Rachel Quednau

Oakland and Locust

It’s one of the city’s most successful corners. But it could still improve.

By - Dec 30th, 2014 02:32 pm
N. Oakland Ave. and E. Locust St.

N. Oakland Ave. and E. Locust St.

It’s 11pm on a Friday evening and you’ve had a few drinks with friends, but now you’re craving a salty, tasty bite to eat before you call it a night. Where is your go-to spot? For many Milwaukeens, it’s Oakland Gyros—the decades-old Greek restaurant on the corner of N. Oakland Ave. and E. Locust St. on the East Side, serving up some of the best gyros, shish kabob and pita bread for miles. But there’s more to this corner than just Oakland Gyros. That establishment is an anchoring point for the neighborhood, and a business that encouraged others to make their home here. As a result, there are now dozens more reasons to visit this corner.

What Works

Oakland and Locust is booming. In addition to the Greek fare offered at Oakland Gyros, “Oak and Loc” has several other Mediterranean restaurants flanking its streets, plus pizza at SoLo, Irish food and drink at the Black Rose, Middle Eastern specialty food at Shiraz, and fast food from a number of chains including Five Guys, Cousins Subs, and Subway. That’s at least three different ethnicities represented on one corner, not including the ethnic diversity of the customers who frequent those businesses (of which I saw African American, Hispanic, Asian, and Greek all in the span of a few minutes). Not only is this a great food location, but it’s also a place to purchase used items at Goodwill, medications and other necessities at Walgreens, and beer at Gilbert’s Liquor. As if this weren’t enough, Oak and Loc also offers a number of services, including a laundromat, barber shop, salon and printing & graphics store. Finally, with apartments above most of the business on this corner, you can even live here for an affordable price. In short, this corner is an ever- blossoming location that meets the needs of a variety of people, both from the neighborhood and from around the city and suburbs. College students from nearby UW-Milwaukee and high school students from nearby Riverside University School both benefit from the cheap food options in particular.

Oakland and Locust succeeds not just in having a terrific array of businesses, but also in presenting them attractively and cohesively. The storefronts are varied in appearance, from the fire-colored mosaic outside SoLo, to the black, wooden paneling of the Irish pub, to the classic blue awning of Oakland Gyros. It’s not necessarily a corner anyone would visit to admire the architecture, yet the variety provides aesthetic interest and suggests the organic nature from which businesses have bloomed on this corner, during different decades and eras.

The parking situation is also fairly ideal, with a few lots outside of select business that are well-placed but not dominant in the landscape. And there’s plenty of street parking too. Bus access is also ideal. Finally, this is a fairly pedestrian friendly neighborhood. On the Saturday afternoon when I visited this corner, soft snowflakes were drifting down from the sky, and dozens of people were out enjoying a day with their families or finishing up their Christmas shopping. These included students from UWM, senior citizens, and parents with children. With plenty of “No Turn on Red” signs and good walk signals, traveling by foot is not a problem.

It’s important to note that the success of Oakland and Locust did not happen overnight. It came through the hard work of local businesses, neighborhood groups and Milwaukeens who were dedicated to frequenting these businesses. The Murray Hill Neighborhood Association and the Oakland Avenue Business Improvement District #31 have both played important roles in supporting this corner’s growth as a thriving commercial spot. Visible evidence of this includes banners around the intersection reading “Oak & Loc,” which provide character and identity for the corner, in addition to the charming lamp posts from which they are hung. At this time of year, the lamps are also adorned with festive wreaths. Trash cans keep the sidewalks fairly clean and bike racks abound. The dedication of business owners, customers and the government, made Oakland and Locust the successful, exciting district that it is today.

What Doesn’t

In spite of its major accomplishments this corner isn’t quite perfect. (Show me one that is.) The biggest issue that stands out is the presence of so many chains. Oakland and Locust feels like a neighborhood corner where small business is flourishing. I hate to see it overrun with so many fast food joints. This problem isn’t unique to Oakland and Locust. Chains creep in everywhere where business is successful—from the Starbucks in the Third Ward, to the Qdoba downtown on Water Street, to the Jimmy Johns on Kinnickinnic in Bay View. I would love to see the Business Improvement District take a harder line on so many chains, especially the three sandwich shops on the corner. It’s clear there’s a market for cheap, quick food—between the college, the high school, and the other residents nearby—but Milwaukee has so many fantastic, affordable food options locally. If local cafes could take over even one or two of the spots on the corner, I have no doubt they would present better looking storefronts and keep more profits in the community.

How Can We Improve It?

I’ve already praised this corner for its success and welcoming atmosphere, so the improvement I’m proposing is not a necessity, just a suggestion. It would be fun to see this commercial strip truly embrace its multiethnic roots. I grew up in Minneapolis and I always thought that one of the best streets in the entire city was Nicollet Avenue, which has been dubbed “Eat Street” due to the fantastic global cuisine available all along the street. It stretches for several blocks and has embraced its identity as a food destination, drawing tourists, downtown employees on their lunch breaks, and families from around the world who reside in Minneapolis and want a taste of their home. Oakland and Locust is a much smaller area, but if a couple of other diverse restaurants took the place of Subway and Cousins Subs, the corner could win a reputation as a multicultural spot.

Overall, Oakland and Locust is a successful corner, built on the shoulders of diverse business owners and community members. But it can and probably will continue to get better.

N. Oakland Ave. and E. Locust St.

Correction: The story originally identified the East Side BID as working in this area.  The story has been updated to refer to the Oakland Avenue BID #31 as the organization representing this intersection.

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.

23 thoughts on “Intersection: Oakland and Locust”

  1. Barbara Johnson says:

    Where can I begin?
    #1: Please do something to slow down traffic. This is one of the most challenging corners for pedestrians. Maybe a center space with trees. Bike cops on patrol to deter speeders and deal with (see #2).
    #2: Please do something to deal with all the drug addicts, drunks, and panhandlers. This is not at all a pedestrian-friendly intersection. Try to walk ten feet without being harassed/feeling threatened.
    #3: How about a coffee shop, like a Starbucks or a Colectivo?
    #4: More police presence in general. This is not a safe neighborhood, and this intersection is the worst the area has to offer.
    #5: Too many, too large parking lots. This intersection is an eyesore.

  2. alba says:

    Consistently dirty and littered with trash. Graffiti and broken windows all over the place. Sidewalks in need of repair. The businesses there should clean things up.

  3. Kyle says:

    I have to agree with most of the other comments. Nothing about this intersection has ever felt welcoming. I’m not sure I have any idea where these large parking lots are though.

    Barbara, if you want coffee in that area, go 4 blocks east. The Roast has been good every time I’ve stopped there.

  4. Dkatz says:

    It’s a sad intersection. My Grandmother owned a shop on that intersection in the mid 90’s and even though some good places have moved in, it hasn’t gotten better. Crime in the number 1 issue in the area, needs constant police on foot. Another issue in the area is there is NO consistency in design standards, which a hodge podge of properties; some new, some dilapidated looking houses, etc. There needs to be one large catalyst project on that intersection and it should come from UWM…. it needs to officially become, “University Village” and embrace it’s close ties….. these has been very successful with other colleges. I don’t live in Milwaukee anymore, but all my friends still do and it’s a place we never visit when I am back in town (Unless I am hammered craving a Gyro..maybe!)

  5. Mitch says:

    Having lived within a 1/2 mile to 2-blocks of this intersection for the past ten years (until June) I love this intersection! Over the past four years I walked to this intersection at least once a week.

    Regarding the previous comments I have walked through the area at all times of day and night on hundreds of occasions and have never felt unsafe and have rarely seen panhandlers.

    While I personally appreciate the mixture of local and chain businesses, I understand the sentiment.

    There needs to be new streetscaping such as was down on Downer Ave, and better maintenance of the streetscaping.

    Axels is a dump and needs to be renovated, as I thought might happen after the Black Rose opened. I wish the glass block would be removed to open the dungeon of a space up to the street.

    There is too much parking as most street spaces are usually open in front of the new Walgreens due to their very large parking lot. CVS on nearby Downer is a similar size store with no parking.

    The biggest change that I would like to see is at the Northeast corner of the intersection. The isolated EIFS clad Cousins building is a terrible looking structure with a site that does not need parking. The site should be redeveloped with a new L-shaped mixed use apartment/retail building that would extend from the Walgreens parking lot to the Locust Street alley and provide needed density. A new development at this site would have the opportunity to create a focal point for visitors driving/walking up the hill from the Milwaukee River bridge.

    I miss everything everything about Locust and Downer especially Clark Graphics and Thai A Kitchen. Lastly if in need of coffee check out Roast only a couple blocks away.

  6. Eric Anderson says:

    No offense, but you can tell the author doesn’t live in this neighborhood. Restaurant chains aren’t the problem. At all.
    The “Oak & Loc” signs are cringe-worthy attempts at trying to make it seem hip. But faux-hip is worse.
    Also, you failed the mention the outstanding restaurant Thai Kitchen! As well as Lisa’s pizzeria!
    As any person who walks in a city knows, a “no turn on red” sign means basically nothing. And the walk signs also mean nothing when cars can turn right of left and mow down a person in the blink of an eye. Crossing that intersection is freaky!
    I actually enjoy the diversity of income at that intersection. The homeless and the panhandlers are harmless and it’s refreshing, as most of the East Side lacks diversity in income. (The crime happens from other sources, never the characters asking for money around that intersection.)
    The design of the intersection itself is an epic disaster, based on traffic planning from the 1950s-1980s. Humans are an after-thought.
    #1 – There should be all-green light crossings for humans. A red light should be for all directions for all cars. This would eliminate the near-misses that happen constantly between humans and cars. It is NOT easy to walk there.
    #2 – there’s not a hint of integration for cyclists the bike lanes simply disappear. Taking out some on-street parking and implementing some road diets would help; but NO CYCLE LANES; paint is always disregarded by motorists at intersections; it would have to be separated bike lanes with permanent buffers
    #3 – an underground parking lot is critical; the wasted space by the surface lots is such an urban blight; above the underground parking could be an urban garden; we could bring in Growing Power to help build it with healthy soil; there are thousands of college students and profs in the neighborhood who would love to use this space to grow good, real food which would be SUCH a great alternative to the poisonous “food” at Wal-Greens

  7. Patrick says:

    The one improvement I would make is to get rid of the Little Cesar’s. The location creates a lot of garbage left on the corner and in adjacent Riverside Park. I’d love to see additional affordable ethnic food take the place of cousins and subway. Finally, do we need two head shops in the area? The BID could work more to concentrate the businesses that cater to college kids closer to campus and not on a major intersection.

  8. Barbara Johnson says:

    I love the others’ suggestions, and appreciate the reminder about Roast, but the question posed was, how to improve THIS intersection. I feel that it would benefit from having its own coffee shop.

  9. Danny says:

    Well why don’t you go tell those bad people to stop being franchisees? The corporation called “Cousins” doesn’t occupy the space, it’s franchisee does. He doesn’t care that you want him to open an ethnic restaurant instead.

  10. JD says:

    There is a parking lot (free parking) right on the northwest corner of Oakland and Locust. There is also a large parking lot extending from just north of Cousin’s Subs, on the East side of Oakland to the Walgreen’s–covering half the block. There is a parking lot (free) at Little Caesar’s that is bigger than the restaurant itself. This vast, free parking area sucks the life and vitality out of the neighborhood and allows trash to accumulate. If people on the East Side feel that parking is scarce–how could they possibly not see how foolish it is to give it away for free in an area that should be serving pedestrians and those arriving by bus? Simply put: create a mix of apartments and businesses where this parking is now, consisting of businesses and homes with “eyes on the street,” and put any parking–and charge market rates for this parking–behind the buildings. Calm traffic and get public service ambassadors for this district that also provide “eyes on the street” and help alleviate trash and other problems. Roast is a wonderful cafe–notice how it doesn’t have a huge, free surface parking lot attached to it, and it does well. Notice how Roast provides a wonderful business with “eyes on the street.” The area of Oak and Loc has access by bus and more pedestrian traffic, yet free parking seems the aim of a significant part of this valuable land.

    Mitch – you might want to talk to women who traverse that intersection about safety. Have you waited for a bus on a summer evening at the bus stop at the northwest intersection of Oak and Loc? Also, tragically, there was a murder in that George Webb’s on Oakland.

  11. Andrea Richards says:

    There’s a factual error repeated in this article that I feel needs to be corrected: this intersection is not within The East Side Business Improvement District ((BID #20) which encompasses the E. North Ave business neighborhood. There *IS* a BID for ‘Oak & Loc’ but it is not The East Side BID. And BIDs cannot exactly prohibit chains from moving into its neighborhood, if the use is a permitted use. Instead the BID can actively recruit locally-owned businesses/entrepreneurs to fill available commercial spaces (which can be a challenge when it comes to the higher-priced new developments.) The topic is worthy of a story in itself.

  12. Tom etten says:

    I wish that Little Caesar’s would take more responsibility for the trash their customers scatter around the Riverside Park tot-lot. I know there are trash bins specifically for pizza boxes but many boxes don’t make it there, as well as drink bottles, cans etc. When I go there I pick up as much of this trash as I can but I would think the business responsible could have an employee go over there once a day to take care of it, it’s not that big and it’s right next door.

  13. Steve says:

    I grew up down the block and attended Riverside high. I left Milwaukee after college, but my parents still live in the area. With the exception of Oakland Gyros the corner is, and has been for many years, a dump. A food destination? Yeah, at 3am on weekends. Subway and Cousins have been there for as long as I can recall so they aren’t going anywhere. The corner is a fast food destination plain and simple. They appeal to the hungry high school kids who want a quick meal. As long as the high school is there all those fast food joints will be there. The author spent an hour in the area and slapped an article together. Walking around there is a nightmare and safety is questionable. No mention of Lisa’s pizza but I suppose it’s not on the corner of “Oak and Loc”

  14. Dave Reid says:

    @Andrea We’ve updated the story to refer to the Oakland Avenue BID #13. So maybe instead of a harder line (though didn’t the Tosa North Ave BID push some sort of anti-chain legislation?), more actively recruit local biz… Make sense.

  15. Thanks for all the great dialogue here. The idea of this column is to get the conversation started and especially, to get the input of people who live in the neighborhood.

    JD asked whether a women could speak to the safety of the intersection at night and I can. I’ve waited at that bus stop after dark and felt fine. It’s a highly trafficked area (including police presence) so I don’t worry too much. I don’t think I’d want to be there past 11 or 12pm but I probably wouldn’t want to be walking alone anywhere past that time, unless I was very familiar with the neighborhood.

  16. A.Frederick says:

    Few if any vacancies, busy street with high foot traffic, restaurants people actually eat at, wow most be a terrible street. As far as a street with store front businesses, it’s doing better than 90% of the other areas I’ve seen. It a college area for crying out loud. Lighten up people

  17. D says:

    I agree with A. Frederick. Oakland and Locust is a successful intersection. Its businesses are frequented by college and even high school students—what do you want there? Restaurants that serve gouda, kale, and lemongrass? Some of you cats are simply out of touch with the common man.

    The biggest problem is the massive lot between Walgreens and Cousins. The amount of litter around Little Caesars. I’d like to see the lots developed into a two 2-4 story buildings. Also see that abandoned cheese store be turned into something with a patio instead of a parking lot. More patios are always nice. Look at how nice Brady St. is during the summer now that the bars and restaurants all added them.

  18. PMD says:

    I lived in that ugly building on Locust, right next to the parking lot on the northwest corner of Oakland and Locust, for a year or so from 2001-2002. Other than my newspaper being stolen from outside the building everyday and the hazards of crossing the street at the intersection, it was a great place to live. Atomic Records was still around. My friends and I played pool at Axel’s regularly. There were a lot of places to eat for pretty cheap within a block or two. Laundromat across the street (we had no washers or dryers in the building). I have fond memories of living there.

  19. Jeff says:

    If you allow restaurants, you have to allow chain restaurants. You can create better sign and exterior design standards to help them blend into the neighborhood better. I’d prohibit those ugly box signs, especially the one with changeable copy like Cousins. Also limit the amount of window area that can be covered by signs.

    I know Five Guys will never part with that parking lot but if it ever goes up for sale, the City should buy it and send out an rfp to develop the corner. One of the busiest corners on the east side and you have a parking lot anchoring it? Insanity. That should be a 2-3 story building with apartments above and retail below.

    In the meantime they should so something to soften the edge of the parking lot. Have UWM SARUP students deign a better bus stop and get some public art or landscaping to buffer the lot from the sidewalk. Maybe have an artist design a bike rack too. I agree with comments about the lack of on-street bike accommodations, however Milwaukee is really progressive with this and I am sure at some point there will be on-street facilities on both Oakland and Locust.

    I’d experiment with little parklets or outdoor dining “patios” that use up one parking space. This is one of the few areas of the City where there is no room for outdoor dining but it would really help add to the vibrancy of the neighborhood and typically results in traffic slowing down.

  20. Michael says:

    My wife and I own and live in house at this intersection for 2 years now and love the location. We love the ability to walk to all the ethnic restaurants, catch a bus downtown for events or a night out, take a walk in the parks, and easy access to the oak leaf trail. We have never felt unsafe, even walking the dog early in the morning or late at night.

    Improvements I would recommend:
    1. More trash cleanup, especially around Little Caesars; it’s not all theirs but the trash congregates around there and the park. Regular street sweeping on Geneva would help tremendously.
    2. Improve the North side of the intersection – The cousins building should be replaced with something new, even if the new one has a cousins in it. Lots of wasted space there. The other side of the intersection is a parking lot.
    3. Open up Axels – I agree with the comment above, that place needs a little sunshine to the world.
    4. Something to slow down traffic on Oakland. Even with crosswalks, crossing Oakland can be scary.

  21. Barbara Johnson says:

    Are you all aware of the shooting that occurred in front of Little Caesar’s on New Year’s Eve? From the Journal Sentinel: “At 9:40 p.m. Wednesday, a 22-year-old man was wounded while exchanging gunfire with another group of men in the 2800 block of N. Oakland Ave.”

  22. Tim says:

    It seems like the neighborhood would be better off without a certain Little pizza place.

  23. CK James says:

    All in all, the intersection is indeed pleasantly eclectic and serves a useful purpose for consumers, locals and passers-by in general.
    Let critics remember, it IS a high traffic destination for college students. Some litter is inevitable, Compared to similar areas around MU, Oak-Loc is PRISTINE.
    As far as safety, it actually ranks relatively well if you compare and contrast using crime number data on any of the credible neighborhood number crunching sites.
    One more related NEWSFLASH – There has been a murder in every Little Caesars and George Webb on the planet. There have also been mass shootings at swanky hotels and beauty salons in Brookfield. Sometimes crime is predictable, sometimes it’s random.
    By the way – anyone who thinks Oakland and Locust is rough or dicey should AVOID heading much farther West on Locust. You’d soon find yourself among REAL slum cesspools. These are COMPTON-esque in comparison…and make Oak-Loc seem more like a lavish resort community in Laguna Beach.
    One minor correction to the article – the Starbucks in the Third Ward was actually about the very FIRST business of ANY kind to surface there – way before any of the warehouses became nostalgic condos and eateries and also arrived ahead of most of the trendy cafes, touristy-brewery-bars or boutique stores arrived. There still aren’t any other corporate food chain spots nearby there.

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