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Milwaukee's Downtown Renaissance

Written by Matt Chappell, Broker Associate

For the last century, Milwaukee’s image to the outside world has revolved around beer and manufacturing. While these are still major industries embedded in the backbone of our economy, Milwaukee has since grown to be much more than Laverne and Shirley. Throughout the last two decades, the city has begun to make strides in revitalizing its neighborhoods around Downtown that used to house Milwaukee’s economic engines. Areas like the Third Ward and Menomonee Valley have converted former warehouses and factory buildings into office and residential mixed-use buildings, while incorporating new entertainment venues like the 381-room Potawatomi Hotel & Casino. The surge in activity has created a domino effect on Downtown and has made it an ever popular place to live, work and play.   

potawatomi hotel
Potawatomi Hotel & Casino (courtesy of Potawatomi Hotel & Casino YouTube channel)

As millennials and empty nesters continue to flock to Downtown Milwaukee, their employers have taken notice. In 2012, Northwestern Mutual announced its commitment to keep Milwaukee “home” and keep its headquarters downtown. Soon after, they announced plans to build a 32-story high-rise to house 1,100 existing jobs and to create 1,900 new ones by 2030. New developments have since been announced, including their plan to build a 33-story residential, retail and parking tower adjacent to their new office building. Construction is underway for their headquarters and is expected to be completed in 2017. Irgens, a full-service real estate firm, is also constructing an 18-story office tower downtown at 833 East, which will house their offices, law firm Godfrey & Kahn, Colliers International/Wisconsin, First American, Rare Steakhouse and others. A relatively recent addition to this list of developments is a speculative Johnson Controls office tower, expected to reach new heights at 50 stories, although no concrete plans have been circulated.

Northwestern Mutual HQ tower development
Rendering of Northwestern Mutual HQ tower development (courtesy of Northwestern Mutual)

Northwestern Mutual parking structure and tower
Rendering of Northwestern Mutual parking structure and tower (courtesy of Northwestern Mutual)

833 east
Rendering of Irgens' 18-story office tower downtown located at 833 East (courtesy of Milwaukee Business Journal)

In addition to new office towers, Downtown Milwaukee has seen a surge in new hotel development. Recent openings have included the Hilton Garden Inn, the Marriott and the 90-room Brewhouse Inn & Suites, a former Pabst Brewery facility. All three were adaptive reuse projects from old buildings. A new nine-story, 158-room hotel development by Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants is also underway in the Third Ward. A 200- room Westin Hotel is proposed just west of the new 833 East office building, as well as a 155-suite SpringHill Suites expected to open in mid-2016. Lastly, a Chicago developer said to be partnering with Choice Hotels International, Inc. is planning to open a hotel near Milwaukee’s Shops at Grand Avenue.

Rendering of new Kimpton Hotel located in Milwaukee's Third Ward (courtesy of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

As the downtown workforce continues to grow, multi-family developers have also taken notice. Mandel Group and Wangard Partners have multiple plans and projects underway in the East Side, Brady Street neighborhood and Downtown. Developer Rick Barrett has ongoing plans to build a 302-apartment tower with retail and a public concourse near the Lakefront, in what might be the most highlighted residential development discussed this year.

Rick Barrett's Couture development
Rendering of Rick Barrett's Couture Tower (courtesy of Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat)

One of the most notable developments in Milwaukee involves Milwaukee’s very own NBA team, the Milwaukee Bucks. Plans are underway to build a new arena and entertainment district in the Park East, which has long been defined as vacant land since the Park East freeway was demolished. With new owners and pressure from the league to “build a new arena or lose the Bucks,” the City has gone full-steam ahead in its efforts to create a new facility for the team. Plans are to build a multi-phase, mixed-use development to include a Bucks training facility and arena, apartments, office, retail and parking structures on 10 acres.

Rendering of Milwaukee Bucks arena development (courtesy of Populous)

With all of this new development come talks about interconnectedness and transit. After decades of debate and opposition, Milwaukee approved plans this year to build a streetcar that will connect most of the developments listed above. Currently, Milwaukee is one of the densest cities without a fixed rail system. Thus, this advance is likely to have a significant impact on the city, especially retail. Having a streetcar will help capture more residents that otherwise would get in a car and drive to a suburb or somewhere else to do their shopping. This will help emphasize that investment.

While most of these development announcements and updates overshadow retail components, there is no doubt that all of the new developments create a boom in retail activity. With a huge influx of new shoppers in the market, there should be a large demand for retail.

Just when I thought I was done writing this blog…breaking news floods my inbox: “Massive downtown post office sold; redevelopment in the works. Plans to include a grocery store, retail, office and housing.” Milwaukee doesn’t show any signs of slowing down!

C. Matt Chappell | Broker Associate
Mid-America Real Estate – Wisconsin, L.L.C.
648 N. Plankinton Ave., Suite 264 | Milwaukee, WI  53203
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