The 3100 and 3200 blocks of West Center Street in Milwaukee’s central city were once of a bustling hive of business activity. A place where Master Lock Co. grew into an industry leader and Briggs & Stratton once operated a substantial, multi-building manufacturing complex.
When Briggs & Stratton left the corridor in the 1970s, after nearly 40 years, it left a hollow in the neighborhood and in people’s lives. New owners and tenants managed to make use of some of the former Briggs & Stratton buildings over the years, but none of them had much of an impact on the community.
That is, until now.
With the help of trusted partners and the backing of Minneapolis-area real estate development firm Roers Cos., Milwaukee developer Que El-Amin and his development company, Scott Crawford Inc., is transforming the 380,000-square-foot campus on the edge of the Sherman Park neighborhood into a $68.5 million development, dubbed Community Within the Corridor.
Standing in the middle of North 32nd Street as construction equipment buzzed in the background and accordion-like ventilation hoses hung from the windows of future apartments, El-Amin marked the outline of the development with an outstretched finger.
“It’s Center (Street) from the train tracks, which is about 31st Street, to 33rd Street,” he said. “It’s two square blocks, so it is a massive space.”
Spread across nine interconnected buildings on either side of the street, the development will include 197 affordable housing units (available at below-market rents to tenants that meet income criteria) including two bedroom, three bedroom and four bedroom apartments; and 60,000 square feet of commercial and community space including a 35,000-square-foot warehouse that will be turned into a home for artists, dancers, musicians, filmmakers, nonprofits and small businesses; and a 25,000-square-foot warehouse, that will serve as a recreation center for both youth and adults.[caption id="attachment_555399" align="alignnone" width="1280"] Que El-Amin takes stock of the construction progress at the Community Within the Corridor.
Situated in the middle of an aging, low-income and historically high-crime area, Community Within the Corridor is far removed from the city’s development hot spots like the East Side, Historic Third Ward and Walker’s Point. On a good day, the drive there from downtown is about 15 minutes, and the closest freeway on-ramp is about two miles away.
But El-Amin’s ambitious vision for the development is less concerned with proximity to other places than it is with placemaking.
El-Amin was best known in Milwaukee for his work with young entrepreneurs when he first set his eyes on the largely forgotten Center Street structures in 2016. Just 31 years old at the time, El-Amin saw something in the buildings that others didn’t – at least not initially.
“I thought it was amazing. Probably a lot of people didn’t see that because it is just vacant buildings,” he said.
El-Amin worked on a vision for the development with the help of longtime friends and collaborators Mikal Wesley, president of Urbane Communities; entrepreneur and rapper Rayhainio “Ray Nitti” Boynes; and Jennifer Green, broker and owner of Green Commercial Realty Advisors. He then began shopping the project around to local developers and investors.
“We did a lot of walk throughs … with just about everyone who was relevant (in Milwaukee) at the time,” he said.
What they heard back was: “It’s risky.” “Why there?” “It’s too big.”
Making it happen
A series of lucky connections ended up paying off for El-Amin and his team. Falamak Nourzad, a principal at Milwaukee-based Continuum Architects + Planners S.C. and project architect for Community Within the Corridor, not only helped with the complicated process of applying for historical designation for the property, but also connected El-Amin with Brian Roers, owner and co-founder of Roers Cos.
Another connection, Nadine Wiencek, referred the developers to the project’s construction manager, Milwaukee-based Greenfire Management Services, which had worked with Continuum on other projects.
“I think Roers really accepted, for one, because they wanted to get into the Milwaukee market, and two, because they had no preconceived notions of what 32nd and Center was. They really looked at it based upon the project itself,” El-Amin said.
Roers agreed, noting that with a development like that, “It’s all about the space.” In this case, it was a historic building worthy of historical tax credits that could also net affordable housing tax credits.
But the company also put a lot of faith in El-Amin and his team.
“He is young in age, but old in passion, heart and dedication,” Roers said. “I mean on this thing, man, any one of us could have quit because we ran into one barrier after another. And he just stuck with it and kept going toward the vision and the dream.”
It was that persistence that prompted Green to reach out to El-Amin in the first place. Green had taught both Wesley and El-Amin in Marquette University’s Associates in Commercial Real Estate (ACRE) program, so when the owner of the buildings – Gerald Jonas, owner of Jonas Builders – called to see about selling, her first thought was to call El-Amin.
“What I do for a living, you think it’s mostly just selling buildings. But I work off of gut instinct, and I read people,” said Green. “I had seen Que go through some buildings I had listed before he took ACRE. Then when he was in my class, I saw he was very persistent. I just thought: This is the guy. He was my first call.”
For El-Amin, who founded Scott Crawford Inc. while still in his early 20s – forming the moniker from the last names of his grandfathers John H. Scott and Jeff Crawford – it was the redevelopment work that he saw happening in other challenged communities that inspired him to swing for the fences on Center Street.
“If you look at the momentum at the time, it was small, but you had Wyman Winston and (the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority), who were doing the Transform Milwaukee initiative. So, all the other areas of the city were being redeveloped. You had the Harbor District, you had the Aerotropolis (neighborhood vision for the Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport area), you had Riverworks (in the Harambee neighborhood),” he said. “Center Street was an area that hadn’t been realized yet, but you did have small pockets, like Century City and Century City Tower to the north and Near West Side Partners to the south. I just looked at this as a potential (development) that could connect those areas.”[caption id="attachment_555397" align="alignnone" width="1280"] Aerial view of the Community Within the Corridor site (outlined).
But getting the project to come together – or rather, making the financing work – took more than just a little bit of doing.
“We were denied competitive affordable tax credits on this project four times. We kept having to extend and extend the contract. But we did secure historic tax credits in the midst of that,” El-Amin said, recalling earlier phases of the development process.
All told, it took more than five years to get enough funding to commence construction in March of 2021.
El-Amin credits Roers Cos., with getting the project “over that hump” and to a place where WHEDA would take the development seriously and provide the much-needed affordable housing tax credits.
The current financing mix, or “capital stack,” for the project includes a $16 million first mortgage on the property; $26 million in Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit equity; $9.73 million in Federal Historic Tax Credit equity; $9.73 million in State Historic Tax Credit equity; $3.15 million in tax incremental financing from the City of Milwaukee; $1 million in HOME funds from the city; $250,000 from Milwaukee County and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.; another $500,000 grant from WEDC for environmental remediation; a $50,000 grant from Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District; and $2.15 million in developer equity.
“To do affordable housing takes a lot of capital,” said Roers, pointing to the multitude of funding sources for the project.
It’s especially cumbersome when mixed uses are involved.
“We always want those mixed uses as part of the project because they support each other, but it is really a gymnastics event trying to secure the financing for the mixed uses,” Roers said. “In fact, in this scenario our bank made us step up and guarantee the commercial revenue. … I would say that this is probably one of the most complex (affordable housing projects) we have ever done,” he said.
Once complete, CWC will be Roers Cos.’ fourth project in Wisconsin. The firm developed a 128-unit senior housing development in La Crosse that opened in 2020. And it partnered with Continuum and Greenfire on a 116-unit market-rate historic rehab of Maxwell Lofts in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood that was completed in 2019. It also has projects planned in Sun Prairie.[caption id="attachment_555400" align="alignnone" width="1280"] An example of the design style of the
On a recent weekday, interior construction was humming in most of the residential portions of the Community Within the Corridor development as El-Amin and his team gave a tour of the now-completed, west-side apartment buildings.
Spread across three connected structures, the west block contains 67 of the development’s 197 total apartment units. All of those 67 units have now been completed, and at least 15 have already been leased. The 130 units on the east block remain under construction but are expected to be ready for tenants by November and will have underground parking.
Constructed during the turn of the 20th century as a space for various manufacturers, including Briggs & Stratton, the buildings on both sides of the development site were essentially open spaces before they were turned into apartments.
Courtyards with leaded glass walls that once served to let light into factory floors give some larger loft-like units a gritty and simultaneously sophisticated urban air – like an artist’s workshop in Paris or Brooklyn – and bathe long hallways in light.
When the developers purchased the buildings, the courtyards had been covered by tin roofs. Now that they have been removed, grass has grown and tenants can see the base of one of the factory’s former smokestacks.
“All of the wood you see in here is original floors,” said Tia Cannon, construction manager of Scott Crawford Inc. and manager of the North Avenue/ Fond Du Lac Marketplace Business Improvement District. “They had to take up each floor plank by plank, bundle it, remove each nail by hand and then replace them one by one.”
Other vestiges of the buildings’ industrial past can be seen throughout the development. Enormous, sliding factory doors separate entryways from hallways and round blade signs protrude from the doorways in the courtyards. The most historically notable building – a three-story cream city brick building on the northeast corner of 32nd and Center streets, was designed by architect Alexander C. Eschweiler, who designed several now historic buildings in Milwaukee and other parts of the state.
But there are plenty of modern touches at Community Within the Corridor, including computerized lockers for package deliveries and an underground gutter system that will drain into an underground cistern.
The combination door locks on the units are also state-of-the-art and were made by the development’s neighbor, Master Lock, which has a manufacturing plant directly across the street.
Commenting about the collaboration, David Youn, president of Master Lock, said the company is thrilled to welcome Community Within the Corridor to the neighborhood and “honored that they chose Master Lock door hardware to help them secure everything worth protecting.”
Service and enrichment
But El-Amin and his collaborators have bigger plans than just providing a safe, beautiful place for families to live; they also want to enrich lives.
To Boynes, who will direct activities within the Creative Academy within the complex’s Creative Corridor building, a key goal for Community Within the Corridor will be erasing the narrative that you have to leave Milwaukee if you are a Black creative looking to grow in your field.
An arts incubator of sorts, the Creative Corridor will have two recording studios for music and four podcasting recording rooms. There will also be an arts wing with a gallery, classroom and programming, including youth and adult art therapy sessions provided by local artist Latasha Smith. A separate media and film wing will be led by Jeff Cannady of Pwr Fwd Media and will include a sound stage, theater, white box and green room.
A dance studio will be run by local choreographer Jade Charon, and El-Amin and his brother, Khalif El-Amin, plan to host a variety of youth programs and camps in the STEM and technology wing, operated by their Young Enterprising Society organization.
Boynes, a rapper and founder of Sharp Creative, will operate the music and podcasting wing with the help of former Milwaukee Bucks player Larry Sanders and producer Andre “Bizness Boi” Robinson, a music producer who has worked with the likes of Dr. Dre and Rihanna.
“I have always been looking to foster creative spaces for homegrown talent. I have seen the struggle and heard the complaints, so I just started to focus on building bridges,” said Boynes.
Across the street at the recreation center, known as the C.O.R.E. Sports Complex, Khalif El-Amin – who was a three-year starter and two-year captain for the men’s basketball team at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point during the early 2000s – will oversee a variety of sports activities. The complex is expected to include courts for basketball, futsal (indoor soccer), volleyball and tennis. There will also be a putting green, skate park, batting cages, a fitness center as well as women’s and men’s spas.
Both the Creative Corridor and sports complex projects are slated to be complete by the end of March 2023.[caption id="attachment_555402" align="alignnone" width="1280"] 1. Community within the corridor
Making an impact
Community Within the Corridor will also serve as the new or second home to several local businesses, including three hair salons/barber shops, a daycare and a laundromat. It will be the first brick and mortar home in years for the Center Street Marketplace BID.
For Patricia Mann, who plans to open Neighborhood Wash ‘n Dry in a building adjacent to the Creative Corridor space, Community Within the Corridor is providing a chance to realize a longtime dream.
“I always wanted a laundromat as a little kid. Growing up I remember going to the laundromat was always a family thing that we used to do together,” said Mann, who grew up around 45th and Center.
While there will be some communal washers and dryers inside Community Within the Corridor’s apartment buildings, Mann said many families will need a place where they can get a lot of laundry done all at once.
Jennifer Potts, who runs the Center Street Marketplace BID 39 and owns a nail technology school at 38th and Center, hopes the development will provide much-needed support to the area while also helping to raise its profile in a positive way.
“Now you and I both know that we hear things about the Center Street area from things that happened just a few days ago – an 82-year-old woman was shot (and died), a house burned up, people were shot, and all of this kind of mayhem – but there are also so many positive things happening on Center Street, and it’s absolutely amazing,” Potts said.
Born in 1965 off of 18th and Locust streets and raised at 25th and Burleigh Streets in the Amani neighborhood, Potts remembers what Center Street was like before Briggs & Stratton and other longtime businesses left the neighborhood.
“Half of my family, and my husband’s family, worked at the Briggs & Stratton plant. I remember the shopkeepers down here. I remember Miss Lottie’s cleaners. I remember Mr. Blake, he used to do my military uniforms. I remember the Ritz (Tavern),” she said.
And while Potts is encouraged by some of the Black-owned shops that have been popping up in the district, she notes that many of those are turnkey businesses, like hair salons and convenience stores, that are easy to get into and just as easy to get out of.
Her hope is that Community Within the Corridor will spur a greater variety of commercial investment. More investment would mean more money for the BID.
The Community Within the Corridor already seems to be making an impact. Potts said her phone is “ringing off the hook” and notes that one of her nail tech students managed to get herself and her children out of substandard housing and into one of the new units at the development.
As the remaining 130 units of the development are built out and mixed-use spaces are readied for future tenants and community use, El-Amin and Falamak said there are plans to expand the development and conversations are happening with potential partners interested in serving residents who will call the community home.
El-Amin said he is working with the city on plans to use the remainder of the Matco building at 32nd and Hadley on the west block as well as the building just north of the larger apartment building on the east block. The second phase would also include making use of the red brick, former Romadka Brothers building at 3100 W. Center St.
Future development would include some commercial space, a pocket park and town homes for families, said El-Amin.
Falamak added that the developers have also been approached by local nonprofit groups and health care providers that are interested in being near the new community. Other possibilities for future phases of the development include senior housing, she said.
“It just snowballs little by little. It is not like we are going to have a 45,000-square-foot office space in a year, but it is really bringing services to people who are already living here and then, little by little, seeing if we can push this growth eastbound all along Center Street,” she said.
For now, however, it’s enough to see something finally happening with the empty factory sitting in the middle of a residential neighborhood.
“Tia (Cannon) was talking to one of the ladies across the street the other day, and she said, ‘I was waiting for someone to do something with that building,’” El-Amin said. “It was vacant for like 30 years, so just to see new life in there is a good start for the neighborhood.”