Whither the Shops of Grand Avenue?
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.
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.