Westown, the west side of downtown Milwaukee, has long been overshadowed by the east side of downtown, known as East Town.
East Town includes the heart of the city’s central business district, with its most prestigious office buildings, City Hall, the lakefront, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the iconic The Pfister Hotel and the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. corporate headquarters.[caption id="attachment_369158" align="alignnone" width="770"] A rendering of 3rd Street Market Hall, which is planned for The Avenue.[/caption]
In stark contrast, Westown has struggled for many years with empty office space in lower class buildings, the dying Shops of Grand Avenue mall, prominent vacant lots and the desolate MacArthur Square park.
But now, big changes are bringing new life to Westown and the hope of a dramatic revival for the neighborhood on the other side of the Milwaukee River.
The most obvious addition to Westown is Fiserv Forum, the new $524 million arena that opened this year. The Milwaukee Bucks and Marquette men’s basketball teams are off to a good start this season and drawing large crowds at the new arena. The Bucks have also booked several big name concerts, including Justin Timberlake, Metallica, The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, which have played to sellout crowds at the arena.
The Bucks are also creating a new entertainment district around the arena, with an Entertainment Block that will include Good City Brewing, Punch Bowl Social and Drink Wisconsinbly. The Entertainment Block will be a new downtown destination.
Fiserv Forum is already bringing more people downtown on a regular basis and the Bucks have plans for additional development around the arena that could create even more activity.
Meanwhile, construction is ongoing for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s project to transform the long vacant Warner Grand Theatre at 212 W. Wisconsin Ave. into its new performance hall. The $139 million project cost includes funds to be set aside for the MSO’s endowment. To be completed in 2020, the new home for MSO (which currently performs at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in East Town) will provide another draw to attract visitors to Westown.
However, the most significant change for the neighborhood could be the redevelopment of The Shops of Grand Avenue. As downtown has experienced a revival with the development of condos, then apartments and numerous companies moving their offices downtown, Grand Avenue has remained in a downward spiral for many years. The closing of the Boston Store earlier this year was just the latest blow to the downtown mall. Located on downtown’s Main Street (Wisconsin Avenue) and across the street from the convention center, Grand Avenue has long been a high-profile embarrassment for Milwaukee and for Westown.
But if the latest redevelopment plans for the mall come together as promised, the Grand Avenue could be transformed from one of downtown’s biggest liabilities into a huge asset and a major draw.
The Grand Avenue’s owners, a joint venture between Tony Janowiec of Interstate Development Partners and Josh Krsnak of Hempel Cos., will transform the mall into The Avenue, scrapping the retail mall concept in favor of a mix of uses, including retail, a food hall, office space and apartments.
At the heart of The Avenue will be its 3rd Street Market Hall, a 35,000-square-foot food hall, spearheaded by Milwaukee restaurateur Omar Shaikh. The food hall will feature more than 20 local vendors, including: Stone Creek Coffee, Milk Can (a new concept from chef Kurt Fogle and the team behind Muskego’s Bass Bay Brewhouse), Funky Fresh Spring Rolls, Donut Monster, Char’d and Waterford Wine & Spirits.
“This is much more than just another food hall,” Shaikh said. “The response from the restaurant community has been incredible. We already have letters of intent for 75 percent of the locations within the space and they’re all chomping at the bit to be a part of what will become Milwaukee’s most eclectic and electric scene.”
The Avenue has also snagged a major tenant for its office space. Engineering firm GRAEF-USA Inc. will move its corporate headquarters office from the west side of Milwaukee into a 35,000-square-foot space on the third floor of The Avenue. The move will bring 170 employees downtown.
“Being a part of The Avenue, and near other exciting developments including the Warner Grand Theatre renovation and Fiserv Forum and its adjacent entertainment district, sealed our relocation decision,” said John Kissinger, president and chief executive officer of GRAEF.
The Avenue is also adding 52 apartments, in the mall’s historic Plankinton Arcade, which will be called Plankinton Clover. The apartments range from studios to two-bedroom units and feature floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking West Wisconsin Avenue, North Plankinton Avenue and North Second Street. Most of the units have entrances and common corridors that connect to the second-floor atrium, which gives the atrium the feel of a public street in the middle of a neighborhood.
“Look at old photos of the Plankinton Arcade and you’ll be struck by the feel of a quaint urban neighborhood,” Janowiec said. “The Clover recaptures that sense while providing residents with ideal work/live opportunities, as well as highly connected interim living options for corporate employers.”
With its key location at the heart of Westown, The Avenue could have a major impact on the revitalization of the neighborhood.