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On a recent sunny afternoon, Daync Studio co-owners Amber Rivard and Josh Burgos could be found inside their new studio space at the northeast corner of South Fifth Street and West National Avenue.
Daync Studio has been in the 3,300-square-foot facility since May. Burgos and Rivard raved about their new space, listing the ways in which its Walker’s Point location would transform their business.
“For me, it’s being close to the south side and close to the Latino community, being accessible on multiple bus lines now, you can walk 20 feet and you’re at our front door,” Burgos said. “For so many years, Amber and I have wanted to access more communities that normally wouldn’t have access to what we have to offer. We’re right here in a really good neighborhood that allows us to connect with them.”
One block north, at the northeast corner of West Pierce and South Sixth streets, Jesús González sat at a table inside the tavern of Zócalo Food Park.
González was first asked to talk about his business, which was notable in its own right. He and business partner Sean Phelan, after all, were responsible for creating Milwaukee’s first food truck park.
His response: “Are we going to have the opportunity to talk about the past, the present and the future of Walker’s Point?”
He intended on getting to the point – quickly.
One of the things González likes most about the near south side neighborhood is its diversity.
“If you walk down from First to Sixth Street, you can see a Latino flag, LGBTQ-owned businesses,” he said. “It’s so diverse. It’s awesome.”
The three young entrepreneurs, their experiences and the spaces they occupy make Walker’s Point what it is today.
The neighborhood south of downtown Milwaukee and the city’s Historic Third Ward is characterized by the architecture of its buildings, its diverse businesses and residents, and its rich history. It is home to many new restaurants and bars. It also offers plentiful opportunity for developers.
It is no secret that Walker’s Point is in a period of transition.
Neighborhood stakeholders want to make sure Walker’s Point retains its soul throughout its ongoing transformation, while also championing ideas to make it even better.
The challenge is in balancing the preservation of neighborhood character and embracing its potential growth.
“We’re very hopeful for the future, and we think that Walker’s Point (in the future) is still a great neighborhood to live, work and play,” said Simmi Urbanek, board president of the Walker’s Point Association, a grassroots advocacy group. “What we’re hopeful for is more thoughtful development without displacement and minimizing gentrification.”
To answer the question of the future of Walker’s Point requires an understanding of its past.
“I feel like not one group or one person can say that Walker’s Point belongs to them,” González said. “Since Walker’s Point was created, it was known as the Ellis Island of Milwaukee.”
The neighborhood was created by George Walker, one of the three original 19th century founders of Milwaukee, according to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Encyclopedia of Milwaukee.
In the mid-1800s, German, Irish and Yankee (Protestant English-speaking people from Mid-Atlantic states) migrants moved to the neighborhood to work in factories along the Menomonee River. In the 1920s, Mexican workers moved to the area to work in the tanneries.
“This was the gateway for all immigrants coming through Milwaukee,” González said. “All the industries were working in this neighborhood. It had access to the rivers, it brought a lot of the tanneries, the steel mills. And so, you saw Eastern Europeans coming through, people from New York coming through. Obviously right now, the largest demographic we have is the Latino community.”
González said the building southwest of Fifth and Pierce that’s now a hair salon was the site of the first Spanish-speaking Mass in Milwaukee.
The neighborhood also holds an important place in history for the LGBTQ community, and to this day has a concentration of gay bars.
Michail Takach, who authored the book “LGBT Milwaukee” and runs the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project along with Don Schwamb, said the first gay bar in Walker’s Point opened in 1959. The Nite Beat was a lesbian bar located at Ninth and National. A second gay bar, Your Place, opened at First and National in 1965.
Over time, Walker’s Point became the destination for displaced gay bars from other parts of the city. The original gay commercial district, on the 400 block of North Plankinton Avenue, was leveled to make way for what’s now I-794.
“The reason Walker’s Point became such an epicenter for the gay community is because all of the other places that they used to live and exist were being erased,” Takach said.
The second “great gayborhood,” as Takach called it, formed at Second and Pittsburgh. After a fire on Easter Sunday 1974 devastated that block, the bars migrated to Second and National.
Takach said Walker’s Point was an ideal place because its population was so small at the time, no one else was around. He said some of the storefronts the gay bars occupied had been vacant for decades.
“For gay people in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, (Walker’s Point) was kind of a paradise because it was a private playground,” he said. “The only people who were there were people like themselves. They didn’t have to deal with people harassing them, they didn’t have to deal with possibly being thrown out of a bar if suspected of being gay.”
A place for small businesses to thrive
Many small businesses and organizations have called Walker’s Point home for decades. Among them is immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera Inc.
The group got its start in Texas in 1994 but relocated in 2000 to Milwaukee, following the move of its co-founder and executive director Christine Neumann-Ortiz.
Voces is now located in a storefront northwest of Fifth and Washington streets. It heard of the space from a resident who’d been working in the office space at the time.
“We liked it, of course, because it was in the heart of the Latino community, and its storefront, easy-access space,” she said.
Juli Kaufmann, president of Fix Development LLC, completed her first development project in Walker’s Point. In 2011, she finished the Clock Shadow Building, a four-story, sustainably designed building northeast of West Bruce and South Second streets.
“At the time, many people who were active (in Walker’s Point) were small-time developers,” she said.
Kaufmann said developers like Fix Development that do small-scale, incremental projects tend to lease to local businesses. Those developers don’t always do projects purely for the bottom line; they also think about what’s good for the community, she said.
Walker’s Point continues to offer spaces for small businesses to move into and reinvent themselves, such as Daync Studio. It is one of three dance programs now occupying space in the former Milwaukee Ballet building.
Rivard and Burgos learned in February they had 60 days to move out of their East Side studio. They quickly had to find a new space. The two immediately thought of Walker’s Point, in part because that was where they taught dance classes at night clubs before they had their own location.
“I remember when we found out we needed to move … that same night, we just drove throughout Walker’s Point, and we were like, ‘Let’s see what we can find,’” Rivard said.
Now that they’re in the neighborhood, their classes have changed primarily from hip-hop to Latin dances. They credit it to a shift in clients’ tastes. Salsa is their most popular program.
Change is coming
Of late, Walker’s Point has the full attention of real estate developers.
Projects underway in the neighborhood include major office and technology hubs. The 105,000-square-foot former Eagle Knitting Mills warehouse at 507 S. Second St. is being turned into the Eagleknit Innovation Hub, which brings new leasable office space to the market. Construction is ongoing on the 240,700-square-foot Rite-Hite Holding Corp. headquarters campus in the Reed Street Yards business park.
New market-rate apartment developments abound. Recent projects include the 86-unit The Yards at 205 W. Oregon St., the 60-unit Timber Lofts at 300 W. Florida St., and the 48-unit Quartet at 211 W. Mineral St.
Even more are planned or under construction. They include the 69-unit final phase of River Place Lofts, at 625 W. Freshwater Way, the 66-unit Element apartment building northeast of Mineral and Fifth streets, and the 141-unit Taxco Apartments on the west side of Fifth Street, between Bruce and Pierce streets.
There’s a lot to like about Walker’s Point for multi-family developers like Tim Gokhman. He is the managing director of Milwaukee-based New Land Enterprises, which is behind the Element, Quartet and the 120-unit Trio apartments at 124 W. Washington St.
Gokhman said developers are able to create change much more quickly in Walker’s Point because of the large vacant buildings and entire blocks available for redevelopment. He also pointed out walkable, pedestrian-friendly corridors such as Fifth Street. There is also easy freeway access and an existing grocery store serving the neighborhood.
“That’s why I continue to think that Walker’s Point is going to continue to be a hotbed for development,” he said.
Milwaukee-based Mandel Group Inc. is developing the Taxco project. Crews broke ground on that project in July, starting with the demolition of existing buildings on the site. Among them was the former La Fuente restaurant building.
The first units of Taxco are slated to open in December 2022, said Emily Cialdini, senior development associate at Mandel.
Cialdini gave various reasons as to why Mandel found the site – and Walker’s Point – an attractive spot to build. It has a dense population. The population is young and growing faster than the city as a whole. The area also has major area employers, such as Rockwell Automation. What’s more, there have been relatively few apartments developed in Walker’s Point the past several years compared to downtown. Cialdini said 98% of the new units in Walker’s Point are occupied.
“I think it shows the desirability of the neighborhood, and that people are really looking to live there,” she said.
It’s new projects like these that have stakeholders thinking about the neighborhood’s future and how involved they should be in shaping it.
One of the focuses of the Walker’s Point Association is promoting thoughtful development in the neighborhood, Urbanek said. It has a set of guidelines on its website for developers to review. The association has a committee set up to review proposals and provide feedback. The association may then write a letter supporting or opposing a project. That letter represents the collective voice of the neighborhood.
But unlike similar bodies, like the Third Ward’s Architectural Review Board, this committee review process is only advisory.
It is also brand new. The guidelines and review process were created in part as a response to the Element and Taxco projects, Urbanek said.
“We are about thoughtful development,” Urbanek said. “It’s not about the ‘who’ is coming; it’s about the ‘what.’”
The association stresses certain things, from design to substance. It wants to encourage more affordable housing units so working-class residents may more directly benefit from these projects. It also pays attention to building height and materials, street activation and longevity. A new building that’s made to last only a couple decades does not fit well next to a 100-year-old building, she said.
That’s not to say that Walker’s Point Association does not welcome market-rate projects, Urbanek said. The group is meant to advocate for residents and what its members feel is a good fit.
She used Mandel’s Taxco project as an example. Urbanek emphasized that projects like those are welcome in the neighborhood. She also praised Mandel for bringing the project to the Walker’s Point Association. The firm could have built Taxco by right without any feedback.
Even so, it does not follow association guidelines perfectly. Storefronts on the west side of Fifth Street and Zócalo directly west serve as major points of street-level activation, she said. The Mandel project puts up a six-story building between those two places. It will also offer purely market-rate housing, while the association stresses more mixed housing options.
Ian Martin, president of Mandel, said Taxco attempts to achieve the neighborhood design goals to the extent they are feasible.
One way to activate the street is to create street-front retail. Martin said Mandel does this frequently with its projects. However, even with the rapid expansion of Walker’s Point storefronts, there remains significant vacancy. New-construction retail space would only compete with existing buildings, and it would be more expensive, too. Mandel chose not to create retail space with Taxco for those reasons, he said.
“The last thing I want to do is show up and add 10,000 square feet of competitive restaurant space, when what got me there were these great restaurants and venues that are already there,” Martin said.
But Mandel has a plan to bring more life to its street level. It’s planning some rental units on the first floor and installing lots of windows and lighting in the building’s leasing office. Mandel is also working with local groups to install artwork on the alley side of the building and a six-story mural at its center, said Cialdini.
Martin said Mandel even considered setting aside 20% of Taxco’s units for those making between 60% and 80% of the area median income, but it would have needed financial support from the city in order to make Taxco a viable mixed-income project.
The city’s current policy is that it will only provide tax incremental financing assistance on residential housing under certain conditions.
City policy is that it may help finance mixed-income projects, but requires the affordable units be set aside for those making 60% of area median income, according to the Department of City Development.
“I was trying to suggest there’s some logic for maybe not a full-on low-income deal, but maybe some sort of mixed-income project,” Martin said. “It’s not an economic decision. As an organization, we appreciate the need for affordable housing, so we wanted to pursue it.”
Mandel could not get TIF assistance from the city because of existing policy, he said.The Department of City Development said in a statement it has long supported mixed-income housing projects. "Given what we know about the housing challenges in Milwaukee, the City believes it’s wise to target affordable housing units at the 60% and below levels, and we don’t believe an 80% (area median income) level, which is what was proposed for the majority of these ‘affordable’ units, satisfies the urgent need for affordable housing in the City," the statement reads.
Finding the right oversight body
So far, Walker’s Point business and property owners have resisted codifying the development guideline process into an official city entity. A neighborhood improvement district existed briefly about four years ago, Urbanek said, but it was quickly dissolved after enough people signed a petition.
Kaufmann said she was involved in trying to establish a business improvement district when she was active in Walker’s Point. That effort met resistance from some property owners, she said.
But that’s not the end of efforts to organize. Urbanek, cautious with her words, said the association is in the “research phase” of possibly creating an architectural review panel “grassroots style.”
“We’re just very early, trying to figure out what it involves, and if it’s necessary, because … it’s a balancing act,” she said. “Right now, developers like Walker’s Point because there are no restrictions. Other than zoning, you can do what you want to do in Walker’s Point, where you can’t in other neighborhoods like the Third Ward.”
If some kind of review board is created, officials will need to better communicate what its responsibilities would be, said Urbanek.
She said when the neighborhood improvement district was established, many feared they were going to suffer from needless red tape. For instance, they thought an ARB would tell them they couldn’t put a flower pot in front of their doorstep. That’s also why the Walker’s Point Association wants any new review body to be created at the grassroots level and without city involvement, Urbanek said.
The influx of development has the attention of some longstanding residents.
“Our response to it was we need to look for a new building or we could get displaced at any moment,” Neumann-Ortiz said.
Voces is cramped in its current space anyway. It plans to move soon to a building it purchased on Historic Mitchell Street.
Kaufmann said she worries the rising popularity of Walker’s Point could mean less opportunity for small businesses. Large, out-of-state developers doing big projects often focus more on tenants who pay top dollar for space.
She said she’s open to doing more projects in Walker’s Point, but she isn’t sure if she’d be able to.
“Walker’s Point is pricing out a lot of people, myself included,” she said.
Another frequently mentioned topic in Walker’s Point is gentrification, Urbanek said.
She said the new developments have not displaced anyone. Displacement differs from gentrification and happens if residences are torn down to make way for something else.
So far there have been limited instances of rising assessed values in Walker’s Point, said Urbanek. An area can become gentrified when residents are forced out because they can no longer afford the taxes on their home due to increased property values.
Gokhman said apartment projects like his don’t displace people because they are built on vacant lots. Street improvements and retail growth make a place more desirable to live, he noted. They are what lead to more demand and more expensive land. A new apartment building is just a result of that heightened desirability.
“You can’t have it both ways,” he said. “You can’t have better streets, better retail (and) stores, better entertainment, and not have the neighborhood become more desirable. When the neighborhood becomes more desirable, it by definition becomes more expensive, because there’s more demand.”
Takach lived in Walker’s Point for about a decade, starting in 2004. He said when he first moved there, it was like living on the set of a film noir: the buildings were dark, and the streets were empty.
“The discovery of Walker’s Point gold has caused so much land speculation and development that it’s quickly becoming what it should have been all along,” Takach said, “which is an extension of downtown, an extension of the Third Ward, and yet, something of its own unique identity and character that hasn’t been lost despite so much architecture being lost over the years.”
Ensuring Walker’s Point retains that identity will take work, especially if the development stretches farther to the west, where there are more existing homes.
González said developers should follow two themes as they plan their Walker’s Point projects. They should treat locals with dignity and respect, and they should keep in mind the people with the greatest needs, such as the poor and elderly.
“I feel that, in order for these new and existing developers to accomplish these two themes, they really need to adopt dialogue as a process,” he said. “They also have to be willing to listen, and I feel like through that process they’re really going to be able to understand one another and find a common ground. And so, if … developers include that on their checklist, I think 10 years from now, we’re going to be in a really good place.”Editor's note: The print version of this story states city policy does not allow TIF assistance on mixed-income projects. The online article clarifies that city policy allows TIF assistance so long as a mixed-income project meets specific criteria, which Mandel Group's project did not meet.