Williams: Plant a neighborhood that grows new businesses in the Park East

Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 09:23 am

Blair Williams, the founder of Milwaukee-based WiRED Properties, has a passion for urban neighborhoods.

His firm’s development work in Shorewood is a perfect example of the urban neighborhood development that Williams is so passionate about. The firm developed The Cornerstone, a four-story building with 25 apartments and 11,000 square feet of retail space on the east side of Oakland Avenue in Shorewood. Across the street the firm is now building a similar project, the four-story Ravenna, which will have 20 apartments and 8,100 square feet of retail space.

Pedestrian-friend urban neighborhoods, like the Oakland Avenue area, provide a high quality of life with great amenities within easy walking distance of residences and strong community connections, Williams believes.

“We believe the social connections between people and their physical links to the community drive real estate value,” he said. “These connections define the way we think of real estate, and the way we think about our communities.”

So given an opportunity to present his dream development project, Williams proposed a new, pedestrian-friendly, urban neighborhood in the Park East corridor on the west side of downtown Milwaukee, perhaps the most prominent vacant real estate in the region.

Much of the Park East corridor remains vacant approximately seven years after the Park East freeway spur was torn down. In recent years some big proposals have been pitched for the corridor, particularly in the portion west of the Milwaukee River.

Last year and early this year city of Milwaukee officials unsuccessfully tried to convince Kohl’s Corp. to move its corporate headquarters from Menomonee Falls to the Park East corridor.

Some, including Grucon Group president Gary Grunau, have said that a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks should be built in the Park East corridor.

Another major project, the $150 million, 22-story Milwaukee Hotel Palomar and Residences development was proposed in the Park East corridor. It would have had 63 luxury condominiums and a 175-room boutique hotel, plus a restaurant, spa, nightclub and retail space. However, the project died around the end of 2008 when the real estate market collapsed during the Great Recession.

A new arena for the Bucks should be built southeast of Fourth and State streets, the site currently occupied by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, instead of the Park East corridor, Williams said. Instead of big projects like a new arena, Williams said the city should think small in the Park East.

“For years, folks have called our fair city smallwaukee,” he said. “I use that term glowingly. It’s a testament to our quality of life and urban character. Small isn’t something we need to overcome. Small is what we should look to for inspiration. I see a unique opportunity to craft a dynamic community, and a profound risk that we may develop something big but without long-term community value. In my fantasy, the Park East is re-imagined from a looming corporate headquarters site, or a series of mid- to high-rise hotels and office buildings, or a stadium, to something that reflects and amplifies Milwaukee’s heritage and culture. When you look at Milwaukee’s neighborhoods, you find that we excel at small- to mid-size developments.”

Despite the struggles that the central city and some areas of downtown Milwaukee has had, particularly the Park East corridor, some of the city’s neighborhoods are extremely vibrant, including the East Side, Third Ward and Bay View, Williams points out.

The Park East corridor should be developed at a similar scale as those neighborhoods, Williams said.

“We should stay in scale to our community roots,” he said.

To execute William’s dream Park East plan, Milwaukee County, which owns most of the Park East properties, should sell its Park East land to the city of Milwaukee, he said. The community benefits ordinance that the county placed on the land, which added requirements for development including union level wages for construction workers, must be rescinded, Williams said.

Then the city should break the two-block site between 4th and 6th streets and Juneau and McKinley avenues into smaller parcels and install street infrastructure, including the completion of 5th Street between Juneau and McKinley.

In Williams’ dream project, a pedestrian mall, similar in width to State Street in Madison, would be added running east to west through the middle of the Park East corridor west of the river.

“I believe the pedestrian mall is overwhelmingly important,” Williams said. “To meet its potential, the Park East must embrace the pedestrian.”

Height limitations should be placed on buildings in the Park East to preserve “an appropriate scale,” Williams said. A public parking structure would be added south of Juneau Avenue and on the current Bradley Center site.

The idea is to create a cluster of unique, locally-owned businesses that will be appealing to local residents and visitors.

“In my vision, this redevelopment will present a strong presence to each of those streets, but the heart of the development will beat in the pedestrian mall – local retailers, artists, entertainers, restaurants, business owners… will have a streetscape that is their own, and that is uniquely Milwaukee,” Williams said.

In his Shorewood projects, Williams said he refused to lease retail space to national retail chains and only leased the space to local retailers.

“I think our projects are stronger for it,” he said.

Williams said the city should establish a new approach, pricing land in the Park East premised entirely on “well-defined community benefits,” including development of a culturally and economically diverse economy, strong pedestrian linkages, construction job creation, tax increment, low rents to facilitate company development and job growth and germination of new businesses.

“Recently we’ve seen TIF (tax incremental financing) used to support larger and larger projects that serve an increasingly homogenous user base,” Williams said. “I believe…that this takes us in the wrong direction. Positive impact in neighborhoods and on community is driven most effectively by a larger number of smaller scale developments. But smaller developments typically cost more per square foot to develop. It is precisely those smaller projects that should receive the benefit of public/private partnership. Larger projects should be expected to stand on their own merits.”

Williams also envisions, in his dream development, a series of privately funded mixed-use seed buildings in the Park East.

“The idea of the seed buildings has two components,” Williams said. “They will seed the re-development of the (Park East) corridor, and the businesses that locate within them will germinate and spread across Milwaukee to generate job growth and community development more broadly.”

The city should sell the parcels for the seed buildings for $1 to developers, Williams said, with several conditions: that rents are limited to “business sustaining levels” for at least 15 years, that at least 80 percent of the upper floors and all of the lower floors be leased to Milwaukee-based companies, that most leases do not last longer than five years and at least 50 percent of any housing units must be affordable.

“The goal of the seed buildings will be to establish a critical mass of incubator and cultural spaces,” Williams said.

There would be four seed buildings: a technology-based incubator, a creative arts building, a retail incubator and a culinary/restaurant building. Corporate partners could support development of the seed buildings.

“Certainly, a variety of incubator spaces exist throughout the metro area,” Williams said. “I understand my fantasy world collides with the reality of these other spaces. But I believe there’s a significant gap in the market. In order to attract start-up businesses, affordable rent and convenient parking are most important. But, the culture and environment of the workplace come in a close second. It is the latter we must cultivate. My goal is to fuel the creative fire through community creation. Unlike most incubators, where community is defined by workers in a building, my fantasy includes local retail, local restaurants and local artists energizing the street-level and providing social and creative outlets for both the public and employees in the buildings. This will be a place where Milwaukee’s business leaders of tomorrow can live, work and play. This will be where we take pride in our identity and, like the foundries of our past, forge our future.” 

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