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The Fiserv Forum is seen before an NBA basketball game between the Milwaukee Bucks and the New York Knicks Monday, Oct. 22, 2018, in Milwaukee. 
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Milwaukee’s downtown surges in advance of 2020 convention

New developments in Westown highlight increased investment in the Midwest metro

Milwaukee, like other formerly industrial midwestern cities, has seen a resurgence lately, amid its redeveloped warehouse districts and overlooked office buildings. Development has emanated from its riverfront, a former shipping lane for beer breweries that’s now firmly entrenched as an entertainment destination.

Developer Tony Lindsay saw these trends play out in his hometown of Chicago and believes that a similar story, and an upswing in urban investment, is playing out in Milwaukee’s Westown neighborhood, which is just west of downtown on the other side of the Milwaukee River.

Lindsey’s firm, North Wells Capital, plans to redevelop a former Bon-Ton department store it acquired in 2017. The $33 million adaptive reuse project, to be called Hub 640, will add new ground-floor retail and office space to a neighborhood that’s now flush with new plans and projects.

A rendering of the Hub 640 building in Milwaukee’s Westown neighborhood.
Rendering courtesy of North Wells Capital

“There are lots of similarities between what’s happening in Westown now and River North in Chicago 35 years ago,” says Lindsay. “It’s next to downtown, lots of commuters pass through on their way to work; it’s just ripe for reinvestment.”

Westown’s current wave of projects—including a new transit hub, restoration of a classic theater, and a patchwork of retail and residential projects—add momentum to Milwaukee’s recent boom, which led Vogue to label it the coolest, most underrated city in the Midwest in a story last year.

Coming on the heels of a newly opened downtown stadium for the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team—and the surrounding “Deer District” entertainment area—and decades into the re-emergence of the Old Third Ward and RiverWalk, two entertainment and retail districts, it’s another signal that investment opportunities are expanding in Milwaukee. Whereas capital had been concentrated in the central business district between the river and Lake Michigan, today more money is flowing into the area between the river and Interstate 43.

“The Third Ward has already arrived, Walker’s Point is starting to happen, Marquette University is to the west, so there’s all this investment around the periphery,” says Lindsay about Westown’s future prospects. “Westown is the doughnut hole. With all this development nearby, it’s bound to be the next spot.”

Development heading to Westown

Milwaukee has seen a number of high-profile developments open recently, as the city gears up to host next summer’s Democratic National Convention. The two biggest projects—the new $524 million Fiserv Forum, a multipurpose arena for the Milwaukee Bucks and other concert and sporting events, that opened last year, and the sail-like Northwestern Mutual Tower, a 32-story high-rise that opened its doors in 2017—form a pathway of sorts for recent development, pointing west from the shiny tower on the lakefront over the Milwaukee River and into Westown.

Downtown Milwaukee is seen on November 17, 2016, with the still-under-construction Northwestern Mutual Tower in the background and Santiago Calatrava-designed Milwaukee Art Museum in the fore.
AFP/Getty Images

These two big projects can seem like bookends to the recent downtown development spree, which has totaled over $2.9 billion in public and private dollars since 2010 and brought thousands of new apartment units to the city. But others see them as catalysts for the next phase of construction.

New developments are betting on continued growth, especially areas west of Fiserv Forum. The city’s nascent Hop streetcar line is looking to expand to stops in Westown, including a planned multimodal transit hub at the central Vel R. Phillips Plaza that would also connect to a future bus rapid transit line. The classic Warner Grand Theatre is getting a $139 million makeover, with plans to reopen next year as home to the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. A 132-room Cambria Hotel on Plankinton Avenue is under development, and a seven-story mass timber office building is in the works for the west riverfront.

At the same time the Bon-Ton space is being rebuilt, owners of the adjacent Grand Avenue Mall plan to convert the food court and retail space into 120,000 square feet of offices and 50 new apartments. Set to be renamed The Avenue, the project will include the 3rd Street Market Hall, featuring a food hall overseen by Milwaukee restaurateur Omar Shaikh.

Across the street from Hub 640, the Blue Building, a former federal office with an iconic cobalt-blue exterior and lots of vacant office space, is about to undergo a newly announced $30 million renovation courtesy of New York investment firm Time Equities, Inc. The out-of-town investor symbolizes new faith in the city’s formerly moribund office market, according to Urban Milwaukee.

A new mural, another sign of investor-backed placemaking, has been commissioned from local artist Emma Daisy Gertel, an 80-by-50-foot urban garden that will “enliven the space and create a sense of wonder, vibrancy, beauty and hope that is representative of the revitalization and renewal efforts of Westown,” according to the artist.

Stacie Callies, executive director of the Westown Association, told the Milwaukee Independent that there’s a growing list of “catalytic developments.”

The RiverWalk in 2012.
Getty Images

Bigger changes for business in Milwaukee

One reason for the momentum in this part of Milwaukee, a trend seen across Midwest metros, is the return of corporate offices, as more companies seek to locate or relocate to an increasingly thriving urban core. In 2017, half a million square feet of office space was under development, a sign of updating commercial potential, and a recent CBRE report found the average asking price for office leases, $18.71 per square foot, was the highest it had been since 2007. Madison-based American Family Insurance announced earlier this year that it has plans to move downtown, either into an existing location or into a new facility, citing the city’s diversity and universities as two selling points.

Lindsay believes this kind of growth makes the Hub 640 project an even more desirable space; the large, 58,000-square-foot floorplates in the former retail space should help capture some of the companies taking a new look at a downtown address.

Much of this new development hopes to be open—and be center stage—next summer, as Democrats swarm downtown Milwaukee in anticipation of launching a successful 2020 presidential campaign. Choosing Milwaukee for the convention, four years after the Democrats barely lost so many Midwest states in the 2016 election, plays into the narrative that the party wants to reconnect with the working class across the Rust Belt. That includes the working class people of color, including Milwaukee’s sizable black population, which makes up 40 percent of the city, and whose struggles with jobs, transit, and housing equity have been covered extensively by Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted.

One of the challenges of the city’s new wave of growth, a challenge shared by every other big city seeing renewed downtown investment, is how new opportunities, housing, and jobs will impact all communities, especially those that have been historically underinvested in, excluded, and ignored. The new Milwaukee, and the new Westown, is sure to be in focus come next July. The big question for the city, and for candidates, is through which lens it will be seen.

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