It’s a story that has been told for 20 years. Pabst Brewing Co. closed its Milwaukee brewery in 1996, leaving in its foamy wake a dozen abandoned buildings on a 21-acre downtown site.
For a decade, very little was done with the property, until 2006, when developer and philanthropist Joseph Zilber acquired most of the complex for $13.6 million and began its monumental redevelopment into a mixed-use neighborhood of apartments, office space, educational institutions, a hotel and more.
The City of Milwaukee helped, too, with a $29 million tax increment financing district that helped finance infrastructure and road improvements on West Juneau Avenue, North 10th Street, North Ninth Street and a roundabout at the intersection of North Eighth Street and West Winnebago Street.
It has been a long redevelopment project, slowed early on by the Great Recession. But today, after several deals that brought together private and public partnerships, there is only 1 acre available in The Brewery and executives with Zilber Ltd. say that parcel is under contract to be sold.
It’s a far cry from 1996, when Pabst executives left town, leaving their former headquarters littered with cigarette-filled ashtrays, empty beer cans and boxes of trash, as Jim Haertel, owner of Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery, described in 2004.
One of the first buildings converted under the leadership of Zilber’s team was the former Boiler House at West McKinley Avenue and North 10th Street. The 55,000-square-foot, three-story, Cream City brick building was purchased in December 2007 by TMB Development Co. and Dermond Properties and converted into office space.
John Kersey, executive vice president of Zilber Ltd., who has been with The Brewery project since the beginning, said it has been amazing to watch Joseph Zilber’s vision come to life.
“It was Joe’s vision, when he acquired the property in 2006, to create Milwaukee’s next great neighborhood based on the principals of sustainability and historic preservation,” Kersey said. “Speaking on behalf of all Zilber employees, it has been an honor and a privilege to help make that vision a reality.”
Following the Boiler House was Blue Ribbon Lofts, a 95-unit apartment complex in the former Keg House building along West Winnebago Street. The apartments were developed by Oregon, Wisconsin-based developer Gorman & Co. Tenants moved in beginning in January 2009.
Gorman & Co. also converted two other buildings into what is now known as The Brewhouse Inn & Suites and the attached restaurant, Jackson’s Blue Ribbon Pub. The hotel opened for business in April 2013.
In 2013, another group of people who might not have visited the complex became regulars when the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee opened its Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health on North 10th Street.
Indianapolis-based Milhaus Development is the latest group to submit plans for The Brewery. The company is proposing two five-story apartment buildings located on vacant land at 926 W. Juneau Ave. and 1003 W. Winnebago St.
The first building would include 110 units and 7,000 square feet of retail along Juneau Avenue. The second would include 164 apartments, a leasing office and amenities, including a fitness center and club room. That building would have a 170-space parking structure.
The proposal is working its way through the City of Milwaukee’s approval process, winning preliminary Plan Commission approval on July 11. Milhaus is hoping to break ground this fall for a spring 2018 completion date.
Finishing up this fall is the Eleven25 student apartments located in Pabst Brewing’s former bottling house at 1125 N. Ninth St. The apartments will feature 440 beds in 151 units on three floors. The apartments are in a mix of one- to four-bedroom apartments for students attending college in the metro Milwaukee area.
Just in time for the students, Milwaukee Brewing Co. is planning to expand its operations and move to the Shipping Center building on the southwest corner of North Eighth Street and West Juneau Avenue. Moving to the two-story, 175,968-square-foot building will allow Milwaukee Brewing Co. to complete its much needed expansion.
And even Pabst is coming back to The Brewery.
The San Antonio, Texas-based company announced in February it would bring some of its operations back to the complex and lease 2,100 square feet in the Pabst Professional Center, an office building completed in 2014.
The Pabst Professional Center, located across Juneau Avenue from the former First German Methodist Church, where Pabst plans to open a small “innovation brewery,” tasting room, restaurant and bar, has attracted some interesting tenants itself.
In addition to the Pabst satellite office, the building houses Klement Sausage Co. Inc., which moved its corporate offices from Bay View; SafeNet Consulting Inc., which consolidated its Third Ward and Wauwatosa offices into the building; TCF Bank; and IT consulting firm Logicalis Inc.
Before Zilber purchased the majority of the complex in 2006, there was work being done to one of the buildings. Jim Haertel cashed in his 401(k) and raised nearly $11 million to acquire the abandoned Pabst corporate offices in September 2002.
“We were the spark,” Haertel said. “We were really the catalyst that got this all started.”
Haertel said Joseph Zilber took him and his wife, Karen, to Hawaii in 2007 and offered him $1 million for the Best Place buildings, which includes the former corporate office building, gift shop and Blue Ribbon Hall. Haertel told Zilber he wanted $2 million. As the week went on, the offer got up to $1.75 million, but Haertel says he didn’t budge. The deal never went through.
Zilber, who died in 2010, couldn’t corroborate the story.
Instead, Haertel has been steadily adding on to Best Place over the past 15 years. Blue Ribbon Hall became a popular place for weddings. There was so much demand for weddings that Haertel in 2014 spent about $750,000 to renovate a 5,000-square-foot office space outside Capt. Frederick Pabst’s former office into a second banquet hall, which is called Great Hall.
Haertel is currently working on another renovation project at Best Place that will move and expand the gift shop from 800 square feet to just more than 1,200 square feet and add a coffee shop. Over the next three years, he is also considering adding yet another banquet hall and a museum.
Since day one, Haertel has dreamed of opening a beer-themed bed and breakfast. Whether that will come to fruition depends on Haertel’s desire to become a 24/7 operation.
He loves what has taken place at The Brewery.
“There is finally enough critical mass for more retail,” Haertel said. “This is going to be just like the Third Ward.”