Vandewalle brings people back to cities

Brian Vandewalle is in the business of bringing people back to cities. Through his company, Vandewalle & Associates Inc., an urban planning and design firm with offices in Madison and Milwaukee, he’s helped communities redevelop abandoned, contaminated or under-used areas, generally in their downtowns, for more than 30 years.

“What we want to do is work in the Great Lakes and upper Mississippi watershed to reposition cities of all sizes, small to large, to focus on repositioning them from a market and economic point of view,” Vandewalle said. “We concentrate on where things aren’t working – areas where they might have brownfields and blight to downtowns and commercial corridors that aren’t quite working.”

Communities such as Sheboygan, Cudahy, Ashwaubenon, Moline, Ill. and many more have seen significant downtown redevelopment and resurgence thanks to the planning and design efforts of Vandewalle & Associates.

The firm does more than just downtown work. In the 1980s, it produced an economic development plan that helped create the Milwaukee County Research Park in Wauwatosa. More recently, the firm created a redevelopment plan for the Burleigh Triangle area in Wauwatosa.

Vandewalle & Associates also recently completed work on an economic development plan for Waukesha County, and is now working on economic development plans for both the Milwaukee 7 and the City of Milwaukee. The firm was hired by Milwaukee to assist with the economic development portion of the city’s comprehensive plan, said Andrea Rowe-Richards, spokeswoman for Milwaukee Department of City Development.

In underperforming or blighted areas, Vandewalle & Associates looks for pre-existing attractions in a central location, such as a lake or river, historic buildings or a central plaza.

“The common thing is to figure out what the assets are, anything from historic buildings, water, location to Lambeau Field, bike trails,” he said. “We look at what’s there and what problems do we have an opportunity to overcome.”

Finding at least one thing that will attract people, whether it be water, buildings or something else, is critical to bring in the first businesses, residents and shoppers to a struggling area, Vandewalle said.

“You’re trying to get that place to start to be made where people are attracted to it,” he said. “It starts to create activity and momentum. The real estate community can’t do that itself. It works with the consumer. The consumer is the one you start catering to.”

Catalytic projects

Vandewalle’s firm has been working in Moline for about 18 years, helping it develop a downtown area that largely didn’t exist in a vacant and shuttered industrial area.

“We had to create a market where there was no market,” Vandewalle said. “You could shoot a cannon down the street, there were so many vacant factories. If anyone was giggling, it was because there was no market, there was nothing.”

What Moline had going for it was its frontage on the Mississippi River. The city had already built a walking path and park along the river, which became the focal point for development.

Moline built a new 12,000-seat arena in its downtown area and hotels, restaurants and retail destinations followed. Early development built around the arena, Vandewalle said, and has continued from there.

“We’re continuing to do work with the Mississippi River as a location, a place-based asset that would make someone move there from the suburbs,” Vandewalle said. “The first venue was to get people to come downtown, to visit the entertainment and hospitality district. Now people want to live near the waterfront. It’s starting to attract new business startups, the kinds of things that follow smart people.”

The lesson Vandewalle learned through that project was to focus redevelopment to create a destination.

“You’ve got to create enough critical mass, you can’t spread out the investment,” he said. “You can’t do one restaurant, one hotel and one office building. You’ve got to do five, eight of them and put those pieces together so that when it starts you get a significant bang that the market can respond to.”

The company’s work in Sheboygan has taught similar lessons. Vandewalle & Associates has been working there for about 20 years. Its early work concentrated on moving existing gas stations and car dealerships out of the downtown area, redefining Main Street and designing a walking path along the Sheboygan River. The company also developed the Harbor Centre master plan, which helped spur the city’s new marina and lakefront improvements.

The momentum generated through the marina and lakefront development helped drive development farther south, to the South Pier District, home of Blue Harbor Resort and Conference Center and several other small shops and Triple Play Fun Zone.

The company is now working to develop plans and build support for a proposed Great Lakes Aerospace Science & Education Center at the Sheboygan Spaceport, which would be built in the city’s Municipal Auditorium and Armory, Vandewalle said. Sheboygan has a large no-fly area over Lake Michigan because of previous weapons testing that was done there. The no-fly area makes it ideal for rocket research and a potential site for space tourism, civic leaders have said.

The potential Spaceport and educational center proposed for the armory would keep Sheboygan’s redevelopment momentum moving forward, Vandewalle said.

“We’re building on that sort of energy that’s created to be an education (destination), something that inspires youth,” he said. “We’re looking at as a place-based asset – this portal, this building, and the fact that they’ve created a visitor destination with hospitality. This would be an educational asset, but also an economic development and tourism asset.”

Targeted demographics

Communities that want to redevelop their downtowns to incorporate live/work space should target both baby boomers and young professionals, Vandewalle said. He calls them “boomer zoomers.” Both groups want to live in densely populated urban areas that have numerous shops, restaurants, entertainment destinations and offices where they could work, he said.

“It starts with the younger ones,” he said. “The young and talented are more willing to mix in with old and new things. Following behind that in this baby boom trend is a good percentage of people who want the same thing. It’s been happening in the last three to five years, and it’s one of those common opportunities for big cities and small cities.”

Many boomers are searching for more “authenticity, a more tolerant demographic,” Vandewalle said, and many feel they’re more likely to find that in an urban environment rather than a suburb where they may have raised their children.

“Every city has a square or a church or something that has an authentic court to it,” he said. “The sort of interest in authenticity is becoming a consumer demand in a lot of these boomer zoomer types. That’s something you can’t offer on the beltline highway. There is a real trend of going back to the city, of being part of history and authenticity.”

Many of the elements that will attract young people to live, work and spend money in a resurgent area also will attract baby boomers, Vandewalle said.

“Choices in a place are what makes it attractive to a new type of customer like a young or boomer zoomer customer,” he said. “They’re attracted together. And boomers like to be around younger people, to be in that scene and that night life. Boomers have enough capital to be able to make a choice to move back to the city.”

Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward is an example of how a community can effectively reinvent a portion of its downtown, Vandewalle said, making it an attractive destination for people who want to live in an active, urban area. The neighborhood’s many historic buildings and close proximity to both the Milwaukee River and Lake Michigan have made it a hotbed for condominium, office and retail redevelopment.

“The same thing has happening with the coastal cities,” he said. “That’s what’s driving downtown Milwaukee’s shift. It’s around water, and this set of choices that has started to develop.”


Brian Vandewalle President and Principal Planner Vandewalle & Associates Inc.
Locations: Madison and Milwaukee
Web site:

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