Michael Horne
House Confidential

Alaa Musa’s Penthouse Condo

Casablanca restaurant owner lives in style at very urban 601 Lofts, where John Ernst Restaurant's customers once parked.

By - Mar 31st, 2014 01:48 pm
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601 Lofts

601 Lofts

The 1,554 square foot penthouse condominium of Alaa Musa, owner of the the Casablanca restaurant, is among the 80 units in the 601 Lofts, a luxury condominium building constructed in 2006, though not completed until several years later. The 10-story structure, located at the southeast corner of E. Ogden Ave. and N. Jackson St., was built on the parking lot of the former John Ernst Restaurant, and there’s quite a story behind that lot.

Prior to its service as a surface lot, the property had an industrial use as an ice cream factory. The Luick company specialized in the frozen dessert as early as 1905. By 1920 it was cranking out 1.5 million gallons annually from its plant complex, which included the neighboring Van Buren City Lofts with its 16,000 pound capacity freight elevator. The Luick company spent a great deal of time and money on elevators in its multi-story factory complex. Mixed in were an office building, barber shop, stores, barns, sheds, horses and byproducts.

But by 1951 the old factory was outdated, and fell into the hands of investor George Bockl who always had a thing for distressed real estate. Wiro Drugs, a wholesale concern, rented space in the building. In 1956 the inspector was alarmed to find out-of-whack beams, corroded reinforcements, bulging walls and a heavy concrete floor improvidently poured over a wooden one that was likely the source of the problems. In 1957, the structure was underpinned, and the second, third and fourth floors were vacated. A 1958 fire caused $300 in damage to the structure. By 1960 it held the Standard Unit Parts company. The firm installed a conveyor belt without a permit. In the same year, the fire escape had broken treads.

By the early 1970s the building was gone, and a never-built retail store surrounded by a 62-car parking lot was proposed. In 1974 Ernst installed 280 feet of 6 foot high fence around the lot. This artifact remained until the property was developed by former Assemblyman Scott Fergus in 2006. At some point it took the name 601 Lofts. But by 2008, Fergus had filed for bankruptcy, listing $80 million in debts and precious little in assets. He left behind this project and First Place on the River (now known as Point on the River), a riverfront building in Walker’s Point. Both buildings were in partially-finished condition, and languished on the market until 2010 when developer Michael Dilworth bought 16 units of 601 Lofts for $2.2 million. Only six of them were in finished condition.

The building’s units appear to be entirely sold, although some early owners, who paid full price, find themselves still underwater. One unit on the 8th floor was sold in 2007 for $214,000 and is now valued at $160,000. The neighboring unit, substantially identical, was not sold until 2013, when it brought $161,250. It, too, is assessed at $160,000.

The Musa unit, which is listed by the city as owner occupied, is held by AIM Investments LLC, a holding company that also controls the Casablanca Restaurant, 728 E. Brady St. It has 1,554 square feet, two bedrooms, two full bathrooms and one half-bath and two deeded parking spaces. The property is valued at $3,800 for its 1.27052% of land value of the complex, with the improvements taxed at $416,200 for a total of $420,000. The assessment was the same in 2012, but the land then was valued at $5,500 and the improvements at $414,500. Why the assessor feels land is less valuable in 2012 than in 2013 in this booming neighborhood is not for me to say. Taxes on the property are $13,310 and are paid in full.

About Alaa Musa

Alaa I. Musa is one of the family owners of Casablanca Restaurant, which has been at 728 E. Brady St. since 2005. The restaurant, on the site of the original Children’s Hospital, at the northwest corner of N. Cass St., was greatly expanded in 2012 with a second floor banquet facility and other amendments. It is one of the few restaurants in town to do three turns a day. The lunch business and buffet brings in an early crowd. Dinner brings out the family crowd, and then at night the place turns into a club and bellydances its way into the early morning hours. Musa is in the process of opening a restaurant at 601 W. Wisconsin Ave., and was an applicant for a City of Milwaukee Taxicab license, but don’t expect him to paint his black Mercedes yellow any time soon. The expansion of Casablanca cost over $1 million. How was it financed? I don’t know, but I imagine all it took was for one of the Musa brothers to sell one of their cars. My goodness, there are some fancy cars at Casablanca.

Musa is one of the candidates for the Man and Woman of the Year Award of the Lymphoma and Leukemia Society of Milwaukee. [Here is his entry page.] Musa is also the 2014 Chair of the Brady Street Business Improvement District #11.

The Rundown

  • Location: City of Milwaukee
  • Neighborhood: Yankee Hill
  • Year Built: 2006
  • Style: Apartments
  • Size: 1,554 square feet
  • Fireplaces: 0
  • Taxes: $13,310.49 Paid in Full
  • Assessment: Land $3,800 [1.27052% of total parcel] Improvements $416,200; Total: $420,000.
  • Walk Score: 89 out of 100, “Very Walkable” Seems too low a ranking.
  • Transit Score: 65 out of 100, “Good Transit.” Ditto.
  • Street Smart Walk Score:  95 out of 100, “Walker’s Paradise.” That’s more like it! The Y-Not II is clearly visible from many units.

How Milwaukee Is It? The residence is .7 mile from City Hall. It is a half mile from Casablanca.

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