The tremendous potential of King Drive

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It was early on in Deshea Agee’s tenure as executive director of the business improvement district focused on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Milwaukee when he heard a blunt question.

“Who wants a King Drive address?”

For Agee, living or working along a street named after the civil rights leader is an honor in itself, but the question made clear that wasn’t the case for everyone.

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“That was a question that challenged me personally to think what would make people want to have a King Drive address,” Agee said.

King Drive faces a challenge. Whether it is rooted in racism or a lack of exposure, some perceive a street named after an iconic African American leader and located in a predominantly Black neighborhood in the city as an undesirable place to be. 

“For some people, there’s the mindset that this is a Black neighborhood, and (they’re) not going there,” said Franklin Cumberbatch, vice president of engagement for Bader Philanthropies Inc.

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This perception of King Drive, in part, traces back to the original debate over renaming Third Street in the 1980s. The initial proposal called for King Drive to run to Wisconsin Avenue, but that was opposed by business owners on Third Street south of McKinley Avenue.

City leaders ended up with a compromise that renamed Third Street to King Drive between McKinley Avenue and Capitol Drive, and renamed the section south of McKinley Avenue as Old World Third Street.

Although the King Drive name was resisted by some decades ago, the street’s brand has gained momentum in recent years with several significant developments that have been proposed or completed, including a new headquarters for Bader Philanthropies, an office building planned for American Family Insurance and an ambitious redevelopment of a former department store planned for the Medical College of Wisconsin and the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. If all of those projects come to fruition, the total investment in the street would exceed $130 million.

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James Phelps
James Phelps
Credit: Andrew Feller PHotography

“We feel that King Drive is ripe for a lot of improvements,” said James Phelps, president of Milwaukee-based JCP Construction, noting the street’s proximity to downtown and other up-and- coming neighborhoods like Brewers Hill, Halyard Park and Harambee, and its diverse makeup. JCP’s office is on King Drive.

Lined with historic buildings and sites with potential for redevelopment, the corridor also benefits from a diverse mix of existing businesses, said Nicole Robbins, executive director of Martin Luther King Economic Development Corp.

Businesses that call King Drive home include barbershops and salons like Gee’s Clippers, unique retailers such as Northern Chocolate Co., restaurants like Jewels Caribbean and Mi Casa Su Café, nonprofits such as YWCA Southeast Wisconsin and MLKEDC and many others in between, including JCP, foodservice equipment and supply dealer Fein Bros., and CH Coakley, a provider of third-party logistics, commercial moving and fulfillment and document management.

King Drive has also seen its share of civil unrest and some looting and property damage over the summer, as people have demonstrated against racism and discrimination. To Agee, the street’s name and connection to the civil rights leader creates a deeper meaning for those protesting, but it also means the street should serve as a meaningful source of employment and investment for those seeking change. 

Reaching those goals starts with a sense of ownership for the Black community, Agee said.

Deshea Agee
Deshea Agee
Credit: Andrew Feller PHotography

“Ownership is important, and if people don’t feel ownership of something then they’re more likely to not see the value of it,” he said. “And our Dr. Martin Luther King Drive clearly is a place where a lot of protests and marches have happened. People must feel they’re connected to that. But we also must translate that to property ownership and business ownership.”

There are more than 950 places in the country with streets named for King, according to research by Derek Alderman, professor of geography at the University of Tennessee. Agee, Phelps and others are aiming higher than simply building up Milwaukee’s King Drive. They want to make it the best of its kind in the nation.

“I think that kind of aspirational thinking and then putting the boots to the ground and the dollars where we can find it is what we need to be doing with respect to development in this city,” said Lafayette Crump, the new commissioner of Milwaukee’s Department of City Development.

The benefits of a vibrant King Drive would extend beyond the corridor itself.

“No matter what part of the city you’re from, a vibrant, thriving, exciting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive is good for this entire state,” Cumberbatch said.

It could also serve as a model for others that share its name, Agee said, adding streets named after King nationwide have a reputation of lacking investment, being filled with blighted properties and receiving little support for revitalization.

Milwaukee’s King Drive is positioned to change that conversation after decades of hard work to improve it, said Alderwoman Milele Coggs, who represents the corridor.

“It truly, I think, turned a corner on the way King Drives throughout the nation, unfortunately, have come to be known, (that they’re) forgotten about or that they’re not a place to shop, live or anything,” Coggs said. “Since Milwaukee got past the corner on that, it shows King Drive is a destination place.” 

City programs assisting King Drive projects, 2015-2020

*Includes pending projects where funding has been committed but not yet disbursed

Grant Type

of Grants

Total Grant

Total Project

Commercial Foreclosure Renovation Fund




Façade Grant




Fresh Food Access Fund




RIF Grant




Signage Grant




Whitebox Grant








Transformative developments

Lavelle Young grew up across the street from the Martin Luther King Library, which sits on the northwest corner of Locust Street and King Drive. Today, he is working on a $30 million plan to redevelop the library branch along with the rest of that block.

“As a developer who’s from the neighborhood, grew up right there, my office is a block from my childhood home, I’m just excited to be a part of it,” said Young, founder and chief executive officer of Young Development Group.

Lavelle Young
Lavelle Young
Credit: Andrew Feller PHotography

Known as The Block, the project would include a new 18,000-square-foot library branch, 91 mixed-income apartment units and the redevelopment of the historic Garfield Theatre. As part of his financing effort, Young is offering residents the opportunity to “own The Block” by investing in the project.

“This is a full impact, full block redevelopment project,” he said. “Those are the kinds of things I want my project to embody and be an example of King Drive.”

It is aspirational developments like Young’s that could transform the corridor. There are several projects underway along the entire length of King Drive with similar transformative potential, exemplifying how real estate impacts more than just the physical environment.

For each of the developments, there is a clear human component to the projects. Many of the developers said they are looking to make a statement, catalyze change and better the lives of those around them.

Bader Philanthropies is headquartered at 3300 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Photo courtesy of Bader Philanthropies
Bader Philanthropies is headquartered at 3300 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Photo courtesy of Bader Philanthropies

One of the early projects was Bader Philanthropies’ relocation of its headquarters from the Historic Third Ward to 3300 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in July 2018, a project that involved renovating and expanding the 93-year-old building. Bader is now embarking on another project by turning a vacant two-story building next to its HQ into a café and wellness center.

Cumberbatch said the foundation moved to the Harambee neighborhood to set an example for others and it only made sense to locate in the community that Bader Philanthropies is trying to improve.

“I supported (the move) heavily because I was raised on a value that my grandmother taught me, which was, if you want to clean up a community, start in your own yard,” he said. “And this is our yard.”

On the other end of the corridor is the former Mandel printing building at 1319 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, which is being renovated and expanded for American Family Insurance. The Madison-based firm plans to move its Milwaukee-area office to the building, where it will house 400 employees. 

The pace at which these projects and others have come forward is a bit surprising, Cumberbatch said.

“We knew that we would be catalytic in bringing attention to King Drive,” he said. “We didn’t know it was going to happen this fast.”

Across the street from Bader, Martin Luther King Economic Development Corp., a nonprofit development group that focuses on the Harambee neighborhood, is partnering with Milwaukee-based KG Development to develop a mixed-use building at 3317-49 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The $13 million development is known as the Five Points project, an homage to the neighborhood where it is being built. The five-story structure will consist of 57 housing units and about 12,000 square feet of commercial space.

“This Five Points (project) is an extension of our current footprint and our current mission, and that’s to serve the greater Harambee neighborhood by providing a quality portfolio for people to feel safe and have pride about where they work and where they live,” said MLKEDC’s Robbins.

About 1.5 miles south of Five Points and Bader’s projects, there’s the planned $84.5 million redevelopment of the behemoth former Gimbels and Schuster’s department store at 2153 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The building was selected as the location of the Medical College of Wisconsin and Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s new partnership, a project aimed at addressing social determinants of health in a neighborhood where health disparities are acute.

The Martin Luther King Library is slated to be redeveloped into a new library branch with apartments on its upper floors. Renderings: JLA Architects
The Martin Luther King Library is slated to be redeveloped into a new library branch with apartments on its upper floors. Renderings: JLA Architects

The MCW/GMF partnership will occupy a significant portion of the building. MCW is relocating some of its community-facing and internal operations, while GMF will move its headquarters there from Schlitz Park.

At 450,000 square feet, there is room to grow and include the “community benefit space” the partnership desires, said Kevin Newell, president and chief executive officer of Milwaukee-based Royal Capital Group LLC, the project developer.

“We needed a footprint that would allow us to do all the things we would like to do,” he said.

CH Coakley, the building’s current owner, will maintain some offices there as well.

Beyond that, specifics of the space are still being worked out, though the group has a general idea. Newell said the project partners are crafting plans through community input. They’re specifically considering components such as health and wellness, housing, food access and food education, and convening space.

The redevelopment is receiving $15 million from the city through tax incremental financing, a proposal that was unanimously approved by the Common Council in November 2019.

JCP has kept itself busy with developments along King Drive.

It oversaw the Bader Philanthropies headquarters project, is working on the café and wellness center project and is part of the Five Points construction team.

JCP is also redeveloping the 4,200-square-foot building at 1920 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, which will become home to the African American Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin’s Legacy co-working and innovation space designed for minority entrepreneurs.

JCP also owns the building where it has its offices, at 1849 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, as well as the building at 1817 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, which it is white-boxing for a commercial tenant on the first floor with second-floor apartments.

These projects also come with a promise of lasting impact.

“This isn’t a five-year initiative for us, or even a 10-year type project,” said Kenneth Robertson, Greater Milwaukee Foundation vice president and chief financial officer. “This is a generational type collaborative we’re looking at. We need sustaining power to change the direction of what’s happening in our community. This is long-term, we’re really in this (and) fully committed over the next generation to be a part of the neighborhood that’s moving in a different direction.”

Setting standards

There’s a lot that goes into making a standard-setting commercial corridor.

The BID’s vision is of a district that is vibrant, pedestrian friendly and inviting, Agee said. That could look like simple details such as planters and banners, public parks that provide a place for gathering and respite, or even an extension of the city’s streetcar.

Plans to expand The Hop along King Drive up to North Avenue were held up by various concerns from members of the Common Council in 2019.

“We’re excited about that when it does happen, what it means for accessibility both downtown to the neighbors that live in the surrounding neighborhoods and the inverse of that, where it makes it easier for people who live and work downtown to access amenities that are here at King Drive,” Phelps said.

Cumberbatch said he is more skeptical of the streetcar. It would benefit the corridor, he said, so long as riders actually get out of the car and visit the area.

If the riders drive past to see King Drive without getting out, “then we became a window for tourism,” he said. At the same time, it will be up to King Drive businesses to give riders a reason to get out and walk around, he said.  

Martin Luther King Economic Development Corp. and KG Development are planning to build the Five Points apartments at a city-owned site at 3317-3349 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Rendering: Workshop Architects
Martin Luther King Economic Development Corp. and KG Development are planning to build the Five Points apartments at a city-owned site at 3317-3349 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Rendering: Workshop Architects

A vibrant district that attracts people to the area also involves the redevelopment of buildings and land.

“This is a long-term vision,” Agee said. “Because we can’t look at one set of activities that’s going to accomplish it, but it’s a combination of land, buildings and people.”

Some people view a strong King Drive as a central hub of thriving Black businesses and property owners.

“I want to see more African American entrepreneurs along King Drive because this is more than brick and mortar,” Cumberbatch said. “This will impact the consciousness of a people, to say, ‘You can succeed, too. You can build wealth for yourself, your family, and your community.’”

Young said he hopes more Black developers like himself commit to building up the area.

“I think that is a critical piece to this overall vision of King Drive, is that we’re talking about the legacy of Martin Luther King,” Young said. “It’s just super exciting to be a builder 50 years after his death, on King Drive, and not just myself but (to have) other Black builders on King Drive.”

This vision puts King Drive in line with its history. Formerly known as Third Street, it is a main commercial corridor in the historic Bronzeville neighborhood, which once served as the economic and social center of Milwaukee’s African American community.

But certain things about King Drive’s history cannot, and perhaps should not, be replicated today, Crump said.

In particular, he noted that the corridor was the hub of African American commerce and culture because the community had to live there in order to find success.

“We’re living in a world now where it’s not where people have to concentrate themselves in one area,” Crump said. “But we want to think about, how do you make people want to go to some of these areas when they have so many other options? To make this the best King Drive in the country, it has to be because people want to be there and not because they have to.”

The former Gimbels and Schuster’s Department Store building at the southwest corner of Garfield Avenue and King Drive is being redeveloped for the new home of the MCW/GMF partnership. Rendering: Engberg Anderson Architects
The former Gimbels and Schuster’s Department Store building at the southwest corner of Garfield Avenue and King Drive is being redeveloped for the new home of the MCW/GMF partnership. Rendering: Engberg Anderson Architects

Building up the neighborhood

Robbins has a personal connection to the neighborhood she’s helping rebuild. Her mother lived on Fifth and Center when she was young.

“This is really full circle for my family that I’m able to be part of the legacy of MLKEDC, to help continue to strengthen Harambee. That’s how my family started,” Robbins said.

One of MLKEDC’s newer initiatives aims to strengthen the neighborhood by encouraging homeownership and improving area housing stock.

In late 2018, the organization announced its MLK Homes initiative, through which it purchases and rehabilitates single-family homes and duplexes in order to resell them to owner-occupants.

She said the idea is for MLKEDC to not just develop rental units, but “focus on the generational wealth we can have in the Harambee area” through homeownership.

Bader Philanthropies works to improve the community beyond large development projects, meeting regularly with community members to understand the needs of residents. Those meetings have sparked initiatives ranging from shoveling snow and doing yard work for the elderly, to large neighborhood cleanup events.

“This is not rocket science here,” Cumberbatch said. “This is simple stuff, but you become aware of it when you bring it into your consciousness and really pay attention to it.”

Likewise, the MCW/GMF partnership involves more than the redevelopment of the Schuster’s building.

Robertson said the partnership will look to close the gap on racial equity issues, such as housing, health and wellness and early childhood education. It will also help support the small businesses located near the Schuster’s building. He said GMF has a number of tools it uses to do that, such as a program designed to give below-market capital to neighborhoods in the form of loans.

“(We’re making) not only a substantial investment in the basic building itself … but investments all up along that corridor for small businesses,” he said.

MCW will focus on addressing health disparities, said Gregory Wesley, senior vice president of strategic alliances and business development. Partnering with GMF gives the two organizations the ability to tackle large – and in many cases inextricably linked – problems together, he said.

“Health care access is important, but we know through research that actually access to quality foods, quality housing, quality education, quality economic opportunities, better known as social determinants of health, leads to better health outcomes,” Wesley said.

There are also various programs to provide financial assistance to businesses and property owners. Agee, Phelps and others pointed to Brew City Match, an economic development effort led by LISC Milwaukee in partnership with the city and numerous other organizations, and its related Pop-Up MKE initiative.

Brew City Match offers a combination of grants and financing to prepare vacant storefronts for occupancy. It also helps business owners find vacant commercial properties to locate their businesses. Similarly, Pop-Up MKE matches vacant storefronts with temporary retail shops. The initiatives target the King Drive, North Avenue and Fond du Lac, and Cesar Chavez Drive corridors.

“I think they’re instrumental because they help to fill that funding gap and give incentives to the owners to be able to get this space to a point where they’re actually marketable, and to make the pro forma work for making the improvements that will attract a good tenant,” Phelps said.

Some city-led programs benefiting King Drive businesses and buildings include the City-Wide White Box program, which provides incentives to assist in recruiting new businesses to vacant commercial or retail tenant spaces, and the Façade Grant program, which provides financial assistance for renovations to street faces of buildings.

It also actively markets properties it owns through tax foreclosure to get them back into private hands and redeveloped. MLKEDC and KG Development are buying the Five Points site from the city after competing through a request for proposals. The Common Council in late July approved the land sale for $25,000.

Crump has said the city should be even more aggressive in encouraging development in the neighborhoods, including King Drive, by backing projects through tax incremental financing where the potential for added tax revenues is small, but the potential impact on the greater community is apparent.

He added that any risk has to be calculated and the city needs to be careful in the assistance it provides to projects.

“I think that part of what you do when you take a calculated risk, is you have to do other things that will make that (TIF district) more successful,” he said. “If you know there’s a greater risk, what else can you do in the surrounding area to make that (district) more successful?”

There’s also an ongoing effort to expand the Historic King Drive BID to include the full length of King Drive in order to bring opportunity to more businesses and property owners. The BID currently extends north to where King Drive meets Locust Street.

Agee said he wants to avoid a “tale of two King Drives,” in which the southern portion, anchored by the ManpowerGroup corporate headquarters, Spectrum’s building and the Schlitz Park office complex (see story on page 14), receives more attention and redevelopment than the northern segment.

“We want to bring all of that together, brand it together, create that support network, engage the community in planning the future redevelopment of King Drive,” he said.

Coggs noted the discrepancy between the two sections of King Drive during a recent Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee meeting.

“As most of us know, the southern end of King Drive has been kind of, if I’m honest, easy to get takers to want to develop and own property on,” she said. “It’s the northern part of King Drive that has continued to be a challenge.”

It’s also important to ensure longtime residents aren’t displaced amid the increased development, Coggs said.

“It’s a delicate balance, trying to help it grow and making sure people are not gentrified or being placed out,” she said.

While the city is limited in what it can do to assist property owners due to state law, it has taken a few actions. In 2018, DCD released an anti-displacement plan for neighborhoods surrounding downtown, under the direction of the Common Council. The recommendations paved the way for more action, both public and private. GMF has established an anti-displacement fund and is emphasizing that work as part of its MCW partnership.

“That was something we really wanted to see be a part of the overall next steps for the community, is make sure we can retain as many folks who have already been calling this home, and be able to participate in the overall neighborhood,” Newell said.

Perception and challenges

For all the progress King Drive is seeing, it is still challenged by the segregation of Milwaukee neighborhoods along racial lines.

Cumberbatch said there are some people who would rather sit on a gridlocked I-43 between Glendale and downtown Milwaukee than save 20 minutes by driving down King Drive or another street on Milwaukee’s north side.

“They’re not going to do it,” he said. “Not going through there.”

He said those perceptions could change if more people experienced the corridor for themselves.

“It’s a beautiful place, if only people take the time to come and drive down that street,” Cumberbatch said. “Better yet, park your car and walk down that street, you’ll see what we have.”

Phelps said perceptions of King Drive don’t match reality, but changing them involves changing the minds of commercial real estate brokers.

“Sometimes they are the key people who can offer suggestions about where places are to locate and where there’s opportunity,” he said. “That’s one thing, honestly, I’ve been disappointed by is the feedback that I got.”

He said brokers don’t list King Drive among their top choices of commercial corridors and it’s up to King Drive leaders like the BID to educate brokers on the opportunities there.

Phelps said the existing historic building stock and the corridor’s proximity to downtown and the freeway “make it a jewel that we’re excited about and we have to get the word out to as many people as possible.”

King Drive suffered from a perception problem reaching back to when it was first proposed to be renamed from Third Street. 

It was a point of contention brought up decades later, when Coggs was discussing with Vel Phillips the renaming of Fourth Street in her name. Phillips served as an alderwoman, judge and Wisconsin secretary of state, often the first woman or African American in her position. The street was renamed in 2018.

Phillips made clear at the time she wanted Vel R. Phillips Avenue to stretch from St. Paul Avenue to Capitol Drive.

“I asked her why,” Coggs said. “The direct thing she said to me was this: ‘Because this city did Martin Luther King Jr. and his memory a disservice by allowing businesses to stop his street from going all the way to where Old World Third Street is.’”

Leaders along the King Drive corridor now believe they’re building momentum toward not only changing the desirability of an address on the street, but also reaching the grand vision of becoming a top King Drive in the nation.

“Over a span of time, it wasn’t an important thing to have a Martin Luther King Jr. address,” Agee said. “Now it is very important, and something people want to have.”

Editor’s note: The print version of this story contains a quote from DCD commissioner Lafayette Crump with the words “it’s not where” missing. The quote has been corrected in the online version.

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