13 Ways to Revive Grand Avenue
Experts offer ideas to transform downtown’s long-struggling mall
The news isn’t good for indoor shopping malls in America. Those one-time trend-setters—with inward-facing courtyards—have been faltering across the U.S. and Canada for two decades. PBS reported in 2014 that of 1,500 malls built since 1956, barely 1,000 still function as indoor malls; no new ones had been built since 2006.
If anything, downtown malls have done even worse. Milwaukee’s Grand Avenue Mall opened in 1982, bloomed for awhile, but began declining by the early 1990s. It was renamed The Shops of Grand Avenue but that didn’t help, nor did a series of out-of-town owners.
Steve Chernof, president of WAM DC, LLC, a nonprofit that has been working to revive W. Wisconsin Ave., is excited about the new ownership: “We’ve told them we stand ready to assist them in their efforts. It’s great to have people with local ties who understand the dynamics of the area.”
Kendall Breunig, who owns three well-tenanted floors above the Plankinton Arcade section of the mall, says “Local owners will be more inclined to put improvements into things that could truly make a difference.”
But good ideas will also be needed. With that in mind, we solicited suggestions from a range of knowledgeable people who want to see the mall reinvigorated. Several were involved in research about how to revive West Wisconsin Avenue, which was coordinated by Creative Alliance Milwaukee(CAM). Here are their suggestions:
1. Change the vision
Says Ron San Felippo, chair of the Historic Third Ward BID: “Don’t get caught up on prior decisions or ideas. Be open to anything.” Jeremy Fojut, chief idea officer of Newaukee, which is based at Grand Avenue, says that rather than building the mall around retail, “the new vision has to be focused around lifestyle. It needs to include more creative and education-based enterprises” along with retail, he says.
Tim Syth, a business and community development consultant, suggests changing the financial incentives to change the vision: “The Grand Avenue is a huge space that needs a lot of activity to feel vibrant. Rent rates are dirt cheap to get tenants, so activation is now determined somewhat randomly based on rents. Why not flip that model on its head and offer incentives for the most compelling proposals and see what emerges? Maybe even sweeten the pot with activation dollars.”
2. Play up its central location
CAM’s executive director Maggie Jacobus: “Thousands of visitors come each year to the Wisconsin Center, hotels, the Riverside Theater and other attractions in the immediate area. Being in the heart of downtown offers a unique opportunity for the Grand Avenue to be ‘the crossroads of Milwaukee’ and the hub of activity for visitors, downtown workers and residents alike. The complex could be rebranded as a mixed-use attractionrather than as a mall.”
3. Cater to downtown populations
There were 6,348 new residential units built in Greater Downtown between 2004 and 2014 and nearly 800 more are under construction. “The most successful part of downtown right now is the residential component,” notes Bruenig. “A success story to mirror, but not copy, is the Milwaukee Public Market.” Says Chernof: “Entice vendors who will serve the needs of those new residents.”
Claude Krawczyk, president of the Downtown Neighbors Association: “As a downtown resident, it would be great to be able to buy a toaster or other household items without having to drive across town. Other cities have successful urban Targets.” Smaller-scaled Targets and Target Express stores have opened in big-city downtowns since 2012.
Beth Weirick, executive director of the Milwaukee Downtown BID, suggests a grocery “would work really well in that location.” Peddler Jim’s Produce has been a modest mainstay in the Plankinton Arcade and there’s no significant grocer in Westown. Says Breunig: “a small, upscale grocer would be good in the mix.”
4. Add more restaurants
Breunig: “The mall needs to become more of an entertainment use.” The fast-food court on the third floor is busy midday but he’d like to see upscale bars and restaurants mixed into the retail.
The mall now closes at 7 p.m. weekdays and earlier on weekends and more bars and more variety in restaurants could change that. As Bethany Sinay, owner of La Delicatesse, notes, “Our clientele is 98 percent people who work nearby or in the mall. Our business completely drops off on weekends.”
Fojut envisions the food court becoming “a restaurant incubator. Shared kitchen space for food trucks could double as small, scalable, brick-and-mortar shops during peak hours. As restaurants grow, they could upgrade to other spaces or move out of the incubation process.”
Sam Yorgancioglu, owner of Tomato Destination, would also like the food court and other areas to become more inviting visually: “Most of my customers don’t sit; they grab and go.”
5. Make it a community gathering space
Fojut: “It needs to become everyone’s third space–not home, not work, but a third space with services and options that make you want to hang out. For example, comfortable common space on the second floor that would allow people to eat their lunch, check their email or host a meeting and have a great vantage point that looks out over the historic architecture. The rooftop of the parking structure could also be transformed into something usable for the community, a unique event space, etc.”
6. Consolidate and tailor retail
The mall has 300,000 square feet, with retail amid empty storefronts. Says Chernof: “Consolidate the retail so that it’s not so spread out.” Bethany Sinay, owner of La Delicatesse, says there should be clear wayfinding to retail, since hotel guests and visitors often don’t know what to make of the current tenant mix as they access the mall through skywalks.
Steve Filmanowicz, board member of The Congress for the New Urbanism-Wisconsin, says the mall should seek discount or outlet retailers. “Nike Clearance Center or even Nordstrom’s Rack could be naturals. Perhaps these retailers could be in underused ground-floor (or multi-floor) areas west of 2nd Street, such as the former Woolworth’s-Office Max space. As TJ Maxx has shown, retail with access from Wisconsin can be pretty robust if it’s fashion-savvy and priced right—even better if the storefronts open directly to the street.”
7. Emphasize local commerce
Artist and creative agency owner Reginald Baylor would like to see more local vendors featured. Weirick thinks this is “the prime location to feature Milwaukee-made products and Milwaukee artists’ work.” Julia Taylor, executive director of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, envisions “stores that are more pop-up with short-term leases.”
Chris Socha, architect with The Kubala Washatko Architects/Urban Lab: “Make Grand Avenue a complement to the Public Market. What if the shops along Wisconsin Avenue were turned into micro-entrepreneurial market stalls that showcased up-and-coming makers? Imagine if these stalls fronted both Wisconsin Avenue and the mall’s interior so it became a very active, very blurry read between indoors and out? I could see a grand covered outdoor space running the length of the block, completely energized throughout the year.”
8. Highlight the Plankinton Arcade
Built in 1915 as an entertainment center featuring billiards and bowling, the well-restored Plankinton Arcade’s architectural panache could be a big draw with the right uses. Designed by the legendary Chicago firm Holabird & Roche in the 15th-century Italian Gothic style, it boasts a two-level arcade, central rotunda, skylit roof and ornamental grillwork.
Socha: “Imagine if the beautiful rotunda space in the Plankinton Arcade became Milwaukee’s great indoor living room. I’ve always pictured a wonderful beer garden/palm garden that’s active year-round, day and night.”
Filmanowicz: “The whole Plankinton Arcade could be re-imagined as a playground of dining, imbibing, game-playing and architectural marveling like the fantastic Chicago Athletic Association near Millennium Park. That’s a huge hit and a great model for Milwaukee. Indoor bocce or shuffleboard, anyone?”
9. Connect to the surrounding area
The mall now functions as a massive “superblock” mostly cut off from street life. Jacobus: “Superblock buildings tend to deaden street life outside of them for blocks at a time, creating the perception of lack of activity, lack of interest, lack of delight or cause to linger, lack of safety. Countering those lacks is vital for vibrancy.”
The space could be redesigned on several fronts for better urbanism. Socha: “The parking structure decimates the pedestrian environment along Michigan Street. Can some parking spaces along Michigan be replaced with retail? The building has great southern exposure along with visibility from the freeway. This is huge opportunity to heal an otherwise dead street.”
Fojut suggests the Plankinton Arcade provide direct access to Wisconsin Avenue “with large garage doors that open up to a grand beer hall, an event space with three local tap rooms and one tap room that rotates breweries from different cities. This space would be great for the many tourists in the area and the influx of locals that use and/or live downtown. The current theater tenants in this space could add an intriguing element.”
Linda Keane, professor of architecture and environmental design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Mark Keane, UW-M architecture professor: “Create a strong link to the transport node at 4th Street and St. Paul and the new mixed-use redevelopment planned for the Post Office site just east of the Intermodal Station.”
10. End the parking restrictions on Wisconsin Avenue
Filmanowicz: “It’s one of very few places in the city where street parking spaces disappear twice daily when rush-hour no-parking rules go into effect (and ticket writers come out). For six daytime hours each workday, the city sends a message that West Wisconsin is a place to pass through rather than stop. Lift the restrictions and the result will be what happens in cities across the world: when the street fills up with people seeking it out as a destination rather than using it as a commuting corridor, drivers will redirect to alternate streets such as Wells, State, Michigan or Clybourn.”
11. Create a hub for education and innovation
Taylor would like to see “partnerships with educational institutions that would have focused areas—manufacturing, health, animation and IT–and which would include business anchors and active internships and start–ups.” (UW-Milwaukee already owns the sixth and seventh floors of the Plankinton Building for its School of Continuing Education.)
Other suggestions include more “co-working spaces” such as the nonprofit Bucketworks operates at Grand Avenue, or making the complex “one big organic co-working space.”
12. Add more housing
Linda and Mark Keane suggest converting upper floors of the mall to residences “with a lot of amenities in common space,” while leaving retail on the ground floor. The architects also suggest tearing down “part of the unneeded parking and building more infill housing.” There are currently loft-style apartments above Boston Store as well as rental residences on the third and fifth floors of the Plankinton Building.
13. Stop calling it a mall
Weirick: “It is a mixed-use facility with some beautiful historical and architectural gems. Let’s focus on existing successful components that we can play off: the food court, the housing components, the commercial office space, the YMCA, TJ Maxx, connection to Boston Store, proximity to the convention center and skywalk accessibility.” The Shops of Grand Avenue has become a misnomer. A new name could reflect its current multi-use identity.
But whatever the ideas and changes pursued, do it together, San Felippo urges: “There has been a lot of work evaluating this area. A key element of potential success for both Grand Avenue and West Wisconsin Avenue is having the groups working together with a high level of communication and common sense.”