. We recognize that long-term, there are some parcels we want to look at. It’s on our list of projects. But we don’t want to do it piecemeal.”
The city is not likely to compile such a master plan for the port for at least two years, Penman said.
That’s not soon enough for those who say the redevelopment of the port is already long overdue.
South Town Points Inc., a nonprofit organization established by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin, plans to establish a BID to promote economic development on the city’s south side.
Ralph Fleege, president of South Town Points, said the Port of Milwaukee is very much on his organization’s radar screen.
Ted Hutton, a retired Allen Bradley Co. executive who is active with South Town Points, said a redeveloped port would be a catalyst for tourism in Milwaukee.
The port as it exists now is a disgrace for the city, Hutton said.
“When you take the Amtrak into Milwaukee from Chicago, you say, ‘My god, what kind of city is this?’ That’s the first impression of Milwaukee,” Hutton said.
Hutton recruited Brian Vandewalle of Vandewalle & Associates, Madison, to create a schematic of what a revitalized Port of Milwaukee could become.
Vandewalle has a track record for converting dilapidated industrial property into thriving waterfront commercial centers.
In the 1990s, the city of Moline, Ill., embarked on a mission to transform its downtown along the Mississippi River. The site of the worldwide headquarters of John Deere & Co., Moline’s riverfront was an industrial wasteland, much like the Port of Milwaukee.
By the end of the decade, Vandewalle had successfully transformed the site into a bustling commercial district, including The Mark of the Quad Cities Center, the John Deere Pavilion and Store, a Radisson Hotel, two new Class A office buildings, a new transit center, a downtown riverwalk and other commercial and retail venues.
Such a renaissance cannot happen in Milwaukee without a coordinated effort by the city, Klement said.
“It’s going to take time. It’s going to take money. It’s going to take vision,” Klement said.
Of course, even if the city develops that vision, it does not have the dollars to make it happen.
That could ultimately be the point in which a player such as the Forest County Potawatomi Community enters the picture. Jeff Crawford, Potawatomi attorney general, told Small Business Times that Wisconsin’s Native American tribes are poised to invest more than $600 million in economic development in the state. The Potawatomi is considering its options for private development throughout the Milwaukee area, including the port, Crawford said.
Redevelopment of the port would be a boon for Milwaukee, according to Rosemary Wakeman, an associate professor of urban studies and an author at Fordham University in New York.
Proven concept
“I very much believe the port should be open to the public. The ports that have been the most successful are the ones that have opened up their public spaces,” said Wakeman, who has studied successful ports throughout the world. “Office buildings, conference centers, restaurants – they are compatible, but they need to be very unique to the waterfront. When you do that, it’s extraordinary. You’ve got to find the unique qualities of Milwaukee’s lakefront and use that as the theme of the design.
“You just can’t be competitive as a port just taking boxes of shoes off of ships,” Wakeman said. “There’s a real education process that’s needed in a community.”
Ald. Suzanne Breier, whose district includes the Bay View neighborhood, said the private sector is anxious to redevelop the real estate around the port, much like developers took the lead to redevelop the Third Ward over the past decade.
“We’re going to have to get a master plan for the port, and I think we’re going to have to do it this year,” Breier said. “There’s just a whole new feeling for that area.”
Gateway to Bay View
Bay View also should receive a boost when Catherine Rohde, president and owner of Oasis Coffee & Vending Services, redevelops the former Reimers Photo Graphics site at 300 E. Bay St. near the corner of Kinnickinnic Avenue.
Rohde already has moved her business into the prime location from its previous home at 68th Street and Fairview Avenue.
Rohde has applied for a facade grant from the City of Milwaukee and plans to develop mixed uses, including office and retail, at the 10,000-square-foot site, according to leasing agent Bill Dixon of Dixon Commercial Real Estate Services.
The site had an assessed valuation of $289,000 in 2002, and Rohde plans to invest more than $60,000 for its initial facelift.
“This building is going to have a new face, a new look — big time,” Rohde said. “People are going to be impressed. Lots of windows, landscaping. I want it nice. We are the gateway of Bay View. I think Bay View has gotten a bad rap. Let’s start here and work our way up Kinnickinnic.”
April 4, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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