Brian Jacobson

Whither the Shops of Grand Avenue?

By - Oct 11th, 2010 04:00 am

The problem may not be with fleeing retailers at the Shops of Grand Avenue (a recent re-branded name for the Grand Avenue Mall). The recession hit everyone hard and Milwaukeeans stopped buying so much stuff. After Linen ‘N Things folded and Old Navy scooted, the rent rates were automatically lowered with New-York based owners Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp, so it’s not like a half-assed effort wasn’t made to keep existing clients.

Although the occupancy rate floats around 50 percent, there are occasional retailers moving in such as UWM, Mirage, and Verizon Wireless. A few of the risky-yet-successful stores doing brisk business are first-floor shops like Lids and Nova Urban Fashion that cater to younger, more urban clientele. In addition, the third-floor Food Court is continually busy and becomes packed at noon when conventioneers from skywalk-connected hotels flock to the space.

It should be impressive enough to note some of the anchor stores, even when you discount the bookends of Boston Store and Borders. Grand Avenue has  OfficeMax, TJ Maxx, Walgreen’s, Brew City Beer Gear, and every kind of Foot Locker spin-off imaginable. It has a cute Wild Flour Bakery, a produce stand, a weird Applebee’s, and a nice “Courtyard by Marriott” hotel directly connected.

Across the street on Michigan Avenue, Ziedler Park has a great mid-week farmer’s market. On the other side, the sunglasses cart guy still holds court daily. Plus, they have cool solar-powered trash compacting cans!

And yet the store exodus continues, which makes for a bizarre scene in which a beautiful, recently re-designed public space is rife with abandoned stores.

So what’s the problem? What is it that causes pundits, editorials and blogs to call for Grand Avenue’s death every few months? Remember: the last time everyone said it was finished was in 2002. At that time, the condo-ization and ram’s horn call for neo-yuppies to make downtown their home had not gone out yet. After a re-modeling and re-thinking of the space, Grand Avenue flourished again…briefly.

The recession nonwithstanding, the parking issue ignored, the lack of local landlord leadership forgotten, the issues of public transportation for west neighborhood patrons dismissed, and let’s even forget the misguided high-end storefront ideas of Rocky Marcoux for a moment — the real problem with the Grand Avenue is the lack of imagination and grassroots enthusiasm. If the absentee backers gave the place over to a bunch of top-notch college kids and some hands-off, non-judgemental mentoring from community leaders was available, it would be a place of energy and originality again.

We don’t want to gentrify the place (which city planners would inadvertently do if they had their way), we don’t want to make it just a place for the rich and beautiful to hang out, and we definitely wouldn’t want to kick out the current vendors and shop owners just doing their best.

I’m not saying that City Hall is racist in calling for a different clientele or purpose at the mall. They just look around and see what’s working elsewhere as a gameplan. I do notice, however, that any time the disenfranchised try to populate an event or location, everyone gets nervous. This is why Greek Fest is now at State Fair Park, Riversplash has been cancelled, and the Mayfair Mall has heightened security. The storefront model that works for the Third Ward and in a really weird way for the artificial neighborhood of Bayshore Mall would not work for Wisconsin Avenue.

I want to see the stretch between 300 West to 500 East Wisconsin Avenue to come back to life more than anything, whether by Brady Street model or a N. Milwaukee Street deal. I would even settle for the micro-community revival of Mitchell Street by its populace. But these locations had built-in communities with long histories, and no one has lived downtown for more than a few years. That community is disparate and private.

What would I do if I ran the central hub that is the Grand Avenue? First off, make that parking structure more friendly. It would take some imagination in the enforcement, but currently if you park in the affixed parking structure you have to buy $150 worth of goods to park free and at least $5 to even get a discount.

Next off, bring in the guys that turned around Turner Hall/Riverside/Pabst Theater. Encourage local proprietors to consider the space (imagine if Chartreuse had moved there instead of Brady Street). Hold massive fish fries on Fridays ala the Schlitz Palm Garden. Hold pep rallies for schools playing tournaments nearby, and dammit bring back the Grand Theater. It was a great movie hall and it’s just sitting there. The Marcus Corporation has it’s hands full with plans to build a Park East Corridor luxury model, so I say let the Landmark people take it over the beautiful, misbegotten venue.

Finally, the new owners have to stop bringing in chains that think only of the bottom line then flee when the whim hits them.

That being said, the biggest mistake the landlords ever made was based on the rumor that Target would move into the entire western half of the eastern building. It worked for downtown Minneapolis, Chicago, Brooklyn, and soon for Seattle and San Francisco…so don’t tell me it couldn’t work here.

Categories: Commentary, News to You

0 thoughts on “Whither the Shops of Grand Avenue?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    A major major death sentence for the Mall, was shutting off Wisconsin Avenue as an entry point for some of the stores. They might as well have mounted a sign that read: Keep Out! We don’t want your kind. I was there when that placed opened and the mood was really whitebread, sort of a Disneyland for pale faces…I love shopping Boston Store before or after the lunch hour…there’s no one there and I have the place to myself…

  2. Anonymous says:

    Move the Childrens Museum to the Mall!

    The recent articles surrounding O’Donnell park’s and what looks more and more like a push to demolish the park and sell off the property to the highest bidder often omit the fact that both the Betty Brinn Children Museum and Coast call that structure home.

    Just think of the potential if the childrens museum moved downtown. Grand Avenue could be turned into a destination for Milwaukee families that might also attract retailers looking to cater to them. Plus, for visiting families or staying in downtown hotels the childrens museum would be a great place for the kids to burn of energy. Mom and dad’s coming to conventions might decide to bring the whole family to Milwaukee for a mini-vacation. Plus, there are a number of buses arriving near the location making it accessible for most of Milwaukee. Plus, there is already ample parking.

    Perhaps we shouldn’t always think that the solution to our mall problem lies in a retailer.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Ryan, I do think that would be a great idea; I was pushing the boundaries of article space even though I had many more ideas (I like Urban Milwaukee’s advocating more plants like a greenhouse similar to Cleveland’s Galleria Mall).

    The fact of the matter is that Grand Avenue did have some non-retailer businesses like the International Clown Hall of Fame (moved to Baraboo) and WUWM (moved over to Chase Tower). Even if it was plausible for colleges, museums, or a ton of other things moved in — there will always be issues Milwaukee faces that other densely downtown populated cities do not face — not to mention other cities have public transport that focuses people to get out of their cars like Chicago’s El.

    We are also a town in which once we have one, why do we need another? Could a fitness center work in the lower Plankinton quarter? Yes. But we have the YMCA, so why would anyone make another? Renaissance Books does 10x better at their airport location. Why not move in at Grand? Because its a matter of rent, I imagine.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Brian – I wasn’t critcizing your article. Just throwing out an idea. People (mainly rich land developers) have been quick to hypothesize what will happen to O’Donnell Park, but I’ve heard little talk about the tenants now there. I must admit the matter is a bit more personal for me since my wife works at the children’s museum, but still few have discussed just where this institution of Milwaukee will end up if O’Donnell park is sold. Grand Avenue seems like a possible solution if people were open-minded enough.

    I love any idea that would revitalize that space, keep it local, and make it a destination.

    Let’s make it an urban garden

  5. Anonymous says:

    That parking system is a mall killer. If more than 20 people are shopping in the place, it can take 20 minutes to get out.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Bringing in “the guys that turned around Turner Hall/Riverside/Pabst Theater” would be a great idea if the Shops of Grand Avenue was a tax-exempt nonprofit funded by a sugar daddy willing to lose $4 million or more per year, as those venues do.

    I’m all for seeing the Grand Avenue rejuvenated, but as long as metro Milwaukee is hyper-segregated and suburbanites with real spending power believe seeing a brown face means they’re in danger, not much will change. If you think I’m an anti-suburban bigot who’s making things up, be white and spend some time in Honkysha County, and I guarantee shocking prejudice will be revealed discreetly but repeatedly and often.

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