Rachel Quednau

Holton and Center Streets

Two empty buildings with great potential call out for new owners and activity.

By - Dec 4th, 2014 09:59 am
Intersection of N. Holton St. and E. Center St.

Intersection of N. Holton St. and E. Center St.

Holton and Center is an unobtrusive corner. You’d hardly think twice about the little storefronts as you ride by in your bicycle, car or on the Route 15 bus. But N. Holton street marks something of a dividing line between the Riverwest and Harambee neighborhoods. Just east of the intersection lies a commercial strip popular among Riverwest residents and some from outside the neighborhood, including such mainstays as Mad Planet dance club, Fuel Café, Truly Spoken Cycles and the popular Italian restaurant, Café Centro. To the west of the intersection, you’ll find two small corner stores and the All People’s Church. Two distinct neighborhoods, the integrated Riverwest area and the largely black Harambee neighborhood, are separated by this thin line. So how does this intersection function? What works and what could be improved?

The corner of N. Holton and E. Center streets is flanked by two convenience/liquor stores which seem to do a decent business. On another corner, a wide empty store front, where the now defunct Krueger Bakery stood from 1903-1994, sits with its shades open, some random pieces of furniture inside. Maybe it’s on the way to becoming something, but for now, it’s quite forlorn. All of these stores have small apartments above them, making for a nice mix of residential and commercial space. The one building that makes this corner architecturally striking is the massive, white-columned neoclassical structure at 500 E. Center St. Almost a century ago, it was built to house the Holton Street Bank. Then throughout the 70s and 80s, when the corner could no longer support a bank of that size, various education programs moved into the building. (It still bears the name, Center for Children Head Start.) Now, however, it’s unoccupied. Thus, this corner is quite imbalanced, with two corner stores on the Harambee side of the street and two grand, but vacant, buildings on the Riverwest side.

What Works

Holton and Center is currently functioning as a quiet neighborhood spot. It’s where you go if you need a gallon of milk or a pack of cigarettes, or if you need to catch the bus in this neighborhood, since it’s home to two bus lines, the Route 15 going North/South and the Route 22 going East/West.

There’s also some great historic architecture. The old bank is magnificent, and it’s such a shame it’s not being used. Its big bold columns and pearly white tiles create a distinctive profile on this otherwise unexciting intersection. The vacant building across the street also sports an intriguing retro facade, suggesting a cross between a 1920s hotel and a 1950s diner. All in all, the area has some solid and attractive infrastructure which has seen it through many diverse eras in Milwaukee, and will undoubtedly last through many more. Unfortunately, little of that is currently being used.

Another positive aspect of this corner is that it reflects a neighborhood-wide effort towards more pedestrian friendliness, something that is particularly vital for communities that may be lower-income and thus more inclined to walk or take the bus. The curbs on each corner have been extended for easy wheelchair and stroller access, and planters have been placed at varying points along Holton, although they are naturally empty at this time of year. The planters can sort of be used as benches while you’re waiting for the bus, too.

What Doesn’t

If the convenience stores are an asset for the neighborhood (that point might be debatable, depending on what their primary commodities are), they are this corner’s only asset commercially. It doesn’t have any restaurants or gas stations or drug stores. That might not be necessary, considering how much commercial activity goes on down the block on Center St. (restaurants, a book store, a hair salon and a bike shop, to name a few). Still, the fact that this corner is fairly empty suggests a definite end to the commercial action on Center Street. It declares you’re crossing into a new and different neighborhood.

The abandoned buildings also detract from this corner. Their architecture is notable, to be sure, but without anyone filling them, they seem lifeless and dark. To make matters worse, the old bakery building has hostile signs all over it warning passersby they are being watched on video camera and cannot loiter—a particularly maddening statement considering there’s a bus stop right in front of the building.

How Can We Improve It?

I see two main areas for improvement here: filling the vacant properties and sprucing up the corner to make it more attractive.

First, the old bank building has the potential to hold any number of businesses, for-profit or non profit. Historically it has been a school, a bank, a Boys and Girls Club and more. A community center? Actually, (and fortunately for this neighborhood), there’s already a community center just a few blocks north on N. Holton and E. Burleigh streets. My next idea was to put a music venue into the building. It would surely have the space and amenities to house a large venture like this, and it would be a fun addition to the neighborhood. However, it might be too much competition for Mad Planet. Additionally, neighbors would be bound to complain about the noise a large music hall would produce, especially considering that up until his point, Holton and Center has been a pretty quiet place.

So, I’m still stumped on how to fill this property. On the one hand, its various uses over the last several decades prove its versatility. True, the fact that none of these organizations is still housed here suggests it did not ultimately meet their needs, but the recent renaissance on E. Center St. might now make it a more attractive location (including the recently opened Maskani Place apartments west of N. Holton St.). Perhaps it has the potential to host a temporary activity—like a massive neighborhood garage sale or a winter farmer’s market— to test out its viability. Feel free to leave a comment if you have other ideas for how to fill this space, especially if you live in the neighborhood.

The other vacant storefront is a much easier sell. It looks flexible enough to fit a laundromat, restaurant, drug store or clothing store. Any of those businesses would lend some diversity to this corner. At the very least, it would be nice to see the hostile signs on this vacant property removed and some artwork placed in the windows in the interim period. Farther down the block, one can make out an old barber shop sign in front of a small building, and I’m sure this corner could benefit from a resurrection of that business too. Barbershops often turn into informal community gathering spaces, so that would be a wonderful addition.

As for aesthetics, it’s not exactly the right time of year for sprucing up outer facades or gardening, but come spring, that would be a welcome improvement for this corner. Fill the planters with bushes, flowers or even tomatoes. Give the storefronts a fresh coat of paint. Add some real benches for people waiting at the bus stop.

Holton and Center was undoubtedly once a grand space, flanked by a grand historic structure, but the time has come to adapt to its current circumstances. This will have to include new residents in the vacant buildings, and an overall aesthetic improvement of the outdoor spaces in order to accommodate walkers and bus riders. It’s too important a corner not to be improved.

N. Holton and E. Center

About Intersection

As part of  new Milwaukeean Rachel Quednau‘s exploration of Milwaukee, she will be exploring how the city can take better advantage of its many significant intersections.

10 thoughts on “Intersection: Holton and Center Streets”

  1. Jeff says:

    I was in the Urban Planning masters degree program at UWM and in 1999 we were looking at this exact spot as one of our class projects. I agree that there is great potential there. Awesome old buildings that could serve as an attractive entrance to Riverwest and the Harambee neighborhoods.

  2. Rory Bellows says:

    This column would benefit from some numbers. Are these properties available? What’s their value? How many square feet? How are they zoned? How is the neighborhood trending? Is it a good investment?

    As is, this reads like non-contributors chiding property owners. “We” can’t improve anything with suggestions. Improvements will only come when you convince someone it’s wise to put cash into the development.

  3. David says:

    Holton Street is just one of those corridors that has so much potential, but for some reason has never developed into much. This is even true east of the river where it becomes Van Buran. Van Buran between Brady and Wells is horrible. The street is too wide, traffic too fast, buildings too low, surface parking lots and deep set backs make it one of the most unattractive streets in the city. It could be sooo much more. Not only is Holton / Van Buran and major commutor corridor for northside neighborhoods and the Northshore, its also a border between many neighborhoods, as the author points out. In addition, the skyline views just west of the Holton Street bridge are incredible.

    I don’t know much about the Holton and Center intersection, but I lived at Holton and Glover for many years and there hasn’t been any improvement even as the homes in Brewer’s Hill and Lavender Hill have seen significant redevelopment. It seems as though th retail development is taking place in near southside neighborhoods largly due to the high levels of theft and property crime along corridors west of the river.

    Aside from Riverwest and some housing, people will not take a chance on opening businesses west of the river. I hope this changes.

  4. David says:

    @Rory. I can promise you that most of the properties are available and they are probably cheap. Also, square footage will be typical for 100 year old + buildings.

    I do find it interesting that whenever someone talks about a neighborhood or a street, they refer to intersections as examples. I beleive that if the city wants to promote development along a street or a neighborhood, addrees the major intersections. For eaxample, along Holton they would be at Reservoir / Glover, North, then up to Center St. The North Ave and Holton St intersection is terrible. From my experience, its one of the reasons Holton is struggling.

  5. Gary says:

    Many Milwaukee real estate writers, including this publication, will discuss new apartment developments, etc. and never mention rent rates or sale prices. Seriously, that is what a journalist should do.

  6. @Gary – They tend to vary pretty significantly within a project, depending on a number of factors. They’re also not often available while the project is under construction (until it’s much closer to completion). We are working to add them to our under construction building database.

    All that said, I’m not sure how this applies to this article? What rental rate are you curious about? I would be happy to track one down for you.

  7. Thanks for offering, Jeramey. I definitely hear what Rory and Gary are saying, but I don’t know how to access that information–wish I did. I definitely believe that development is one of the best ways to make a neighborhood better.

  8. sonja pinie says:

    I’ve always dreamed of reoprning the cafe/bakery. Howevet, I’ve seen so many businesses struggle on that block and it would only be worth it if I owned the space, rather than fail because the rent is too high. I’m pretty sure there is a barbershop next to the tattoo parlor that is east of the bank by one or two doors. if not it closed like the other three that have attempted business over the past five years that were east of pierce st.

    You can easily find tax and landlord data on the city’s site as it’s public information and easily found with a search engine online.

    That corner won’t be viable until the new occupants of stronefly and the funeral home restaurant have proven sucessful and bring more traffic.

    the real question is who is or is there a RW Harambee BID!? the bus stop would be the first improvement and adding art to the bakery windows, but I’m not sure how much the landlord is interested in doing as he hasn’t been proactive. I think he is a chemist and he lives above. not sure if he rents other apts within.

    pls excuse my typos….

  9. Denise C Darling says:

    Perhaps business development at this intersection would also contribute to neighborhood safety. While waiting for the Southbound 15 Bus during the Summer of 2014: on a July night I was hit (just slight scar above right kidney area now) by an air gun’s steel ball-bearing or B-B, probably fired from passing car. On a night in August, my over the shoulder bag was grabbed while I was sitting on bench, watching for bus. I chased & yelled for help, but purse stolen.

  10. Katy says:

    I live off of VanBuren between Brady and Wells. I’d hardly call it a corridor for commuter traffic. There are many residential complexes along that area that contribute to the foot traffic you see along that area all times of the day and night. The traffic IS too fast and I’m always more worried about being hit by a car than I am about crime walking alone by myself at night, however that is a problem everywhere in Milwaukee. There are many nice restaurants and bars along that strip, it has been a joy to walk along there and explore them.

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