Symphony would use Grand Ave. parking structure for Warner shows

No plan to rent out connected 12-story office tower if theater sale, renovation proceed

The exterior of 212 W. Wisconsin Ave. looking northwest from the corner of North 2nd Street.

There are roughly 1,750 parking spaces at the Shops of Grand Avenue’s parking structure, and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra wants to use them. That is, if it follows through on its plan to renovate and move into the Warner Grand Theatre on West Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Milwaukee.

The exterior of 212 W. Wisconsin Ave. looking northwest from the corner of North 2nd Street.
The exterior of 212 W. Wisconsin Ave. looking northwest from the corner of North 2nd Street.

The MSO announced Monday that an anonymous patron donor is leading an initiative to buy the vacant Art Deco-style theater and convert it into its new concert hall.

The former movie theater closed in 1995.

MSO president and executive director Mark Niehaus estimated purchasing and renovating the theater could cost $70 million to $80 million. The MSO is running a special $120 million fundraising campaign to secure enough money to complete the purchase and renovations as well as establish an endowment for the symphony. Around half of that $120 million has already been secured.

If the MSO is able to take over and renovate the Warner Grand Theatre, MSO executive vice president and general manager Susan Loris said it has its sights set on the nearby Shops of Grand Avenue parking structure for its patrons.

“There are 1,750 parking spots at Grand Avenue Mall and we are working with the owners to make sure that our patrons have direct, covered access to the Hall,” Loris wrote in an email. “The MSO will not be building parking facilities — we will be working with existing parking facilities.”

The Warner Grand Theatre, located at 212 W. Wisconsin Ave., was built in 1930 as part of an 12-story office building. The building is surrounded by an abundance of parking facilities. There are several surface-level parking lots located on the blocks immediately surrounding the theater, as well as multiple parking structures, including the 2nd and Plankinton Avenue garage and the Blue at 310 West Parking Structure on Old World 3rd Street.

“The MSO has taken parking and accessibility into consideration from the start,” Loris wrote. “Renovation plans include covered walkways (to) parking facilities that are fully accessible and close to the theater, including the lot at Grand Avenue Mall. More information about our plans will be released soon.”

Tony Janowiec, a leader in the Grand Avenue Mall’s ownership group, said he and his partners have been working with Niehaus and the MSO on their plans for the past year.

“We’re constantly trying to find creative ways to support their efforts because it’s clearly a real boon for the avenue to activate the Grand again,” Janowiec said. “We really end up with quite an entertainment district on our hands, with our connection to the Riverside Theater and the residential developments in the area.

“The parking piece is just one of those practical issues that they have with occupying the Grand, and a natural fit is to commit parking to the Grand Avenue parking structure. We serve most of the buildings in Westown because a lot of the old buildings were built without parking. We’re certainly positioned to commit long-term to their parking.”

When asked about whether the MSO’s plan to create “direct, covered access” between the theater and existing parking facilities could mean building a skywalk, Janowiec said: “There’s been a number of concepts floated out there. We’ve seen many concepts. If there’s a way to connect with our building in any physical fashion, we’re supportive of exploring that, but I just don’t know exactly what approach they’re thinking right now.”

“Part of the envisioned experience is to extend the symphony experience from the point that somebody parks to the point that they get to their seats in the Grand Theatre,” he added.

Another question that remains regarding the MSO’s plans is what will happen to floors of currently unused space in the theater’s connected 12-story office tower, which is currently vacant. The group plans to move its community education and administrative office operations into the building if plans proceed, but Niehaus said rental income potential for the office tower was not included when MSO leaders discussed the long-term financial viability of the project.

Rendering of the new Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concert hall planned at the Warner Grand Theatre.
Rendering of the new Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concert hall planned at the Warner Grand Theatre.

“Downtown Milwaukee has a glut of class B office space,” Niehaus said. “Everyone wants their office in a new building. We don’t have any rental income from the tower in our business model because we don’t think that’s responsible. We can’t expect income off the tower.”

Niehaus said that the MSO is planning on renting out the theater to other performing arts groups, however, on dates that the Symphony Orchestra is not playing.

The MSO does not have a back-up location lined up if its plans for the Warner Grand Theatre fall through, Niehaus said.

“This is actually the most affordable thing to do; to renovate an existing space,” he said. “If we wanted to build a new symphony hall, that would’ve been more expensive. It would’ve been double the cost to build on a vacant lot. Plus we need to save this theater. This is an historic gem and there’s very few things that can go in it like we can. It’s a symbiotic relationship — we need the theater and the theater needs us.

MSO leaders anticipate renovating the theater will be a catalyst for increased development and pedestrian activity in the Westown neighborhood.

“Think about what the Public Market and the Broadway Theater did for the Third Ward,” Niehaus said. “It turned into the hippest place in Milwaukee. West Wisconsin Avenue used to be Main Street in Milwaukee. What’s happening with the theater, Grand Avenue mall, the way Marquette is heading east over the highway, all the development on the east side. It’s the last place that needs to be filled in. It’s like a donut hole and we’re in the middle of it.”

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Ben Stanley, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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