In early April, a landowner with properties located adjacent to the West Waukesha Bypass contacted Waukesha leaders to discuss development opportunities.
He wanted to find out what his options would be over the next year, as the bypass between I-94 and Highway 59 on the west side of the City of Waukesha nears completion.
The $50 million project has been in the Waukesha County and regional transportation plans for decades.
The city’s $3.1 million portion of the project was completed last year. The state’s portion will begin in late June and is expected to be finished this year or in early 2019.
Now is the time to begin thinking about development along the corridor, said Tim Casey, director of Waukesha County Center for Growth Inc.
Casey has been working with city officials to meet with landowners, developers and business owners from southeastern Wisconsin and Illinois who are interested in the large tracts of land adjacent to the bypass.
That land will have easier freeway access once the road construction is complete, Casey said.
Casey did not want to share what specific locations were being discussed, but said there is a lot of interest in developing along the bypass.
“When you talk about the bypass being completed in the next one to two years, folks get it,” Casey said. “Developing a business park with industrial takes six to nine months to build. An office building takes a year, year-and-a-half. For people looking at development, if you start down the path, the timing is right.”
Prospective developers have toured sites on the southwest and west sides of the city – areas that will be more accessible when the bypass is complete, Casey said.
The sites lend themselves to a variety of uses, including residential, retail and office. But one thing city officials, developers and Casey have all mentioned is industrial.
Across southeastern Wisconsin, the vacancy rate for industrial has been low, leaving users scrambling to find adequate space.
Waukesha County has 84 million square feet of industrial space. The City of Waukesha has 15 million square feet of industrial space. The county has an approximate 2.5 percent vacancy rate and is seeing a demand for large industrial buildings, Casey said.
“We would like to see the same 100,000- to 200,000-square-foot, modern industrial developments that have been built in Racine and Kenosha (counties),” Casey said. “We have some in Waukesha, but we need more. We regularly have prospects looking for 100,000 square feet or more and there are very few to choose from.”
Jaclynn Walsh, president and chief operating officer of Milwaukee-based developer Irgens Partners LLC, said adding infrastructure will have a significant impact on development in Waukesha.
“It will certainly make it easier for people to get in and out of Waukesha and I think this is a really great market,” Walsh said. “The population is primed for expanded manufacturing in the area.”
But one Milwaukee commercial real estate source, who did not want to speak on the record, said Waukesha could have some issues in attracting large industrial developments like those along I-94 in Racine and Kenosha counties. Even with the bypass, Highway 59 is six miles from I-94. Typically, a business does not want trucks driving more than three miles off the interstate, the source said.
Another issue could be all of the residential development already located along the bypass, the residents of which may not want to allow a 100,000-square-foot or larger industrial building in their neighborhood, the source said.
Decades in the making
After decades of discussion, a memorandum of understanding was signed by Waukesha County, the City of Waukesha, the Town of Waukesha and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation in 2009 to outline the responsibilities of building the West Waukesha Bypass.
Real estate acquisition began in 2015 throughout the project corridor.
The purpose of the bypass is to address local and regional traffic volumes and enhance safety. Any development that occurs because of the bypass is an added benefit, said Kevin Lahner, Waukesha city administrator.
“Now that the project is going forward, there are multiple developable sites along the bypass,” Lahner said. “Having the road there makes all of those properties so much more attractive.”
Lahner said landowners and other “activity” around the sites picked up over the past year.
“We’re really focused on high-value development,” Lahner said. “Each site has unique benefits. But for the most part, we know there is a very strong need for light industrial in the area. That is one of the things we get a lot of inquiries about. An office development would be nice, as well.”
Waukesha Alderman Aaron Perry said 25 years ago, the city’s south and west sides were farm fields.
Perry, who has represented that area of the city since 2013, is excited about the bypass, saying it will enable that area to grow and benefit the entire city.
“We need to understand the needs as it relates to workforce development and commercial development,” Perry said. “Now that the roads will in place to properly access the (area), I think this will absolutely help development along.”
Perry would like to see the intersection of Genesee Road and Highway 59 at the southernmost end of the bypass developed.
“Retail is declining, unfortunately,” Perry said. “I can’t dictate what goes in there, but I would like to see a long-term, usable, sustainable development. Stores that we will visit. People can’t get a haircut online.”
Perry said he also wouldn’t mind seeing high-end multi-family or a mixed use development with commercial development on the ground level.
Perry also said the Shoppes at Fox River is an area that is “ripe for development,” and could become very attractive for developers once the bypass is complete.