Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Can Wisconsin Avenue Be Saved?

A city task force hopes to revive the street but the obstacles are many.

By - Aug 8th, 2013 12:35 pm

More than two years ago, a task force of business leaders was set up by Mayor Tom Barrett to look for ways to “breathe new life” on Wisconsin Avenue west of the river. The task force is led by Godfrey & Kahn real estate attorney Steve Chernof, and includes many Downtown stakeholders.

Meanwhile, Marcus Corp executive Steve Marcus has proposed a $1 million effort to have rotating exhibits of “world-class” public sculpture on the Wisconsin Avenue, as a way of enlivening the avenue. And a group of arts lovers has proposed reclaiming the old Warner/Grand movie theater (212 W. Wisconsin Ave.) and turning it into an arts center.

These are separate efforts, but together they outline the importance of what was long the city’s most-important retail street, but has been in decline for at least 20 years. The biggest problem is arguably the Grand Avenue Mall, which often seems like a ghost town, though the second-floor food court attracts customers and activity.

Grand Ave Food Court

Grand Ave Food Court

Pabst Theater executive director Gary Witt, who brings lots of people Downtown through his management of the Pabst, Riverside Theater and Turner Hall, points to the loss of Daly’s Pen Shop which operated Downtown for decades and will leave the mall in December, consolidating operations at its location on 77th and Burleigh. “To me it’s sad that we Downtown stakeholders as a group couldn’t save the pen shop from relocating.”

But there are also other dead spots, both across the street from and west of the mall.

There’s a perception problem regarding the area, says Ald Nik Kovac, and “perception is reality.” Investors are far more interested in developing on East Wisconsin Avenue and office space costs more east of the river.

About a month ago, Chernof’s group had a two-day retreat to brainstorm ideas.

He says the group is coming up with lots of “great ideas.” Downtown Alderman Robert Bauman is less impressed, and says many of these ideas are too expensive or have been tried before.

Both Bauman and Kovac argue that Wisconsin Avenue is actually in better shape than many people think. For starters, they note, the city spent millions on streetscaping to improve the look of the avenue. “Take a look,” Kovac says. “There are nice planters, nice flowers, smooth sidewalks, it looks fantastic.”

“West Wisconsin doesn’t need radical surgery,” he adds. “There are some great historic buildings there. You just have to fill in a few gaps.”

Posner Building during St. Patrick's Day Parade

Posner Building during St. Patrick’s Day Parade

The biggest gaps, the aldermen say, include the long-empty Posner Building (152 W. Wisconsin Ave.), the surface parking lot on 4th Street across the street from the convention center, and the lot on 8th street across from Central Library.  There was also considerable discussion at the retreat about the old Grand Theatre (212 W. Wisconsin Ave.), which has also been mostly empty for many years.

The result of the retreat, Chernof notes, was to create three action teams to pursue ideas on housing, public spaces and the kinds of businesses that might be attracted to the area. That offers a clue to what are seen as possible ways to revive West Wisconsin Avenue. That includes:

  1. More residential development. More developments like Library Hill Apartments (740 W. Wisconsin Ave.) could bring more people to the area. Kovac points to The Moderne (on Juneau Ave and Old World Third St.). “It’s a great example that you can build west of the river,” he says. The Posner building and the parking lot across from the convention center could be a good places for mixed use developments with street-level retail and residential above. But what’s to attract developers if they’re not interested now? Presumably that’s what Chernof’s action team will examine, “Sometimes when the city has a plan for the area that can make a difference,” Kovac says.
  2. Green spaces. There was discussion about “pocket parks” or perhaps replacing the parking lot on 8th and Wisconsin with a green space. The Central Library, Kovac notes, was “intended to be a vista,” to be seen from a distance, and a park could make that possible. There was also discussion about green spaces or development ideas that somehow connect the avenue to the nearby Pere Marquette and Zeidler parks.
  3. Recruit businesses. But what businesses and why aren’t they already coming to the area?
  4. Less buses. “This issue has come up for the nine years I’ve been alderman,” says Bauman. “It’s because they don’t like the people that buses bring to Wisconsin Avenue. But they couch it as a problem of noise.” Bauman says there might be some freeway flyers that could be moved off the avenue, but in general he’s opposed. “Chicago has 19 bus routes on Michigan Avenue,” he notes. “So buses and high-value property are not inconsistent with each other.”
  5. Sidewalk cafes. This seems like a faint wish at this point, as you’d need restauranteurs interested in doing this. Moreover, Bauman notes, some suggest wider sidewalks would be needed to make this happen, and after spending millions on streetscaping, the city is unlikely to redo the streets again.
  6. Bring the mall’s food court down to street level. This would bring more activity to the street, which would be great, but any changes in the moribund mall depend on its owners. “We can’t do anything without an owner committed to the process,” Chernof notes.
  7. Compress the mall. Build around the eastern portion of the mall, specifically the wonderfully-historic Plankinton Arcade, and de-emphasize or tear down the modern western section and thereby create a smaller but more vibrant retail corridor. Another faint wish that requires visionary owners for the Grand Avenue.
  8. Sell to college kids. “There are more college kids in Milwaukee than in Madison,” Witt notes. Indeed, as I’ve reported, this city has had a 45 percent increase in college grads moving here, besting all but one of 20 cities measured.  “I think we under-serve them,” Witt contends. “I would target college kids with bars, restaurants, computer stores and other retail.”

The question of age did seem to hover over the two-day retreat. “There were maybe three people under the age of 35 there,” Bauman says.

When you look at redeveloped areas like Brady Street or Bay View, much of the emphasis is on bars and restaurants with appeal for younger patrons. Savvy developers like those at Colectivo (formerly Alterra), Mike Eitel and the Lowlands group of restaurants and Scott Johnson and Leslie Montemurro have developed places all over town that bring great activity to the street.

The demographic they tend to serve is also a huge part of the patronage for Witt’s three concert venues which regularly bring crowds Downtown — customers who might well linger if there was a supportive scene of the right bars and restaurants. Rather than trying to rebuild downtown around a failure like the Grand Avenue Mall, why not build around the most obvious success?

Short Take

One overlooked issue: The traditional way for a city to get people Downtown is through tourism. Is Milwaukee’s tourism office, Visit Milwaukee, doing a good enough job attracting conventions to the city? No, answers Gary Witt. “This city is going through changes at a rapid pace and Visit Milwaukee is not changing along with it. The convention center hasn’t been successful at bringing people downtown.”

Photo Gallery

Categories: Murphy's Law

48 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Can Wisconsin Avenue Be Saved?”

  1. bobby says:

    It’s truly a mixture of careless owners that are holding back Wisconsin Ave: The boarded up Posner Building(Johnny V of Mo’s), the Grand Theater(Marcus), The parking lot on 4th(Marcus), and the Grand Theater(who even knows, at this point?).

    This isn’t really an issue that the city can help with by creating a plan. I think that the owners of these properties realize that if they wait long enough, eventually the city will throw money at them to re-do their properties. They should really concentrate on making the properties between Water St. and third street highly desireable and watch it spread in every direction.

    Additionally, it should be more affordable(or free!) to park in the always-empty structure that Grand Avenue Mall uses.

  2. Lincolin says:

    I agree they need more shops here that target students. I think a great store to put on Wisconsin Ave would be a City Target. There are plenty in other cities and it would add to the “City” lifestyle. Being located along Wisconsin Ave, this would service Marquette, UWM, and MSOE stuedents along the 30 bus line rather than having to drive all the way to Miller Park.

  3. Dan Pfeifer says:

    Wisconsin Avenue is a challenge. It’s where a lot of our tradition and businesses lie, particularly east of the river, but there are some real issues west of it that I’m not sure are all that conquerable.

    The biggest one, to me, is navigation and space. Bauman, to me, couldn’t be more wrong about Point #4 — I actually think busses are gentrifying a bit, with the addition of bike racks, the ease of getting to festivals, the UPASS access for college kids and the savings cost-wise. No, it’s not who is on the busses, it’s how many there are on what is basically a two-lane road. You can get away with having that many busses on The Magnificent Mile because there are three lanes going in either direction. Traffic on Wisconsin Avenue gets really, annoyingly mucked up during certain times of the day, and I think that discourages a lot of folks from traversing the street during the daytime. I personally take Wells whenever I can to avoid the busses.

    Even if you limited that, though, any sort of expansion of activities will still create traffic messes. Expand the road and you have less sidewalk, so then folks are less apt to walk from the sparse available parking to wherever they’re going. Expand the sidewalks and it’s even worse for the traffic. And don’t tell me you’re going to find a way to get Wisconsinites out of their cars — we’re not a big enough city for a massive overhaul of our mass transit system, and it’s too uncomfortable for most folks outside during most of the year to separate them from the comfort of their heated vehicles.

    I feel like the avenue is kind of land-locked by the buildings there and just kind of hard to navigate in the age of the SUV. That makes the residential and college appeal ideas sound nice, but I think you have to find the right niche of people, attractions and cost (if you’re targeting college kids, the housing can’t be too expensive).

    It’s a challenge, and it’s one worth trying to figure out, but to do that, you’re going to have to have a group of people willing to do what’s best for the city and not necessarily for themselves or their own businesses … and I don’t have a lot of faith in either the civic or business leaders in this town thinking that way right now.

  4. Shaia says:

    Grand Avenue Mall is more than a problem of perception. It has become an eyesore, strewn with trash and populated by beggars. It’s not pleasant to the eye or one’s sense of well being. The owners of the mall or the vendors could take a broom and clean up once in a while. Especially unpleasant is the entrance area of the old Plankinton Mall. It smells like urine, and looks as if it has not been swept or hosed down in decades. No one wants to frequent a mall that offends the senses. A good place to start is literally cleaning up!

  5. Shaia says:

    Wait a minute!!! Less buses? Gee, this sounds like the owner of Southridge Mall talking! Let’s keep those nasty public transportation riders away! Cars, cars, and more cars, that’s the answer! Milwaukee can be so archaic.

  6. frank says:

    Our downtown has never been a particularly strong shopping area. A century ago it lost business to Mitchell Street and the commercial node at North and MLK, both anchored by popular Schuster’s stores. Later, Capitol Court and Southgate siphoned customers away. Today, Bayshore, Mayfair, Brookfield Square, Southridge and others ensure there simply isn’t going to be a downtown revival built around shopping. The west side of the river needs to envision itself as an extension of the east side of the river. It has reinvented itself as a place to live, work and play–not shop, and that’s the only possible option for Milwaukee’s west bank.

  7. dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    wis. Ave is going the way of Northridge. they failed to control the people as Mayfair has and as a result people will not drive all the way in to down town to go to a place where gangs hang out.
    Might as well put match to it.

  8. BleedingHeart says:

    If the people we’re relying to fix this problem are the same people bemoaning the loss of a pen shop, we’re in deep trouble.

  9. Cassandra says:

    Who really needs retail anymore? Yet, if the spaces aren’t occupied, there is an even greater risk of “questionable activity” occurring. If the mall and neighborhood want to attract more college students and provide entertainment, why not consider adding a bowling alley and miniature golf course to the mall? (Now that’s Wisconsin!) And the older section of the mall would make a great winter garden. Tea and classical during the day, a little more funk at night. I live downtown. Just wishing aloud…

  10. Dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    it is dead horse, tear the whole thing down and let them build apts.

  11. Dan Pfeifer says:

    Shaia: Honestly, as someone who frequents the mall sometimes, I don’t have a problem with the perception or reality. I often park in front of the Plankinton Building (where the parking is free) and walk from there to to the Grand Café for lunch. OK, empty stores, yeah, but I’m not sure where you’re getting this smell from, nor the trash strewn about. You may be looking at the area occupied by what I think is a theater group downstairs — that’s not trash, those are young artists at work and while it’s not necessarily the most sightly thing or as rewarding to a tax base as retail, there are far worse uses of the space. So … not sure what you’re perceiving, or maybe your perceptions jump to some conclusions a bit too quickly.

    As for your feeling about the public transportation … I sense you didn’t read my post, or at least didn’t think it through. The core problem isn’t singularly busses or cars — it’s the lack of space and congestion along the road. Even if we were to try something more forward-thinking, like a trolley or a subway or whatever, it’d still be a mess to try and get around down there, and I really think that’s a large part of what keeps people away.

    Dohnal: I wouldn’t give up so quickly, and I wouldn’t turn it into an “us” and “them” thing. We’re all Milwaukeeans, no matter the color or location. We all have a stake.

    Cassandra: Now there’s some creative thinking, and you’re kind of right about retail somewhat going the way of the Do-Do. But, there is some retail that’s working: Unique restaurant/bar experiences (consider the Grand Café as the only successful part of the mall), smaller, boutique-type stores, etc. Nonetheless, you’re on the right path, and some of that new-economy retail can work with some of what you’re talking about. The key, again, though, will be keeping cost of living low for folks there while still keeping things somewhat gentrified (though hopefully not in a way that seems exclusionary).

  12. dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    When these things go down, they never come back. North Ridges is best example. Knowing Milwaukee I can tell you that people will sit and watch that for the next 30 years and nothing will happen. When AC and Kearney left WA, thy decided, after some years to tear them all down and start over. it worked. You cannot milk a dead cow.

  13. Bruce Thompson says:

    I am surprised (and disappointed) that apparently there was little discussion about how to make the area more bike friendly. The area could be the hub connecting bike trails that enter downtown but then sort of disappear: HAST, 2 beer line trails, north and south lake front trails, the C&NW trail, but it is hard to traverse, particularly during week days. I would like, as a start, to see marked routes with destination signs, similar to Chicago’s.

  14. Tyrell Track Master says:

    Well, I agree with the simple premise – need to develop the gaps. Starting with that massive parking lot across from the convention center AND expanding the convention center. Bring in more conventions, a hotel that connects to the mall… that would do wonders.

  15. Bill Sell says:

    Bicycling into or through downtown is dicey. Paths need to be laid out that are continuous and contiguous; sudden ends of bike paths discourage the bicyclists who would like to rely on a dedicated path. W Wisconsin needs more pedestrians, and if that means fewer cars it does not mean fewer buses. Make the sidewalks wide enough to encourage al fresco planning by restaurants. Narrow the street if necessary and encourage private transportation to use Michigan and Wells Street. Bikes and buses work together fairly harmoniously (the huge learning curve of ten years ago is history). So design Wisconsin Ave for buses, bicycles, perhaps multiple passenger cars.

    A bus will replace 30 cars, which means more buses will reduce congestion. And traffic design (calming) measures will encourage motorists traveling through to try parallel streets that are faster. Buses also allow the riders to get on and off on a whim, without looking for parking. This kind of interaction with the urban space is more desirable than trying to park more cars (which themselves take up valuable retail space). Congestion of competing businesses is good for business; congestion of autos is counterproductive.

  16. Dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    It all sounds great, but the fact is that we ahve few months for bikes. I bike every day, coached racing for three decade but there simply is not enough people doing that and no one doe that to go shopping. People are going to places where they can park for free and walk into the store. if you think that you can change that??
    If you want to improve downtown you need more people living downtown, but most developers do not want to deal with Milwaukee and its nutty CC. I built and ran apts. for years and they are terrible to deal with, so I got out.
    You need a change of attitude on the govnermetn. if you spend all your time condemning business and the 1% people that build it, no wonder they go to Waukesha cty where they are welcome and treated with respect.
    If Milwaukee wants to spend money on that, bike paths and more buses, be our guest but it will not work. do not try to stick us with the bill.

  17. dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    Bring in more conventions, hate to tell you but those thing are rapidly becoming things of the past. Too much cost and too much time. With modern communications most of this can be done by TV and other methods. Every year conventiosn go down hill. Big meetings are out.
    Take a look at how WA rebuilt.

  18. Juan Milwaukee says:

    Easy solution! Has anyone else noticed that the modern west section of the Grand Avenue could be retrofitted to house an IKEA? This destination retailer would bring mass crowds and revive this area of Downtown. And move all current retailers to the beautiful Plankinton section, including the food court, with outside entrances and cafe seating along Wisconsin Ave. This will bring more retail, life and excitement to the area.

  19. Bill Kissinger says:

    Not to get all wonky about things, but one of the problems facing Wisconsin Avenue is its orientation. In our climate, EW streets have a less appealing microclimate than do NS streets. This is because in winter, when the sun is S of the equator, the street is in shadow all day, making it dark and cold. In the summer, when the sun is overhead for most of the day, there is no shade to be had and people bake.
    This is a big part of why pedestrian oriented streets that run NS, such as the Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis, Water Street in Milwaukee and the 16th Street Mall in Denver have succeeded, while those running EW, like Wisconsin Avenue have not. What about Brady Street, you say? Well the above described microclimate is most important when buildings are over 4 stories. Since Brady street is mainly a 2 story street, the impact of orientation is not a problem.

    This matters when people start to talk about al fresco dining, cart vendors, pocket parks and the like.

  20. Dave K. says:

    I’d like to see Wisconsin Ave east of the river turned into a pedestrian zone walking mall, similar to State Street in Madison or Santa Monica. Close the street to automobile traffic from 6th to Water (leave it open to buses and bikes!) and reroute the auto traffic to Michigan and Wells. I agree that downtown Milwaukee will never again be a 1980-1990s style mall like Bayshore or Mayfair – times have changed. Clearly I’m not going to fight traffic and parking to drive downtown to pick up a gallon of milk and a bottle of laundry soap, but I will go to an exciting vibrant location that plays off the theater, museums, and other attractions of downtown. Create a TIF or BID that would focus on exciting restaurants, unique local shops, and other businesses that you can’t find elsewhere. We don’t need anymore Walgreens or Dollar Stores. There are plenty of those around.

    The City Target is actually a pretty good use for some of that open space in the Grand Ave., and it would attract students to the walking mall/pedestrian zone concept.

  21. Steve Filmanowicz says:

    West Wisconsin Avenue is really a frustrating mix of negatives and, yes, positives. On balmy Saturday afternoons, guests of the handful of hotels on or off the avenue (several of them renovated or at least spruced up in the last few years) can be found trickling down the avenue — joined by service workers, transit riders and a smattering of students.

    Beyond the surface lots, dark storefronts and far fewer security grates than 20 years ago, these visitors can actually find some things to see and do as they stroll. There’s a Starbucks and Miller-Time Pub; a respectable department store (still hanging on, year by year), major office & computer supply outlet, premier steak house chain and an Applebee’s; plus a Walgreen’s, a TJ Maxx, a big chain gym (plus YMCA four flights up), Subway, Potbelly’s and the fairly lively Mo’s Irish Pub in the moribund (but let’s not overstate the case) Posner Building. On some nights, there’s even buzz-worthy national musical acts playing the Riverside.

    Sure, there may be little that’s delightful here. (The pen shop was sweet, but seriously, how important is a pen these days??) But as an example of urban street life, West Wisconsin Ave. is far from a lost cause. You can walk blocks and blocks from hotels in downtown Atlanta and not find anything half as inviting. In Austin or Charlotte, you’ll likely find a similar mix of good and bad.

    But what to do about the painful sense of inertia that hangs about the street? Among the many momentum busters being considered by the task force, I’d have to put my fingers on the the confused identity and the conflicting signals the area sends to potential investors. Much of the infrastructure there is geared towards intended high-volume users (mall, convention center, class B & C office cluster) whose days of greatest influence are in the past. Meanwhile, as Bruce and others have noted, the energy behind the resurgence of most formerly troubled urban streets comes more from fine-grained sidewalk commerce, often fueled by creative former punk-DIY developers such as Scott Johnson, Leslie Montemurro, Mike Eitel or even the Colectivo folks.

    It’d be interesting to hear what some of these entrepreneurs would say if asked “What would it take for you to open your next place on West Wisconsin?” I assume the answer would have something to do with more signals that the avenue is a real neighborhood with its own heartbeat. More housing will help, along with the hotels. It will also make a difference for the street to do more to invite random visits of all kinds, versus destination trips to things like the Auto Show. The improved sidewalks and planters make for a pretty hospitable pedestrian realm. But for drivers, much of the time it’s hard to imagine a more challenging spot in town to try to stop for a cup of coffee, a burger or a quick dash to buy a pair of shoes. Few seem to think such a trip justifies checking into one of the area’s abundant parking structures. Like Ald. Baumann, I think it’d be a mistake to go too far in scaling back transit service on the street, but the bumper-crop of bus stops everywhere are part of the area’s problem with over-scaled infrastructure. It means there are lots of storefronts where there’s no chance of pulling up and parking your car, without risking a ticket for bus-zone parking. Much, much worse are the twice-daily rush-hour parking bans, whose toxic effects on sidewalk commerce are felt up and down Wisconsin Avenue, east and west of the river. The ban is a burden that very few other streets in Milwaukee has to bear. So it takes a brave soul to open a coffee shop or a place like the sushi shop on 2nd and Wisconsin or the African restaurant closer to Broadway knowing that the parking spots in front of your business become illegal between 6 and 9 a.m. and 3 and 6 p.m. every week day?

    On his way riding to and from events throughout the city, my old boss, former Mayor John Norquist used to pass the time scanning mixed-use streets for stretches where street parking was unnecessarily restricted (and OK, doing some crossword puzzles too). Think loading zone signs in front of long-closed businesses, or dedicated right-turn lanes on formerly busy streets. He wound up helping to create well over 1000 “new” on-street parking spots this way. He’s alway said that storefront businesses don’t really need ALL of their customers to find easy parking just steps from their doors; they just need customers to think they have a shot at one of the spots out front. That’s enough to keep most customers coming back, but it’s not a dependable part of the daily equation on West Wisconsin. Some day, downtown’s Main Street may be as successful as Brady Street and won’t have to worry about such mundane matters, but doing away completely with rush hour restrictions would be an easy positive step, sending a subtle-but-strong message that the street is open for the small businesses it needs. There is plenty of capacity on downtown streets and if things congest a bit, traffic will figure out that Wells and Michigan streets are perfectly good routes, just one block away.

  22. Tom D says:

    Bill Sell, the current Wisconsin Avenue bus setup doesn’t really allow people to “get on and off on a whim” because of its bus stop layout.

    Wisconsin Avenue is home to seven major MCTS bus routes. Five routes run on Wisconsin between at least 12th & Jackson/Van Buren, and two more run from 17th to 2nd. With so many buses on the Avenue, you’d think someone with a bus pass could hop on and off at will, but you usually can’t.

    Most buses bypass any given Wisconsin Avenue bus stop. When you wait for a bus on Wisconsin, chances are one or more buses will slide past without stopping before a bus stops for you. And when you get off the bus, you may run into the same thing again, with your bus bypassing your block and maybe even the next one before it stops again.

    At rush hour, Wisconsin has 8 additional routes, but all are Freeway Flyers or Route 143 (Ozaukee County) and none of these extra buses carry anybody between downtown stops

    Finally, there is the problem of speed–Wisconsin Avenue buses average as little as 6 mph. For example, it is 1.5 miles from the Downtown Transit Center to 12th and Wisconsin, and Route 12 takes up to 15 minutes for those 1.5 miles. (By comparison, the streetcar is expected to average nearly 9 mph in part because of off-vehicle fare collection.)

    Between the time you spend waiting for a bus to actually stop for you and then the bus’ slow speed, walking is usually faster.

    Something should be done to speed up east-west downtown buses. Not only would faster bus service encourage more transit use (and increase MCTS revenue), but it would also save LOTS of operating expense.

    Route 12 has about 1,100 one-way trips along Wisconsin Avenue each week. If we could somehow shave 3 minutes off each run (is 7.5 mph asking too much?), Route 12 would reduce its operating expense by over $300,000 per year (at $111/hour the actual MCTS operating cost for 2011).

    And if you get similar savings from the other 6 Wisconsin Avenue bus routes, you’d save several million dollars annually–money that could be used to improve bus service, stave off other bus cuts, or be used for other County programs.

  23. dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    Buses are not problem. go to Mayfair, south ridge etc and see how many people come by bus?? You have to get suburban housewives down there and that will not happen.

  24. Dan Pfeifer says:

    Steve: You expressed my point, but far more eloquently. Agree wholeheartedly and think you’re spot on.

  25. Steve Filmanowicz says:

    Kissinger has a point about the shadowy micro-climate on higher-rise east-west streets, but not lower-rise streets such as Brady. The sun that pours in the front window of Brewed cafe on Brady (sheltered by an awning during warmer months) has helped draw me back back for hundreds of cups of coffee.

  26. Tom D says:

    Dave K, I like your suggestion for turning Wisconsin into a pedestrian/transit mall. If we did that, and gave Wisconsin Avenue buses (and emergency vehicles) the ability to override traffic signal, we could speed up bus service thereby making it more attractive, increasing ridership and revenue, and reducing operating costs by a million or more per year (see my prior post).

    The traffic signals could work like this: NS traffic would normally have a green signal and Wisconsin Avenue would have red lights. Bus stops would be located at mid-block or at the “far corner”. Buses would carry transponders (sort of like I-Passes). A transponder reader would be located on each block just past any bus stop (or in mid-block if no bus stop).

    When a bus moved beyond the bus stop, the NS signal would change to yellow and then red so that the Wisconsin Avenue bus would have a green. Immediately after the bus clears the intersection (assuming no other bus is approaching), the Wisconsin signal would change to yellow and then red so that the NS street could get it’s green back as soon as possible.

    Throughout all this, the pedestrian signals would normally say “DONT WALK” in all directions. If pedestrian(s) wanted to cross, they would push a button. Normally I hate these “pedestrian detector” buttons, but these would work differently. Pushing the button to cross Wisconsin would normally (if no approaching bus) produce an immediate WALK signal. Pushing the light to cross the NS street would normally (assuming the NS street has had enough “green time”) immediately cause the NS signal to turn yellow and then red.

    The bottom line in all this is that NS streets would have more “green time” than today, Wisconsin Avenue buses would operate faster (and cheaper) than today, and pedestrians would spend less time waiting for traffic signals.

  27. J says:

    The main problem, as evident by most of the comments on this article, is there are far too many people in Milwaukee pushing old, non-viable, or closeted bigoted ideas. There are a lot of comments here about taking away buses or gangs in the grand avenue mall that, to most people under the age of 40, seem just plain ignorant and ridiculous. Gangs of teenagers walking through the mall does not equal a “Gang.” Considering the typical demographic that frequents the grand it just sounds like some of you are scared of black and latino kids whom, if they are even in the grand in the first place, are probably on their way to class or work.

    Stopping the buses because some of you don’t want ‘those people’ visible on Milwaukee’s main downtown avenue sounds just as bigoted and exclusionary now as when it first came out of your mouth. Pushing people you don’t like out is not how you grow a city and make it vibrant, quite the opposite in fact.

    As for the aesthetic and other points being made: This is how you fix Wisconsin avenue guaranteed.
    1. The malls retail should be open onto the street. The cold in Wisconsin is not nearly as much a deterrent people think.
    2.Retail should focus on the needs of the demographics of the area, not suburban soccer moms, and it should be highly skewed towards restauranteering and entertainment. As nice and nostalgic as a pen shop may have been what in the world does a 25 year old need an expensive pen for when they have an android or iphone with voice recognition? Same applies for a lot of the retail in the mall and around it not useful nor unique for the most part.
    3. Beautiful but dilapidated and empty buildings like the Posner should have been made into affordable apartments or co-working spaces long ago. ‘Mo’ ought to be ashamed of himself letting such a building go to waste in such a prime location. Even a boutique hotel above the bar would change the area dramatically.
    People are about convenience, extra especially people under 40. That is why walgreens on Wisconsin Ave is the only successful stable retail on that section of Wisconsin. If people have enough convenient choices a block away or downstairs from their downtown apartment they are not going to get in a car and drive to mayfair, bayshore or southridge, period, unless they absolutely have to. If you increase the density of people living downtown you automatically increase the commerce.
    If the city can claim imminent domain on a home owner they can do the same with business owners on Wisconsin who don’t hold up their part of the bargain to do everything they can to draw people to the area and keep them there. Beyond that, why does a company like Marcus Corp even own a historic grand downtown theater if they aren’t going to do anything with it? That kinda complacency is what has held Milwaukee back for 30 years. If Marcus was a real forward thinking entertainment company, like say, AEG Live literally turned a semi-desolate part of LA into the California version of time square with the Staples Center and LA Live developments. The downtown grand theatre would have been a movie/entertainment/cultural destination a long time ago.

    4. The Brady and water street examples are the best. The businesses and property owners need to work together to make things a success and the more locally owned businesses you have in an area the more serious the area takes it’s development. The reason why cities like NYC and the like are so successful economically, isn’t just because they are huge megalopolises but because they are huge cities made up of dozens of dozens of self sustaining relatively self sufficient neighborhoods.

  28. Angela says:

    Pedestrian mall is a magnificent idea! Also CITY TARGET STORE – YES!!!

  29. Jesse says:

    Everyone, enough with the ped mall idea.

    Closing a street to traffic & creating a pedestrian mall only succeeds if the area already has a huge amount of foot traffic, bicyclists & other users. Otherwise, you’re just eliminating needed visibility & creating a barrier (real or perceived) to the people who drive to patronize the area.

    Great ideas J, this stuff isn’t cutting edge & doesn’t need to be. This has worked before, works now in other areas & will work on West WI Ave.

  30. Steve Filmanowicz says:

    Dan, I completely agree with you for shining a spotlight on how easy or hard it is for people to visit this area (and indirectly on the calculation that would-be business owners make regarding how easy or hard it will be to draw potential customers there), even though I’m less concerned with how slowly traffic moves through the area. It moves pretty slowly on Brady Street too. Similar to you, I find myself making impulse trips to TJ Maxx and Boston Store on Saturdays when I’ll usually find a free spot outside the Plankinton Arcade or west of Office Max. Since I work at 12th and WI, during the week, there’s nothing easier than hopping one of the buses heading down the avenue every 3-4 minutes. It’s amazing how few Marquette employees think of doing this, but thankfully, students are another story.

  31. peter says:

    The main problem starts and ends with Bob Robert Bauman and Tom Barrett and others that think like them. He has built a very anti business climate downtown, rejecting businesses that don’t comply with the “historic” climate. The taxes and cost are ridiculous for a business to succeed. The needs of the people that live, work, and run businesses downtown are set aside for his partisan political agenda.

  32. Dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    Groups of teenagers are a gang and they tend to intimidate women especially as they saunter around the mall, never buying anything. The ruined North Ridge. Women would drive in the parking lot and if their were gangs standing around, some of them panhandling people would not get out of car. .Talked to merchants up there. women from Ozaukee cty would drive in, see these groups, and turn around drive out never to be seen again. They had a problem at Mayfair they moved on it. Gangs of kids, all colors would walk down the mall side by side and not give way to anyone, thinking it to be a fun thing to do. They would make comments to women. That is why they busted them up. Grand Ave and North ridge did not and they are done.
    If there was some magical answer it would have been thought of and done. In Minneapolis they busted that up right away.
    It is too late, and all of these things talked about here have been talked about forever. They do not work. all of the genius leftwingers around should put their money out there once. Become a 1%er. Group together and buy Grand Ave, it is probably very cheap, and put bike trails leading to there. Glad it is Milwaukee problem cause we moved on solutions in Tosa and they worked.

  33. Dave Reid says:

    @Peter What businesses were rejected by Bauman or Barrett because they didn’t comply with the “historic” climate?

  34. Mike Bark says:

    The biggest problem Wisconsin Avenue has is we keep looking to the same people who’ve been leaders in that area for answers. Newsflash, they don’t have answers.

    Perhaps they should talk to the people who have made the Village area of Wauwatosa into a destination. Maybe the people that are making the East Tosa area a new hot spot. How about the leaders in the Bay View area?

    Instead it’s the usual suspects we’re asking for a solution.

  35. peter says:

    @Dave Reid Mariott Hotel. Source:

    Buyer’s Season Source:

    Also the strongest proponent for the streetcar that goes nowhere and will do nothing but raise costs to downtown and Milwaukee.

    Let me ask you this question in return, why do you think businesses are not investing and actually moving out of the areas near the Grand Ave Mall (Old Navy, Linen and Things, Marshal Fields, Barnes and Noble, Chocolate Factory, Famous Footwear, …shall I continue because there are several more)?

  36. peter says:

    I gotta show some love to Tom Barrett too who lost Kohl’s to downtown Milwaukee

  37. Mike Bark says:

    Put more simply:

    The most successful restaurant owners we have that have been critical to developing neighborhoods are the Alterra guys, The people behind Benelux, Hollander etc, The SURG restaurant group and the people behind HomeyPie and Comet. All these owners have helped transform certain areas into destination spots.

    The thing they all have in common is none of them have touched Wisconsin Avenue. Maybe it’s time to figure out why.

  38. Dave Reid says:

    @Peter Um the Marriott Hotel is open (figured you were thinking about that one), they did save some of the facades, and it actually moved through the city very fast (faster than many a project), but I wouldn’t expect Jeff Wagner to report that. And quite frankly it was longstanding policy, not of Bauman’s or Barrett’s but decades old law that the developers wanted to get around.

    In regards to Buy Season it had nothing to do with “historic” regulations as you pointed to, and interestingly enough it was Ald. Donovan (isn’t he supposed to be the conservative?) who lead the charge in opposing the land sale. And again it was longstanding policy that has played a role in bringing thousand of jobs back to the Valley that Buy Seasons didn’t meet not some whim. The land was only even viable to develop because of actions by the City of Milwaukee.

    Bauman (as does Mayor Barrett) also represented the Third Ward which has seen a massive increase in: tax base, retail (very high-end), and residents. And imposes very strict historical and architectural standards on the area. Why are businesses moving in and investing here?

    Ummm the streetcar passes through the highest population density in Wisconsin, the highest job density in Wisconsin, multiple entertainment districts, and connects with multi-mode transit options… Hardly nowhere.

  39. East Slider says:

    I have to admit, I really haven’t paid much attention to that end of downtown for many years. Two events stick out in my mind. First was when a guy I worked with was walking into the Clark building, which I think is on about 7th and Wisco. A couple of clowns jumped him to mug him in broad daylight and no one in the vicinity bothered to stop them until a lawyer who worked for a law firm in the building came out and helped break it up! That was probably 15 years ago, maybe more. Then, maybe 8 or 10 years ago I had to go to the Social Security office to apply for a new SS card after I’d lost mine and had a hell of a time just getting around that part of downtown, everything was one way or “no right turn here” or “no left turn here”, etc. Just a total PITA getting around down there. Beyond those bad memories, I have little reason to go there in the first place. What’s left at the Grand Avenue anyway? I don’t wear wigs, so no need for that-which from what I remember is in abundance down there-right?

    What I would suggest is just don’t fall for anything that makes it less car-friendly! I know, Milwaukee has a large population of those utopians who pine for the car-free world of their dreams but there’s no quicker route to obsolescence and desolation than the “no cars allowed” route!

  40. John Cocktoasten says:

    Barrett missed a big opportunity when he was unable to bring the Kohls corporate headquarters to downtown. They grand ave could’ve been remodeled to acommendate offices on the top floors and the street level could’ve been made into a signature store. Kohls employees a lot of young talent that lives downtown and along with the clients that visit the corporate office their could’ve added a luxury hotel and more restaurants. It really could’ve have given the MKE the younger vibe it needs downtown.

  41. Patrick says:

    Why doesn’t Kohls put a flagship store downtown?

  42. Chris Jacobs says:

    Property tax and costs to operate is too high downtown. Passing that cost to the consumer isn’t reasonable for the average Kohls consumer who expect deals of products at low price points, and not high end pricing. The same would be true of a Target or Walmart in the area, which might be sustainable in Chicago, San Francisco, or Seattle, but not here. The economic risks and liabilities here do not outweigh the potential benefits.

  43. Mike Bark says:

    John Cocktoasten,

    First off, great Fletch reference,

    Kohls also employees a ton of people who aren’t “young creatives” who don’t want to live downtown because they have families and such. My guess is if they though they NEEDED to go downtown to attract the talent required to run their company, they’d be there already.

    The biggest problem is one can see how Milwaukee will attempt to address this issue. They will convene a task force that will include Gary Grunau, Ian Abston, Jeremy Fojut, Julia Taylor, Beth Weirick, Steve Marcus, Rich Meeusen, Jeff Sherman and all the other people they always ask for insight on this and at the end of the day nothing will get done. Maybe we’ll get a trendy ad campaign like cya downtown.

    Meanwhile, the people who are actually building up areas will be left out.

    If you want to know how to build up an office space it might behoove people to talk to the managers of Summit Place in West Allis who repurposed a factory and has nearly a 100% occupancy rate. If you want to know how to create an entertainment district we have plenty of people who are good at that. If you want to know why young professional businesses are going to places like Summit Place instead of downtown it might be worth asking them.

  44. chris says:

    I remember hearing during the licensing committee hearing when the owner of Silk wanted to get a liquor and dance license for a place just off Wisconsin Ave. Opponents said it would hurt the stores on Wisconsin Ave, owner replied, ‘they’re pretty much dead now’. That’s NOT want the alderman’s wanted to hear !

    What I really would like to know is; Are we just going to end up throwing tax money at it ?

  45. Forward says:

    I am glad that West Wisconsin is getting more attention lately and I think it is starting to come up. New hotels have opened, and there are more businesses there now than there were at the street’s lowest point. Ultimately, we need to find business people and developers to invest in this location. If you build it they will come. And I am not talking about the mall. The mall should not be synonymous with the WW. The mall has its own challenges. Here are some random thoughts as I read everyone’s comments:

    I find it ironic that this part of downtown, Third and Wisconsin, used to BE the entertainment center of the city. The number of night clubs, theaters, bars and restaurants were notorious. The city actually went on a campaign to rid the city of the problems they saw with all of this activity. Then urban renewal hit and you have the blue box federal building and its parking garages. You have the convention center knocking down the Belmont hotel building. Etc. Etc. All of this development has created deadzones after 5pm. I think it is right to view this area more as a neighborhood and create density so that residents can become a core group of consumers that will also talk “ownership” of the area because they are invested in it.

    I am also concerned about the talk of taking a match to the whole neighborhood and rebuilding from scratch. This is why historic preservation is so important. It not only ties us to our history, it provides authenticity. It provides a sense of place that is genuine. Unlike some posters here, I only go out to the suburbs when absolutely necessary. To me, driving twenty minutes each way is a waste of time and money. It is a chore that must be done so I can move on to the next chore. Conversely when I shop, work and play downtown or in the city’s neighborhoods, I discover things, learn things, am confronted by things that were unexpected which adds to the experience of being there.

    My fear in finding a solution for WW, is that the place becomes more bland and sterile. Blocks and blocks of sterile blue cubes, faux brick facades, and EIFS incrusted buildings. In other words lets not look to the suburbs for design sense or what “works” out there to try and lure the soccer mom downtown. She is already not coming downtown. Instead lets work with what we have and demand quality and inspired developments. I think the City Target or an IKEA would be great, but let’s not pack the corridor with only national chains. We need to inspire local developers and businesses to create inspired places that make WW unique as well. Once WW is bustling again the suburban mothers will come back.

    I think this is true for parking as well. If we view WW as just the mall, then we look at the parking situation as a problem. (What would we give now to have the Plankington Hotel back instead of the empty parking structure behind the mall!). However if WW is the place to be, people will FIND parking. They will walk a few blocks. This is already happening now on the East Side, Brady Street, Bay View, Third Ward, etc. People go to these parts of town because they are inspired, dense places, and you accept that comes with some parking hassles. City living is partly about accepting hassles. We are not the suburbs and we should embrace that!

    PS – Does anyone else miss Cafe Melange? This lounge used to be in the Hotel Wisconsin. They had entertainment almost every night, and the decor was from the twenties or thirties. When the new owner came in and made it into apartments/condos they just ripped the place out, presumably to get some national chain to rent the space at higher rents. Unfortunately the space has been vacant now for decades, and now adds to the perception that no one comes down to this area anymore. We used to go there all the time. These kinds of places are what we need to encourage, not discourage.

  46. Eric S says:

    As others have mentioned, specifically aiming to draw suburban shoppers back to downtown is not the right course of action, and is almost certainly bound to fail. Parking will never be free and plentiful (like at suburban shopping centers) and traffic will almost certainly continue to (at least be perceived to) be slower and more congested than many suburban areas. It’s unlikely that one mega/super project will be the answer to reviving W. Wisconsin Ave., but rather a number of individual, smaller projects and changes. But I will leave to others to suggest the proper or desired retail/office/residential mix for the street/neighborhood.

    As far as the design of the street goes, again, the aim should not be to make it easier to drive. The goal should be to improve the pedestrian experience. Downtown is a walkable, urban area, not auto-oriented suburbia. The current rush hour parking restrictions seem unnecessary. They are not adequately enforced, so they do not serve the intended purpose of adding two additional traffic lanes during rush hour. Removing the rush hour parking restrictions (in other words, allowing parking during rush hours) may prove beneficial to area businesses. In addition, that would allow curb extensions at crosswalks (although given the relatively recent reconstruction of the street, such major physical changes are probably unlikely anytime soon).

    Regarding transit service, the first consideration should be improving the experience for the transit rider. It probably does not make sense to remove the full-service bus routes (10, 12, 23, 30, 31, Blue) from Wisconsin Ave. Moving the rush-hour flyer routes from Wisconsin Ave. to Michigan St. (or another east-west street) may well make some sense.

  47. Paul says:

    I’m not convinced that traffic on Wisconsin is a major problem. As was pointed out, Wells is an option. There are others. As long as there are other streets to take, why not make Wisconsin more pedestrian and café-friendly? Adding ‘peninsula’s’ at various points along the street, with pedestrian crossing speed bumps, would give more sidewalk space at multiple places without expensive changes.

    I also like the suggestion about reduced charges for parking at the Grand Avenue Mall during low use periods. Thatg will encourage foot traffic to the area.

  48. Dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    why would people think that making access more difficult to cars will produce more pedestrians?? Never happens. this only happens if there are lots of pedestrains to start in area.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us