Wisconsin Avenue is still considered the Main Street of Milwaukee, but the once Grand Avenue has struggled for years with vacant spaces and empty lots. The street is emblematic of downtown Milwaukee’s struggles to compete with the suburbs for retailers.
However, several major developments are in the works that could bring more office space, residences, entertainment venues, restaurants, stores and hotel rooms to Wisconsin Avenue.
Those new developments could finally pump new life into the street:
Ghazi seeking TIF
Perhaps the most exciting project in the works for Wisconsin Avenue, and for all of downtown Milwaukee, is being planned just to the west of the Shops of Grand Avenue. That’s where Charlotte, N.C.-based The Ghazi Co. plans to build a large mixed-use development called Catalyst on a two-acre, vacant property at the southwest corner of North Fourth Street and Wisconsin Avenue and just south of the Midwest Airlines Center.
The Ghazi Co. hopes to close on its purchase of the property, from the City of Milwaukee, by early summer and begin construction later this summer, said founder and president Afshin Ghazi.
“We definitely hope to be out of the ground this year,” he said.
The project is making progress, Ghazi said. The company has made a request for tax incremental financing (TIF) assistance from the city of Milwaukee, but he declined to disclose any details.
“We are in discussions with the developers for the Catalyst project regarding the scope of the project,” said Department of City Development spokeswoman Andrea Rowe Richards. "It is premature to state details at such a preliminary stage of the discussion."
However Ald. Robert Bauman, who represents the downtown area, said the TIF assistance for the project could be used to demolish a 900-space parking structure south of the site that Ghazi purchased from Wispark LLC and replace it with underground parking spaces. The amount of TIF assistance for the project is still being discussed, but it could approach the $29 million that the city provided to Zilber Ltd. for the redevelopment of the former Pabst brewery, Bauman said.
Eliminating the parking structure would remove a major downtown blight and would allow Ghazi’s development to also face Michigan Street, which would create a better urban space and more life to that street as well, Bauman said.
“I’m a strong proponent of removing that parking structure and replacing the (parking) capacity underground,” Bauman said.
The Ghazi project has also secured a hotel flag for a 160- to 170-room hotel and about “half a dozen or more” retail, restaurant and entertainment tenants, including upscale bowling operator Big City Lanes. Ghazi declined to name the other retail tenants, which will be part of the project’s 150,000 square feet of retail, restaurant and entertainment space.
In a twist to previously announced plans, Ghazi is considering adding office space to the project. The company is in the market seeking potential office tenants. If there is interest, office space will be added to the project, he said.
However, the project’s residential component is still being evaluated. The original plans called for about 200 units in a 25- to 30-story tower. As the housing market has collapsed nationally and slowed considerably locally, Ghazi is re-evaluating the height of the residential tower, the number of units and the mix of apartments and condominiums. The residential portion of the development may be phased in later than the rest of the project, he said.
Ghazi said the project will continue to evolve, “until the day it opens.”
Financial markets have tightened nationally for major commercial developments. Ghazi said obtaining financing is more difficult for large residential projects, but financing looks good for his retail and hotel components.
“We’ve got excellent existing relationships (with financial institutions),” he said. “If you are just trying to break into the financing world, you would be having a difficult time. The hotel and retail side is still pretty solid.”
The Ghazi project would have a major impact on Wisconsin Avenue, Bauman said.
“Fourth and Wisconsin is big,” he said. “That’s the one that will have the most impact. We will only get one shot, and we have to make sure it’s done right.”
Another hotel development is being planned for the north side of Wisconsin Avenue. Milwaukee-based Gabaldon Properties and North Liberty, Iowa-based Kinseth Hospitality Companies plan to redevelop the Posner Building at 152 W. Wisconsin Ave. into a 160-room Holiday Inn hotel. The project would also include new stores and restaurants for the building’s first floor. The building is just east of a Hampton Inn & Suites hotel and just north of the Shops of Grand Avenue.
Improving office market
A significant office development is in the works at the far eastern end of Wisconsin Avenue downtown. Milwaukee-based Wangard Properties plans to build an eight-story, 155,000-square-foot office building on top of a parking garage just south of the eight-story 875 East Wisconsin office building at 875 E. Wisconsin Ave.
The architectural style of the new building will be similar to the 875 building, said Stewart Wangard, the company’s chairman. In addition, there will be several “connectors” on multiple floors between the two buildings.
“875 East Wisconsin is currently 100 percent leased to some of Milwaukee’s best companies, some of whom are eyeing growth in the not-too-distant future,” Wangard said. “Building a new tower compatible to 875 East is the best way to plan for growth opportunities, as well as meet the needs for other businesses for state-of-the-art office space downtown. There are several potential new tenants for the new building, and talks we’ve had with key prospects are ongoing and productive.”
In addition, Wisconsin Avenue’s office market got a shot in the arm with the recent move by Infinity HealthCare to the Chase Tower at 111 E. Wisconsin Ave. The company offers emergency medicine, diagnostic imaging, occupational health, medical information systems, medical billing and medical practice management consulting services. It relocated from Mequon, moving 150 employees downtown and occupying about 62,000 square feet of space in the Chase Tower. There is still about 50,000 square feet of vacant office space in the 472,507-square-foot, 22-story building.
More Wisconsin Avenue retailers
The owner of the Chase Tower, Toronto-based Brookfield Asset Management Inc.’s Brookfield Real Estate Opportunity Fund, is also making plans to enhance the first floor of its building to attract retail tenants. The building’s location at the southwest corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Water Streets places it at “Main and Main” in downtown Milwaukee, said Michelle Berliner, vice president of Brookfield Real Estate Opportunity Fund.
“We are committed to making this a vibrant mixed-use building,” she said.
Construction will begin soon on the second floor for a new space for the building management office, which is currently located on the first floor. That will free up more room on the first floor for retailers.
Brookfield Real Estate Opportunity Fund plans to create about 20,000 square feet of retail space on the first floor and 5,000 square feet of retail space on the second floor next to the building’s skywalk, Berliner said.
“We’ve had great response (from potential tenants),” she said. “There’s certainly going to be food retailers as well as service retail tenants that you typically find in a downtown office building.”
Meanwhile, a long vacant retail space on Wisconsin Avenue has finally landed a tenant. Ohio-based JHF Group, which owns The Cadillac Ranch, a western-themed restaurant and bar featuring a mechanical bull with locations in Cincinnati, Nashville and Tempe, Ariz., plans to open a pair of restaurants, including a Cadillac Ranch, in 14,500 square feet of space in the building at 211 W. Wisconsin Ave. The restaurants will open later this year, said Siegel-Gallagher broker Cory Sovine who, along with Siegel-Gallagher broker John Bergh, represented the building’s owner, TSG Real Estate LLC. There is still about 3,000 square feet of retail space available in the building along Wisconsin Avenue, Sovine said.
Across the street from the building at 211 W. Wisconsin Ave., another long vacant building has changed hands recently and the new owner is trying to attract a retail tenant. Real estate investor Sung Kang recently purchased the 20,450-square-foot, two-story building at 200 W. Wisconsin Ave. from the Plankinton Family Trust for $1.46 million. Currently, the building is completely vacant. The eastern half was last occupied by Aladdin Middle Eastern Cuisine and before that was occupied by Taco Bell. The western half of the building was last occupied by Pak’s Jewelers.
The 211 W. Wisconsin Ave. building is surrounded by the Shops of Grand Avenue, which is owned by New York-based Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp. The mall has struggled for years with numerous vacancies but Ashkenazy, which bought the mall in 2005, is working on major plans to revitalize it.
“We have some stuff we are working on,” said Joe Press, vice president of operations for Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp. “We are hopefully close to (announcing) something.”
In an attempt to attract more development to Wisconsin Avenue, the City of Milwaukee recently completed a streetscape improvement project for the street, which included sidewalk and crosswalk enhancements, trees and pedestrian lighting.
All of these projects should bring more pedestrians to Wisconsin Avenue, which could help attract more retailers. However, many national retailers seem reluctant to locate on Wisconsin Avenue saying the daytime population is impressive but there is not enough traffic on nights and weekends, Sovine said.
According to the Department of City Development (DCD) there are more than 78,000 employees in the downtown area. The downtown area added 2,435 housing units from 2000-07, according to the DCD, but more downtown residents and visitors are probably needed to convince more retailers to add locations on Wisconsin Avenue.
Commercial Real Estate Transactions
CB Richard Ellis
Totalmed Staffing Inc. leased 1,600 square feet of office space at 5381 N. 118th Ct., Milwaukee from Monterey Park Ltd.
Storage One Interiors Inc. leased 5,660 square feet of industrial space at W231 N2811 Roundy Circle East, Suite 300, Pewaukee, from Briohn Leasing Company LLP.
Grubb & Ellis|Apex Commercial
Inspec Inc. leased 5,896 square feet of office space at 126 N. Jefferson St., Milwaukee, from Warehouse No. 1 LLC.
JK Group Inc. leased 1,410 square feet of office space at 400 E. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee, from TMB Development Group.
Dew’s Concrete LLC leased 4,800 square feet of industrial space at 430 S. Curtis Road, West Allis, from Curtis Road LLC.
Mid-America Real Estate
AT&T Mobility leased 3,200 square feet of space in Brown Deer Center at the northeast corner of Brown Deer Road and Green Bay Road in Brown Deer from Developers Diversified Realty.
Get It Now leased 9,048 square feet of space at South Town Center, 3726 S. 27th St., Milwaukee, from Colonial Village LLC.
Jimmy John’s leased 1,490 square feet of space and AT&T Mobility leased 4,023 square feet of space at 5502 Washington Ave., Mt. Pleasant, from Mt. Pleasant Investors LLC.
NAI MLG Commercial
Palmer Hamilton leased 15,000 square feet of space at 540 Centralia St., Elkhorn, from Great G LLC.
Burlington RV Superstore leased 9,390 square feet of space in the Burlington Business Center in Burlington from Eye Mathithee LLC.
Kopp & Arena S.C. leased 773 square feet of space and Courtney & Molter S.C. leased 3,693 square feet of space in Riverfront Plaza at 1110 N. Old World Third St., Milwaukee, from RFP Office LLC.
Travel Healthy International LLC leased 932 square feet of space at 10224 N. Port Washington Road, Mequon, from FFI LLC.
Litchfield Cavo LLP leased 6,266 square feet of space at 13400 Bishops Lane, Brookfield, from WILC-Gateway LLC.
Universal Graphics Inc. leased 2,500 square feet of space at W40 N5074-96 Lilly Road, Menomonee Falls, from Overview Business Center LLC.
CB Richard Ellis
KHK Holdings LLC purchased a 99,829-square-foot industrial building on 20 acres at 3109 Mt. Pleasant St., Racine from Gyrus ACMI Inc.
Mid-America Real Estate
BR of Wisconsin 12 LLC purchased 1.8 acres in Delavan Crossings at Highway 50 and I-43 in Delavan from Household Finance Corp. III.
T. Ryan II LLC purchased 112,000 square feet of industrial space at 5424 N. 27th St., 5425-35 N. 27th St. and 5435 N. 26th St. in Milwaukee and Glendale from Hansen Storage Company.
Grubb & Ellis|Apex Commercial
AKSS LLC purchased 12,433 square feet of industrial space at 1102 W. Bruce St., Milwaukee, from Helen Cargile LLC for $477,000.
Mill Road Associates LLC purchased 25,552 square feet of industrial space at 16225-37 W. Ryerson Road, New Berlin, from Allan and Betty Knuth for $955,000.
Opus North Corp. purchased a 561,276-square-foot building at 1200 W. Sunset Dr., Waukesha, from Supervalu Inc.
Universal Graphics Inc. leased 2,500 square feet of space at W140 N5074-96 Lilly Road, Menomonee Falls, from Overview Business Center LLC.
Competitive Edge Software Inc. purchased a 12,095-square-foot building at 9850 S. 54th St., Franklin, from Macrifin Cor Real Estate.
Proverbs LLC purchased 30,240 square feet at 206 Enterprise Road, Delafield, from The Cannes Group LLC.
Design 2 Construct Development Corp., Jackson, recently completed the design and construction of a 55,000-square-foot manufacturing facility for Germantown Iron and Steel in the Jackson Industrial Park. Design 2 Construct is also nearing completion of construction of a 85,000-square-foot manufacturing facility for Master Wholesale in the Jackson Industrial Park.
Briohn Builidng Corp., Brookfield, recently completed the design and construction of a 3,908-square-foot comedy club for Giggles in the Brookfield Towne Centre at 19115 W. Capitol Dr., Brookfield. Briohn also recently completed the renovation of a 1,685-square-foot interior office space for Goodyear Chiropractic at 5261 N. Port Washington Road, Glendale.