Seven years ago, Stewart Wangard, the chairman and chief executive officer of Wauwatosa real estate firm Wangard Partners Inc., was riding on a pedal tavern through Walker’s Point to celebrate a friend’s 50th birthday.
Onboard were the 50-somethings and their 20-something children, who couldn’t stop talking about how cool the neighborhood was.
Wangard looked around and had one thought about the neighborhood: scruffy.
But the excitement of the ever-influential millennials stuck with him and he went back to Walker’s Point a few days later, driving the neighborhood and then walking it.
What he saw the second time through was unique architecture and residents who had truly invested in their community.
Despite his intrigue, Wangard held off on investing in Walker’s Point.
“We needed a reasonable return with several years’ investment and felt it wasn’t quite there,” Wangard said.
That has changed in recent years.
“In the last 24 months, the design industry has moved to Walker’s Point in droves,” Wangard said. “Architects, engineers, interior designers and all the businesses that support that group are there. When you see a neighborhood come together like this, it’s mosaic. That is what is happening there.”
Wangard is now working on plans for a mixed-use development at an 8-acre site northeast of South First Street and East Greenfield Avenue.
Preliminary plans for the project include about 60,000 square feet of retail space including a Cermak grocery store, 60,000 square feet of office space and more than 70 residential apartments.
“As a real estate professional, sometimes people need to point out the obvious to us,” Wangard said.
Two years ago, Walker’s Point, the neighborhood connecting the Historic Third Ward and Bay View, was emerging as one of Milwaukee’s hottest areas.
Today, with increased interest from developers like Wangard who want to add residential sites, to micro brewers opening along South Second Street, Walker’s Point is an even more desirable place to work, play and live.
Other residential developments also are planned for the neighborhood.
The City of Milwaukee is selling a four-story, 76,350-square-foot building, known as the International Building, at 611 W. National Ave. to a developer who wants to convert it into apartments and first floor commercial space.
Milwaukee-based developer David Winograd is in the early stages of planning an apartment building at the site of the never-built Rivianna project along the Milwaukee River, at 236 S. Water St.
Of course, not everyone is immediately benefiting from the changes in Walker’s Point. Brian Belli, owner of Antiques On Second LLC, is packing up his 40,000-square-foot antique mall at 1039 S. Second St. this month now that the building owner, Oshkosh-based Keystone Development LLC, has decided to convert the building into apartments.
Belli, who still had five years left on the lease, said he wasn’t happy at first, but has since purchased a 71,118-square-foot building at 1512 W. Pierce St., allowing him to stay in the neighborhood, which he says was important for him and his wife, Cheryl.
He calls the new building “the jewel of Pierce Street,” and will be renaming his store Antiques on Pierce.
“We can do things here we couldn’t do in the other building,” Belli said. “We love Walker’s Point. It is up and coming, rich in history, has a diverse population and we’ve had wonderful neighbors.”
The Global Water Center and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences had many believing Walker’s Point would become known for its water technology companies, said Kevin Wondra, president of the Walker’s Point Association. However, the neighborhood’s culinary offerings have quickly put it on the map.
That wouldn’t have been possible without the rebuilding of South Second Street – where many of these restaurants now exist – by the city in 2010, which many consider a pivotal moment for Walker’s Point. The change narrowed the street from two lanes in each direction to a more pedestrian-oriented street, with one vehicular lane and a bike lane in each direction, and the addition of landscaping and new lights.
Over the past five years, South Second Street has become a haven for foodies. Screaming Tuna, Zac’s Café, The Noble, Braise, Black Sheep, C.1880, All Purpose Bar and Kitchen and Morel have made the neighborhood a destination for diners across southeastern Wisconsin.
In addition to the sit down restaurants, alcohol distributors are flocking to the area, including Great Lakes Distillery, Central Standard Craft Distillery, Brenner Brewing Co. and Milwaukee Brewing Co.
Jonathan Manyo originally planned to open a restaurant in Bay View, but the space and the price was right in Walker’s Point. He opened Morel Restaurant at 430 S. Second St. in July 2014.
Manyo, who lives in Bay View, admits he was a little worried about crime when he chose the neighborhood, but after a few meetings with other business owners, the Milwaukee Police Department and Alderman José Pérez, he was reassured his investment was going to be secure.
“It’s safe to go out on Second Street now. There is more of a police presence and with all of the restaurants and people around, people feel safe,” Manyo said.
Manyo welcomes the other restaurants to the neighborhood, saying it gives people a reason to come to Walker’s Point for what he calls “destination dining.”
“What the area is really lacking right now is retail,” he said. “We need more foot traffic and people to be out on these streets all day long. Having more condos and apartments is great, but this place is really primed for some retail.”
When Wondra moved from Fond du Lac to The Point on the River building at 106 W. Seeboth St. in 2009, he was immediately attracted to the neighborhood’s gritty, blue collar, artistic and entrepreneurial feel.
He quickly went from renting to condo ownership and became involved in the neighborhood association. What he would like to see is more green space and a connection to the Hank Aaron State Trail. Wondra believes the addition of a grocery store will be a big improvement for residents.
“Walker’s Point is beginning to hit its peak right now,” Wondra said. “The Third Ward and East Side have reached their peak. Bay View is a wonderful area for raising families. But we have such a unique, strong, residential component with Latino roots. It’s a melting pot of the city that has become a target for developers.”