Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Inside the New Mercantile Lofts

Former International Building now has 36 apartments. View the units and restored mural.

By - Jul 14th, 2016 06:01 pm
Mercantile Lofts

Mercantile Lofts

More residents are coming to Walker’s Point thanks to an adaptive reuse project in one of the neighborhood’s landmark buildings. Northpointe Development, a partnership of two Oshkosh-based developers, Cal Schultz of Keystone Development and Andrew Dumke of Alliance Development, held a ceremonial ribbon cutting this afternoon for the Mercantile Lofts at 611 W. National Ave. The 36-unit apartment project occupies what was long known as the International Building at the southwest corner of S. 6th St. and W. National Ave.

Prior to the redevelopment project taking place, the city seized the building via property tax foreclosure. The office building had fallen into very poor condition, as Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority executive director Wyman Winston observed. As he put in his speech at the ribbon cutting (hopefully with a bit of hyperbole): “the first time I was here there was no roof and when I left I think I might have been radioactive.”

Prior to the city’s taking of the property it was owned by Esperanza Unida, Inc, an organization that fell into dire straights following the retirement and death of Richard Oulahan after he suffered a brain aneurism. According to a 2013 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article, when Oulahan was replaced by Robert Miranda the organization faltered, including the IRS revoking their non-profit status for a period.

Neighborhood alderman and former Department of City Development staffer Jose Perez noted that the city “inherited a very tangled mess” when they stepped in. Perez praised the work of the city and state to help restore the building as a community anchor, noting the importance of the tenants on the first-floor to the neighborhood including Reyna’s Events and Restaurant, Staffing Partners and radio station 97.9 Radio Caliente. One commercial space remains on the first-floor of the building, although maybe not for long. Schultz showed the space to Winston prior to the ceremony. WHEDA is on the market for new office space.

Perez claimed that since the start of this project, six new projects are underway in the area and a rebuild of S. 5th St. is underway that will expand the sidewalks to 18-feet wide. Mayor Tom Barrett was quick to praise the energy in the neighborhood during his remarks: “I’m very proud of what’s going on Downtown, but what I’m most proud of is what’s going in the heart of the city,” he said. Referencing the area’s diversity, Barrett added that “in many ways National Avenue, although the name will never change, is now International Avenue.”

The state, through WHEDA, provided $5.4 million in project equity via tax credits and a $6,572,376 construction loan for the project. Schultz, whose Keystone company has done a number of projects with WHEDA’s assistance, was quick to praise the organization in his remarks, calling WHEDA “one of the premiere state agencies in the country,” adding “it’s run like a for-profit with a non-profit vision.” Schultz is also involved in the conversion of the Century Building in Westown into apartments, and the conversion of the former Antiques on Second building in Walker’s Point into Shoe Factory Lofts apartments. Keystone’s low-income housing tax credit development webpage reads like a quiz of Wisconsin city names, listing off 1,963 units spread across the state and upper Midwest. From Marshfield to Mayville, Oconto to Oconomowoc, Keystone has built apartments.

Excel Engineering of Fond du Lac provided architectural design and engineering services on the project. North Central Construction of Fond du Lac served as the project’s general contractor. Associated Bank helped provide project financing.


Landmark Building

The building is best known to Milwaukeeans not for its front, but for its famous, four-story Mural of Peace on the building’s rear. Milwaukee-based artist Reynaldo Hernandez installed the mural in 1994. The preservation of the mural, highly visible from the northbound lanes of Interstate 43/94, was included in the terms of the sale between the city and Northpointe. The city even invested a portion of the sale proceeds to help restore the mural. In order to adapt the building to a residential-use, Northpointe did make subtle modifications to the mural. The firm installed windows in the building that are covered with a film to match the color of the portion of the mural they replaced.

Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch played off the landmark theme in her remarks at the ribbon cutting, noting “when you look up at the peace mural on the back side you see one of Milwaukee’s landmarks. What’s more important though is the landmark on the inside.” Kleefisch praised the role WHEDA plays in providing housing and helping cities prosper.

The city, which sold the building to Northpointe for $1.3 million, had to send just over $700,000 to the U.S. Economic Development Administration for the unpaid balance on a 1994 rehab of the building. The city invested $14,000 in restoring the mural, portions of which were temporarily removed during the building’s rehab. An additional $92,000 from the sale was invested in a job-training program at nearby Bradley Tech High School.

About the Apartments

According to city records the building was originally constructed in 1900. Originally known as the Kroeger Bros. Department Store, floor plans for the 36 one- and two-bedroom apartments range from 727 to 1,169 square-feet. All units feature in-unit laundry, granite countertops, stainless steel appliances and polished concrete floors. A community room and fitness center are included in the building.

Through terms of the project’s financing with WHEDA, eight of the 36 units are set aside for tenants making up-to 80 percent of the county’s median income. The remaining 28 units are available for lease at market-rate, starting at $975 for a one-bedroom, and maxing out at $1,600 for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit.

Parking is provided on site through a 54-unit surface parking lot at the rear of the building, available for an additional monthly charge of $75. The building is also well served by the Milwaukee County Transit System, including routes passing the north and east sides of the building.

Future tenants of the building will enjoy sizable windows in the units. Bigger than anything you’ll find in new apartment construction, the upper floors include skyline views.

The building is managed by ACC Management Group, Inc.

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