Designing a New Grand Avenue
Downtown mall's new owners select design & management team that hints at its future.
Big changes are coming to the Grand Avenue Mall, and now we know who’s going to be designing them. The new owners have assembled a project team and given themselves a late April deadline to announce plans for the facility’s future. Joining new mall owners The Aggero Group and Hempel Companies are local firms The Kubala Washatko Architects and NEWaukee. Mid-America Real Estate Group will handle retail leasing and Colliers International will handle office leasing and management. The team will unveil the new master plan during NEWaukee’s Young Professional Week event, scheduled to run from April 23rd-30th.
The mall, one of many failed downtown shopping malls across the United States, is likely running on borrowed time in its current configuration. While the new owners are being coy about what’s in the works, national and regional trends point towards a future for the facility that doesn’t focus on retail.
Nationally, urban, inward-facing retail centers are dying left and right. At the same time, all across the country, the bar and restaurant scene is booming. Locally, a wave of companies are moving downtown, driving new construction and building upgrades. The mall’s own neighborhood, Westown, is also seeing an influx of new apartment projects, including the MKE Lofts, The Buckler, Germania Building and Commerce Building, all within two blocks of the mall.
Let’s look at what each of the project team’s partners bring to the table and how that might impact the mall’s future.
The Aggero Group and Hempel Cos.
Aggero clearly had one overriding interest when buying the mall, the parking garage. The 1,748-stall garage lines the southern face of the property running from N. Plankinton Ave. to nearly N. 3rd St. along W. Michigan St. That said, unlike the past couple owners, the group doesn’t appear set to just let the retail half of the facility flounder. Principals of the firm have mentioned everything from a rock climbing wall to a brew pub as possible additions to the mall. Those suggestions signal a willingness to envision the mall beyond a grab-and-go food court and hub for discount retailers.
Aggero acquired the mall and parking garage in separate transactions in December for a total $24.5 million. This was done in partnership with Minneapolis-based Hempel Cos., led by Josh Krsnak. Aggero is led by Chuck Biller, Tony Janowiec and Doug Hoskin.
Janowiec and Hoskin are also principals at Interstate Parking, a parking management firm. Interstate manages the parking assets of The Aggero Group, including the mall’s garage. It’s strange to think a parking garage operator is going to be enlivening an urban environment, but numerous sources are praising the new owners.
Putting their money where there mouth is, Janowiec is relocating Interstate Parking’s offices to the mall from the nearby Empire Building.
The Kubala Washatko Architects
The Kubala Washatko Architects are leading the design process for the facility under their new arm TKWA UrbanLab. Chris Socha, longtime project architect at TKWA, leads the firm’s UrbanLab venture.
TKWA is no stranger to designing active places. They’re the architecture firm behind the thriving Milwaukee Public Market and the ever-expanding array of Colectivo cafes. If the mall’s owners wanted to hire architects that know how to build active places, they clearly picked the right team.
Socha and the UrbanLab team will have their hands full trying to create a coherent vision for a number of different users and buildings. The seven-story Plankinton Arcade building, of which the mall owners control only the first two floors, dates back to 1916 and has very few retail tenants today. The western end of the mall, centered around a building that interrupts N. 3rd St., dates back to 1982 and features a traditional mall design. It has three levels of inward-facing commercial space, complete with a third-floor fast food court, and a large opening in the middle. Perhaps signaling their intent to give the design team a chance to design without encumbrances, the owners terminated the month-to-month lease of Studio G on the first-floor of the Plankinton Building. Expect that roughly 30,000 square-foot space to be redesigned, including opening it up to the street.
NEWaukee, the local events firm that is focused on the emerging field of social architecture, is heavily involved in plans for the facility’s future. The firm, which specializes in “place-based engagement strategies,” will work to activate the mall through events, program design and strategic partner alignment as part of the agreement. They’re also a boots-on-the-ground stakeholder in the future of the mall, having had their offices on the lower level of the mall’s Plankinton Building for a number of years. As part of the coming changes, the firm will relocate to two commercial stalls on the building’s second level.
NEWaukee previously collaborated with Interstate Parking and Reginald Baylor Studio on a redesign of the facade of a parking garage at 777 N. Milwaukee St. That project enlivened a bland parking garage with a number of vehicle-themed lights at street-level.
Most importantly, more so than any other firm in town in recent memory, NEWaukee has held events that change the way people view W. Wisconsin Ave. Starting with a tailgate party in a parking lot in May of 2012 and evolving to a party to celebrate the re-opening of the Wisconsin Avenue bridge, the firm now throws four NEWaukee Night Markets annually on W. Wisconsin Ave. between N. 2nd. and N. 4th streets. Each of the night markets draws thousands of people from all across the region, enlivening the street and injecting thousands of dollars into area businesses.
The night market will return this year on the nights of June 15th, July 13th, August 17th and September 14th.
Mid-America and Colliers
Mid-America, a Midwest-focused retail real estate management firm, has a long history with the mall. The firm has managed the mall since 2012 and will continue to do so for the retail portions of the mall. Mid-America is led locally by Dan Rosenfeld.
Collier’s International, which just this month relocated to the new 833 East tower, will handle office leasing at the mall, as well as mall management. The mall, which doesn’t have a significant amount of office space today, could see substantially more added if portions of the facility are reconfigured. Their inclusion in the team is a likely sign such a plan is afoot. The western end of the mall, anchored by the third-floor food court, could see substantial reconstruction with the donut-shaped floor plans being filled in to create very large floor plates for big office tenants.
Collier’s International signaled as much might be in the works in January when retail group leader Russ Sagmoen told BizTimes, “I think a great use would be a corporate headquarters or something that is service-based, instead of soft goods. It’s going to very challenging to land a large retail anchor – although everyone is hoping for a success.” In short, the future of the mall is more likely to include a downtown Kohl’s office than a Kohl’s department store.
The annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade this past Saturday showed what the mall could be. People packing the restaurants. Customers wandering around the first-floor. Families lining the street outside. It was, at least for a few hours, the place to be in Milwaukee. Will these groups be able to transform the facility into something of that magnitude for more than a couple days a year? We’ll know more by late April.
West End of the Mall
Shops of Grand Avenue Parking Garage
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- Eyes on Milwaukee: $9 Million for Grand Avenue Replacement - Jeramey Jannene - Mar 21st, 2019
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- Eyes on Milwaukee: Meet Grand Avenue’s New Food Hall - Jeramey Jannene - Dec 6th, 2018
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Read more about Redevelopment of the Grand Avenue Mall here