Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Designing a New Grand Avenue

Downtown mall's new owners select design & management team that hints at its future.

By - Mar 18th, 2016 09:09 am
Shops of Grand Avenue Mall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Shops of Grand Avenue Mall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

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.

The firm is quite familiar with the many issues facing W. Wisconsin Ave., ranging from dead side streets, extremely limited residential density and a lacking cohesive purpose for the street. TWKA team members Tom Kubala and Socha led a study of the street and surrounding area for Creative Alliance Milwaukee and the Wisconsin Avenue Milwaukee Development Corp. in 2014. That study, available online in PDF and video format, laid out a long-term approach to better activate the area, centered around the parking lot at N. 4th St. and W. Wisconsin Ave. Now the architecture firm will get the chance to put their plan into action starting with the biggest obstacle and opportunity in the area, the mall.

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 Future

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.

Plankinton Arcade

West End of the Mall

Shops of Grand Avenue Parking Garage

17 thoughts on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Designing a New Grand Avenue”

  1. James Radenson says:

    How about the new owners stop relying on the same group of people to fix a broken mall complex. Mid-America, Newaukee- they’ve both had their shots, find new energy, new ideas from new players!

  2. MidnightSon says:

    Thanks for this great article. All very interesting information. Such a short timeline until the end of April. It sounds as if they know, generally, where they want to go and just need to pull things together.

    The old Grand Avenue mall is a tough nut to crack and I’m glad to see that the new owners have put together a team of partners who know the area well. The previous owners of the mall, it seems, were focused on trying to *revive* the mall. Let’s hope for fresh thinking–not reviving, but reconfiguring, deconstructing and revisioning. I sure do hope Westown can become more lively and sustainable after decades of decline.

    All this said, it does strike me that Milwaukee sure does know how to party. I mean, it practically invented urban summer festivals. After having moved back to the Midwest last year from the West Coast, I was reminded of how really, vitally important summer is to citizens of Midwestern cities. Night markets are all over the place in Southeast Asia…its a great thing for Milwaukee to emulate.

    Given Milwaukee’s track record, I’d love to see more night markets, beer gardens, winter gardens, etc. The city already parties so well.

  3. Padric says:

    James- I couldn’t agree more. Newaukee is an idea generator with no financial backing, I feel like the term partner” is used a little loosely with them. Mid-America is not good for the mall. They have old ideas, from old influences with in the mall management family. They’ve had real opportunities with big players in the city for the mall and they’ve always passed on them.

  4. Kat M. says:

    Walkability to work and restaurants and pubs and entertainment is important and draws people to live and work down here but we’re starting to lose the few stores and hardware’s etc that you need downtown in order to LIVE here. I don’t care how big a parking lot there is when I get there I’m not going to fight the traffic to drive to the suburbs to shop. I’m worried when I hear about new visions for the Shops on Grand. It needs some new stores and a Target would sure be nice, but I would hate to lose one of the few dedicated shopping areas we have down here. I think it has suffered more from not understanding the needs of the area–workers on break or on their way home from work, and people that live down here, and tailoring the mall appropriately. Realizing that when people walk a couple of miles in the winter to shop there they will have boots and coats and hats and scarves and it doesn’t mean the security guards need to go on high alert when you walk in the door just because you are dressed for winter. Perhaps turning the heat down from steaming hot so you can walk around and shop awhile because you’re usually dressed for trekking around in the winter. It just has felt like they tried to plop a suburban mall down in the middle of the city and wondered why people didn’t drive to it to shop rather than trying to make the shops work for the people who live around here or come here during the day to work.

  5. Gary says:

    to Kat M. – the Grand Ave. Mall was a thriving, bustling place for 10+ years after it opened in the 1980s: shops were all rented with local and national retailers; the Plankinton Arcade was restored as an historical showcase and FULL of daily shoppers; the Mall’s food court had lines during the noon rush hour and you had to hunt for a seat.
    I walked through the Mall on my way to work and stopped at a Mexican bakery, ran over on my lunch (or dinner) hour, depending on the shift, and reversed my way back through (especially in winter or for shopping during the holidaze) on my treck back across downtown to home. (People actually lived downtown before 2001.)

    The article’s author doesn’t reference the important fact about this mall, and all malls, but the shopping culture changed with the online shopping boom, but also, offices moved out of the downtown area.
    This isn’t Milwaukee’s failure. It’s a miracle that the entire mall space hasn’t been shuttered AND it’s still kept as pristine and clean as it is. Bravi staff.

    Scheduling public events in the space, as in the “Under Glass…” events recently discontinued at the Mitchell Park Domes (funded by the Parks), would be a logical use of the space, ethnic Christmas markets; some Mall areas provide potential for temporary gating where an event is ticketed or otherwise limited. Could there be a better place downtown for a weather sensitive event like an art fair?

    Why hasn’t this been done? It could simply be that everybody who might be able to consider using the space is stretched too thin financially, so any Mall landlord hoping to see monthly rents replaced with event fees won’t reap that benefit; subsidies of one sort or another are inevitable.

    I enjoyed reading’s Feb 2016 irreverent but positive article:

  6. Alan says:

    I’m excited to hear that Kubala Washatko is going to be the architects for the Grand Avenue restoration project. I have been following their great work for 25 years and am sure they will do a great job here. It seems that it is time to bring Grand Avenue back to the prosperous days of the late 80’s – early 90’s with all the residential building that has happened in the Third Ward, Walkers Point and the Beerline that now can support this great downtown mall.

  7. Homesteader says:

    Not sure if this has been done or not, but the mall seems like it would be a good venue for free concerts. Live music always attracts people.

  8. Kat M. says:

    Gary–I wasn’t living in MKE at that time, but I can imagine what you are describing because in the city I was living in we lived through the decline of the downtown stores and eventually watched an old landmark department store imploded and the bricks swept away — something those of us who remember shopping there still hurt to think about. I like a lot of your ideas. I just think it is too early to write off a need for downtown shopping. There are more people living downtown and more firms moving back downtown. I agree there is a trend towards more on line shopping, and I don’t think that is going away, but I think people will support and like to shop in brick and mortar neighborhood stores too. A good friend of mine has a nephew and his wife who started a local independent bookstore in a small Midwestern city a couple of years ago not too long after the Border’s there went out of business–they are thriving. Sometimes things need to be tried on or seen, or you don’t always want to wait for things to arrive by shipping, and many people are bothered by some of the reports of how workers are treated in some of the big on line shipping organizations and the environmental impact of having a truck deliver something like socks to your door every time something is ordered. I want to see The Grand Avenue thrive too, but I hate to see it completely lose its shops and turn into an entertainment venue.

  9. Tony Muhammad says:

    Great report in the fact it is a reminder of the Grand Avenue failure like so many downtown city shopping malls across America.

    I to agree with Gary comment, which contains correct historical points about what was and what happen to the usefulness of the Grand Avenue Mall…if theses new developers and owner’s can not attract new millennium modern anchor stores that attract moms (They control household purses) of Elementary and H.S. students and College age shoppers attending the three major colleges within a 10 mile radius of GAM then the mall will continue its spiral end to nothingness.

    Also, a modern grocery outlet such as Mariano’s, / Fresh Markets which are very successful in and around Chicago area’s suburbs might offer convenience to the surrounding residents of downtown Milwaukee and 3rd Ward.

    I offer this suggestion to the developers – to seek out available means for future GAM shoppers to have access to free parking, which I realize is limited downtown Milwaukee but locally the Mayfair and Bayshore malls offer free parking this is a competitor stumbling block these new developers must address and solve if their new plan is to be successful.

  10. Cheryle says:

    I remember when the Grand Avenue opened up. There were lines around the block to get into the parking structure. That didn’t just happen for the first few months it was open; it was weekends and holidays for years! I worked in the mall as well. I did fragrance modeling at Marshall Field’s and retail sales at one of the higher end womens’ clothing stores. The Grand Avenue was THE place to shop! It was packed for many years. I would have never believed it if someone would have told me the mall would devolve into its current state. Never!

  11. Virginia Small says:

    Good rundown on all the players. The new mall owners have made more big decisions about new directions in three months than previous owners did in years. Having local investors has set a different tone.

    For clues on what TKWA/Urban Lab and NEWaukee might have in mind, leaders from those firms (among others) are quoted in this article with ideas they had in mind a couple months ago.

  12. Mr. Reality says:

    You people are gutless! I will say what everyone else is thinking, the elephant in the room. The reason this mall has failed, the reason both Capitol Court and Northridge failed and without restrictions in place at Mayfair, the reason that mall was on a path for failure is due in large part to black urban youth behaving like animals. Good, hardworking people of all colors will choose to shop elsewhere rather then risk becoming another statistic. It’s a shame, but it’s true.

  13. Tony Muhammad says:

    +Mr.Reality, OUCH!…You make a hard point too simple to accept, but the truth acts like a double edge sword. Why stop there? You failed to mention our society phenomenon called ” White Flight,” which has nothing to do with youth and the human behavior of defiance, which is observed in youth / adults regardless of their race, even you I’ am certain at one point in your life bucked the system or authority.

    Your comment places (too much) a large part of blame / failure of malls failing “On urban Black youth behaving like animals,” as you boldly stated. Actually, your statement sounds like a sound bite from a Donald Trump rally.

    I will leave you with that because I have learned from experience that it’s hard, even impossible, to teach an old dog new tricks, let along, teach a commoner with innate racist behavior about human commonalities that should supersede the color of skin or the race of an individual in all matters of human / societal endeavors.

  14. Virginia Small says:

    Mr. Reality,

    Your assessment of malls does not account for the fact that malls everywhere, in cities as well as suburbs, are continuing to fail for numerous reasons. Grand Avenue, though much of it has been on life support, has beat the odds by not having been shuttered. Thus it can be re-purposed as a multi-use development catering to diverse users.

  15. Alan says:

    Bravo Tony! Someone with some good sense! Mr. Reality, you can blame urban Black youths for the failure, but that is a symptom of the systemic racism and division of the Milwaukee area. In a more integrated city, there would not be the fear of urban Black youths driving people away from a mall such as Grand Avenue. Also, the failure of Grand Avenue was probably driven more by the development of malls such as Mayfair, Bayshore and Brookfield Square siphoning off shoppers with the migration to the suburbs. With more people moving back to Downtown, the Third Ward, Commerce Street, etc., the future of Grand Avenue is much brighter.

  16. Cynthia Woods says:

    People move downtown for convenience. We like NOT having to drive to the suburbs to shop, eat and be entertained. Please, BOSTON STORE, provide what a city dweller needs. Items attractive to people who work and live here; business and dressy casual to wear to work, not the elastic waist polyester pants with matching teddy bear applique sweater crap. Petite size clothing for women who are under 150 years old but still like to feel attractive and contemporary. The boutique specialty brands like you have in the suburbs; Vintage America, Ralph Lauren Polo Denim, Vince Camuto and more…would be refreshing.
    Remember when Marshall Fields had a tea room and merchandise displays to die for? Lunch time and after work events that had people hanging out after work to shop, eat and drink? Why not bring a success from the past and make new & now.

  17. Maria Segura says:

    Its good to hear the new owners will be fixing Grand Avenue Mall. Why not bring in major shopping stores like a Target or Mejier sort of like Mayfair mall. If people see a major store in Downtown it will bring more business to the other stores in the mall. And other local stores in the vacinity.

    Other examples:

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