On a hot July afternoon in Walker’s Point, the east side of South Fifth Street is closed. More accurately, it is gone.
Crews have started a much-needed three-month reconstruction project that will result in not only a smoother thoroughfare, but also 17.5-foot-wide sidewalks on each side from Scott to Virginia streets, more than doubling the size of the 8-foot sidewalks currently lining Fifth Street.
[caption id="attachment_146042" align="alignright" width="518"] A rendering of a narrower Fifth Street – but the pictured sidewalk bump outs won’t be included.[/caption]
Fifth Street will become narrower, but also more pedestrian-friendly. By October, businesses will have the option of spilling onto the expanded sidewalk.
The city is hoping the results will be similar to what happened after the 2010 reconstruction of South Second Street, when the street was narrowed from two lanes in each direction to a more pedestrian-oriented street with one vehicular lane in each direction and a bike lane on each side. Landscaping and new lights were also added, and suddenly traffic slowed and business boomed. Second Street became a magnet in Walker’s Point.
Developers have called the change on Second Street a pivotal moment for the neighborhood. Now is the time for something pivotal to happen on Fifth Street.
“Having lived through South Second Street, the process wasn’t fun, it wasn’t pretty, but quite honestly, the benefits way outweigh the trouble and trying times of the reconstruction,” said Lori Gensch, who owns 1024 S. Fifth St., home of Urban Harvest Brewing Co., and also several properties on Second Street, including the buildings that house Zak’s Café, 231 S. Second St. and Indulgence Chocolatiers, 211 S. Second St.
The narrowing of Fifth Street was scheduled several years ago, but put on hold so Milwaukee’s Department of City Development could incorporate it into the Walker’s Point strategic action plan.
[caption id="attachment_146039" align="alignright" width="350"] Construction is underway to narrow Fifth Street, which is lined with historic buildings.[/caption]
The city spent about a year working with the Walker’s Point Association to come up with a plan the neighborhood would embrace, said Sam Leichtling, long range planning manager with the DCD.
The neighborhood association and stakeholders spent the summer of 2015 choosing between four options for Fifth Street. The chosen design is the 17.5-foot- wide sidewalks, parallel parking on both sides of the street and a shared lane for cars and bikes.
“We’re not trying to recreate South Second Street, but allow for more ways to make this a more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly street,” Leichtling said.
The project costs $2.7 million, which also includes adding bioswales to manage stormwater and utility work. The project is being funded by the Department of Public Works and a tax increment financing district that previously had been created for the area.
Leichtling believes the project will prompt existing businesses to expand and others to relocate to Walker’s Point. He said MobCraft Beer Inc., 505 S. Fifth St., has already said it would maximize the outdoor space, and Riverwest’s Fuel Café announced its second location would be in Walker’s Point after hearing about the plans.
“La Fuente also decided to open a banquet hall because of the street,” Leichtling said.
Sean Burke, vice president at La Fuente, said the street narrowing project was part of the catalyst to renovate the auto repair shop at 607 S. Fifth St. into an events facility.
“This is really a terrific urban area that is already undergoing a renaissance,” Burke said. “The narrowing of the street and the potential streetscape will accentuate that.”
La Fuente, which opened its Walker’s Point location in 1991, has always been known for its outdoor dining. Burke said the restaurant plans to add more outdoor seats along the sidewalk once the project is complete.
“We hope the current pains will be worth the effort, but believe the natural slowdown of the traffic will be good for all of the shops here, whether you are an art gallery or a restaurant,” Burke said.
Gensch said the key to a successful construction project on Fifth Street is to keep communication lines open between the city and the business owners. So far, there has been success, she said.
[caption id="attachment_146038" align="alignright" width="350"] The sidewalks will be 17.5 feet wide when construction is finished this fall.[/caption]
“The city is trying hard to maintain good decorum and communication,” she said. “Ultimately, the owners and tenants are trying to make their businesses successful. But we all need patience and understanding.”
After 21 years in business, JoAnne and Nick Anton in late July closed La Perla Restaurant and sold the property at 734 S. Fifth St. to Phoenix Burger LLC, the owner of the Hamburger Mary’s building in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood. Hamburger Mary’s plans to move to the former La Perla location.
Part of the reason the Antons said they decided to sell at this time because of the construction on Fifth Street.
“We timed it because there’s incredible construction happening in our neighborhood and so knowing that the good news of having multiple offers and, ultimately, us picking this right set of buyers coincided with what was a delayed construction schedule,” JoAnne said.
Chris Socha, an architect with Cedarburg-based The Kubala Washatko Architects Inc. who is opening new company division UrbanLab at the corner of West Pierce and South Fifth streets, said the location was specifically chosen because of the street transformation project.
“South Fifth Street is uniquely positioned to become one of Milwaukee’s next great commercial corridors,” Socha said. “Like Broadway (in the Third Ward), it is not a through street. It has Sixth Street on the north, an end point on the south, and all of these incredible historic buildings in between that set themselves up nicely for adaptive reuse. This is poised to be a retail area to grow into.”
Socha was an advocate for the plan that was chosen – the narrowest street, largest sidewalks and most pedestrian-friendly.
“Anyone who saw the transformation on Second Street knows there is pain to get to the other side, but the results are worth it,” Socha said. “We get through a few months and that sets us up for 50 to 100 years of long-term success.”