Graham Kilmer
Plats and Parcels

The Bad News About Bon-Ton

And the good news about the harbor, and The North End.

By - Apr 22nd, 2018 05:02 pm
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Boston Store Building. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Boston Store Building. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

For months now the bankruptcy of Bon-Ton, a large department store chain, has been in the news. And now, it seems, the company is headed for the thresher.

The company needed a buyer to stay above water and, unfortunately for them and their employees, only liquidators stepped up to the plate. Liquidation sales are already underway and stores are closing within the next five months, reported Paul Gores at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. And across the country more than 20,000 employees will be impacted, the AP reported.

Bon-Ton had corporate offices and a Boston Store department store in the downtown Grand Avenue Mall. Now that the company is shuttering, the jobs of hundreds of Milwaukeeans have disappeared. It also means their large commercial and office space in the heart of downtown at 331 W. Wisconsin Ave. will soon be vacant.

Mayor Tom Barrett said earlier this week that he isn’t too concerned about the real estate issue. “The real estate, I think we can deal with the real estate issues,” he said. Barrett said he was more concerned about the local jobs on the chopping block.

In late 2017, as Bon-Ton struggled, it had plans to reduce the size of its store from 123,000 square feet down to 55,000 square feet. This was after that space was purchased by Urban Innovations prior to the reduction in 2017. Tony Lindsay, vice president at the company, told Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Tom Daykin, that they weren’t caught off guard by the sale to liquidators.

Daykin reported at the time of the liquidation sale that Bon-Ton was leasing a combined total of 200,000 square feet downtown.

Barrett also tamped down any concerns about a $1.9 million forgivable loan the city gave to the Bon-Ton in February of 2017. The loan was rewarded to the company for keeping its headquarters in Milwaukee for the next 10 years, and according to Barrett, Bon-Ton had already drawn down about a quarter of the funds in the account. But it was in escrow, so it should be protected from the liquidation. “Because it was in escrow, that remains our money,” Barrett said.

Boston Store, 331 W. Wisconsin Ave.

The Harbor Gets Fresha

There’ve been a few stories this week about the evolving real estate landscape of Milwaukee’s harbor.

V. Marchese Inc. announced plans to expand in the harbor district area, adding 50 to 75 jobs, Sean Ryan at the Milwaukee Business Journal reported. You may know the company by its trucks that feature a mustachioed banana saying, “Fresha you betcha.”

Hotel Coming to Tosa

An 11-story office building on the Mayfair Mall campus in Wauwatosa is being converted into a hotel, Corri Hess with the BizTimes reported.

HKS Holdings will convert the building into 196 hotel rooms and it will become a Renaissance Hotel by Marriott.

A chunk of the funding for the project, Hess reported, comes from a $9 million tax incremental district created by the City of Wauwatosa.

In Other News:

-The massive North End is almost complete. Jeramey Jannene has the photos.

-The plans for the MIlwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s new home at The Grand Theatre just got a little bigger, Tom Daykin reports.

-And a wetland in Bay View will be good for the environment, and maybe good for local development.

If you think stories like this are important, become a member of Urban Milwaukee and help support real independent journalism. Plus you get some cool added benefits, all detailed here.

16 thoughts on “Plats and Parcels: The Bad News About Bon-Ton”

  1. MidnightSon says:

    The Bon Ton/Boston Store deal is a tough loss, but inevitable given BT’s specific business model and retail trends in general. Yes, the loss of jobs is the biggest problem, but I’m not as optimistic as Barrett is on the real estate.

    — The only two proposals for the long-vacant 4th and Wisconsin parking lot are for hotel/convention center expansion, both contingent on a commitment from the Wisconsin Center District to move forward with expansion (which is limited by the amount it can increase taxes for a proposed build out).

    — The city lost its recent bid for federal funding for the section of the streetcar north to the new Bucks arena, which would have cut through this property and helped activate the area.

    — Occupancy of Reuss Federal Plaza (“The Blue”) was projected to dip to 40% once Bon Ton consolidated its office across the street and other tenants moved out. Super interested to hear what its new owners from NYC have in mind.

    — The exciting plans for the old Grand Avenue seem to be taking much longer that hoped for. I’m disappointed, but I can’t blame the developers.

    The only–and truly–bright spot is development of the Grand Theatre a block and a half east into the new Symphony Center.

    This intersection–the hole in the donut that is downtown Milwaukee development–needs at least one of two things, either (1) a catalytic project that will regularly bring hundreds if not thousands of people there daily and/or (2) an approach to mixed use that drove the Third Ward’s development over the past 2+ decades. (Supported in no small part by the national interest in living and working downtown.)

    Unfortunately, despite downtown Milwaukee’s significant improvement in the past decade, it and the City in general does not yet deliver on the things desired employees want–transit, culture, air connections, etc. Both Johnson Controls and Firserv have been very frank about this in the past couple years. That downtown Milwaukee is still in the running (or at least has not publicly been ruled out) for the headquarters of either, is amazing. I suspect there is a lot of talk going on behind the scenes. (JC hasn’t even entertained the lakefront property, and Firserv is about seven months late on its planned HQ announcement.)

    Milwaukee is beholden to friendly businesses (NML) to make business decisions that also positively impact the City. Is there any way the powers that be develop a bold, coherent, plan for business/tech incubation in this area (the old Grand Avenue), and sweeten the deal to attract Firserv to either “The Blue” or to the 4th and Wisconsin lot? The Grand Avenue site is an excellent opportunity for mixed/collaborative use, including Millennial entertainment. I suspect, however, that no one wants to be “first in,” for fear that they will be the only ones in.

    If none of this works, provide incentives for moderately-priced housing in the area. More than anything, this area needs people.

  2. michael says:

    @midnightson. It’s got to be option 2. It’s catalytic ideas that is holding back the westtown – the stadiums, the giant civic complex, the theaters, the convention center, all with a trace number of actual residents. The area is a waste land of big ideas; not an urban neighborhood.

    IMO, we need to take any of these convention center expansion plans off the table immediately. If they needed more breakout space, these conventions would be spilling over into the surrounding hotels or they would be buying square footage in the grand ave today. It’s not happening because it’s all malarkey. The convention center is already too big. It does nothing for street life. It’s dreadful to walk under on wells. And it’s squandering a great marquee parcel of land on Kilbourne. Between 4th and Wisconsin, 4th & Kilbourne, 10th & Michigan, and the redevelopment of the Bradley center parcel, there’s actually a path to bringing enough residents into westtown to make it a bona fide complete neighborhood. The convention center expansion stands in opposition to that.

  3. MidnightSon says:

    @michael I hear and agree with you. It would be much more sustainable with option #2. (I always go back and forth on things like convention center expansion.) Perhaps if Milwaukee had more of a “there, there,” the demand would be evident.

    I’m looking at a map of downtown MKE right now, as I often do. To your point of residential, it does seem like the market is supporting that kind of development, anyway. MKE lofts on Wisconsin and Plankinton; the Germania; The Buckler/Blue Cross’ St. James and the Wells Fargo building further west. Not to mention Library hill apartments and the tower at 6th and Wisconsin. All residential, or becoming as much.

    What if Westtown became the new Third Ward? I think it has some real and perceived challenges that the Third Ward did not have to deal with, but it did take a bit of time for the Third Ward to catch on. (It also had its historic designation going for it.) That said, the area you’re talking about is walking or transit distance to so much, not to mention the pending BRT.

    I once heard someone years ago argue that downtown development in Milwaukee is a bit more difficult simply because MKe has more downtown that many cities of similar size. I’d love to see Reuss Plaza turned into residential and the whole area become more of a neighborhood.

  4. michael says:

    Westtown is has immense challenges for residential development. The highways are absolutely miserable for quality of place, we’ve not met the active & public transportation needs of the metro area for decades thus half the neighborhood is now parking lots/decks, and we’ve juiced almost every surface street to move commuters at higher speeds – all of which has left the neighborhood with few truly enjoyable “strolling” streets. Now, if we converted 794 into a boulevard, took a lane off nearly every street while widening out the sidewalks & adding a canopy of trees, it could be the one of most desirable places in the city. So it has opportunities – everything I described that would make westtown a better “place” would cost significantly less than the current system of highways and oversized roads used to get people out as fast as possible.

    Unfortunately, the “just fix the potholes” (meaning: just keep everything the same) crowd is the dominant voice in MKE politics today, so I don’t think there’s much political will at the moment. But in a few years, when we see Park East corridor as complete plus King Drive, Walkers Point, Marquette all at peak vibrancy, it will be self-evident that we need to fix westtown. In the meantime, we can’t self-sabotage with more monumental-type building and we need to pull what available levers we have to get residents.

  5. tom says:

    If you really want to add energy to a “dead” part of town, develop something similar to Cincinnati’s Fountain Square on the vacant square block on Wisconsin Ave. I was recently impressed after staying at the Westin overlooking Fountain Square in the center of Cincinnati. The area was full of energy with live music, food vendors, a jumbotron, huge colorful fountain, many tables and chairs, foot traffic. Something like that in the middle of Westtown would create development and new life to the convention center. How would it feel to have live music, street vendors, foot traffic, and energy just outside the convention center. It would draw the lunchtime crowd on the west side of the river, boost the Marc Plaza, and drive development in the mall/Boston Store building. Visitors to MKE conventions would have a much more favorable opinion of the city and provide needed positive takeaway.

  6. Troll says:

    Better, Bon- Ton exit in a 3.0 % unemployment rate. Workers will find opportunity.

  7. “And across the country more than 2,000 employees will lose their job, ” I think the national number is 10 times this…Wisconsin alone will lose 2,000 jobs.

  8. Dave Reid says:

    @Ed Thanks fixed. The correct number is 20,000 not 2,000.

  9. DAG999 says:

    10 years ago, I asked this question of some millennial friends moving into condos on the East side and in Downtown Milwaukee who were critical of the suburbs, Where are you going to shop? I am not talking about buying a pair of jeans, or ordering a toaster on-line. When you need an appliance, like a refrigerator or TV, where do you have to drive in order to look, purchase, or compare products? After Gimbels closed, then Marshall Fields, and then even Boston Store closed their furniture departments (you had to drive West to Brookfield for the best selection), there was only one or two places to buy even a sofa Downtown. Granted, Boston Store did bring furniture back in a last ditch effort a few years ago at its Wisconsin Avenue store, but by then it was too late. The store had shrunk. No more 9 floors of selection. Not even a basement. You used to go Downtown for the selections, the quality, and the service. But not since the mid 2000’s. And seriously, if you think you are going to find the street car going past a furniture store to buy any of those things, good luck with that.

  10. Dave Reid says:

    @DAG999 I’ve lived downtown for almost 20 years, and it’s true it’s not easy to buy furniture downtown, but of course that is a task that only happens every few years. Just not a big deal. That said, I will be able to take the streetcar to many things that are much more regularly consumed. And even if someone lives in Brookfield they have to drive to buy furniture, go grocery shopping, for entertainment. Basically, for everything one might do. Heck living downtown I don’t even own a car, because for just about everything it’s not needed.

  11. TransitRider says:

    If Westown had a supermarket, it would make living there more viable. One great place would be in the Grand Avenue (in the empty, central, street-level space next to today’s Boston Store). Having people and activity in that space would make the rest of the Grand Avenue feel less creepy.

    A Grand Avenue supermarket would not only serve downtown residents (and downtown workers picking up something to take home), it would also serve people without cars in “food deserts” because so many bus routes pass within a block or two.

    Perhaps the City could re-direct the money it’s now using to subsidize Boston Store for this purpose.

  12. John says:

    TransitRider, groceries typically follow rooftops. I don’t believe there is enough population yet to support a third grocery store in addition to the two stores that already came in with Fresh Market and Cermak, both of which are less than a five minute drive away.

  13. MidnightSon says:

    @John – To follow-up on the idea of rooftops, I know that some have floated the idea of student housing in Westtown, especially the new Pabst campus. Down here in Chicago, its vitally evident how the thousands of students living in the Loop–especially the South Loop–impact both the area’s economy and the streetscape. In many ways, the neighborhood IS both their campus and their student union. Much of the student housing down here is older, converted (Class C) office buildings for those studying at DePaul’s business and law schools, Harold Washington College, Roosevelt University, Columbia College, the School of the Art Institute, and a number of smaller institutions and branches.

    Downtown Milwaukee has MSOE. I wonder how downtown Milwaukee might become a home for a school or college or two that would yield more neighborhood residents. While their disposable income may be small, they do pay for entertainment, beer, coffee, etc. and would definitely enliven the streets!

    In addition to the streetcar “starter loop,” I’d love to see Milwaukee figure out how to boost transit users. The BRT plan is critical, but I wonder how the city can use bus transit as a means of developing a vibrant street scene. If bus frequency and reliability are not issues (and they may be) the only real problem is perception. Much study has gone into how bus transit–even where viable–is not even considered by commuters because of perception as something only poor people (people who cannot afford cars) use.

    On any random day, downtown sidewalks are dead. Nobody’s walking and there is little in the way of true street-level retail. Compare this to cities like Chicago, NYC, SF, etc–most any city with thriving public transit. Public transit means walking–to and from stations and stops–and that is a lot of what you see in these cities. If I’m taking the bus or train, which I always do, I’m walking at least 2-3 blocks downtown to and from my office. If I want to stop by a store that is 4 blocks away, I’ll walk that far and then continue on to the next station, which may be 7-8 blocks from my office. If I’m closer to a bus stop convenient for my commute, I’ll switch to that. The point is, the reliance of Milwaukee commuters on their cars means that they park in the structure next to their office, and typically don’t run errands downtown or hang out before or after work.

  14. TransitRider says:

    John, there are no supermarkets in Westown; citing driving time to stores in other neighborhoods is irrelevant if you don’t have a car.

    Besides serving thousands of Westown residents, a Grand Avenue market would also serve tens of thousands via today’s eleven major MCTS bus routes which pass within a quarter mile of the Grand Avenue; seven of those eleven bus routes pass the Grand Avenue directly (on Wisconsin, Michigan, or 2nd). Many of these buses pass through “food deserts” on their way downtown and would bring shoppers if there were a supermarket. No other place in Milwaukee is served by so many major (365 days/year) bus routes.

  15. MidnightSon says:

    Here’s some smart news. The RFP for the vacant 4th and Wisconsin site is being reissued.

    https://www.biztimes.com/2018/ideas/government-politics/wisconsin-center-district-wont-be-part-of-4th-and-wisconsin-development-plans/

    I didn’t remember that the original RFP stated that meeting space on the site would be booked, managed and catered by the Wisconsin Center District. (No wonder that’s why Jackson Street and Marcus went there in their proposals!)

    Here’s hoping someone proposes a viable residential/mixed use project for this site.

  16. DAG999 says:

    And to think that shortly after Grand Avenue opened in 1982, it was so successful that they thought of using that parcel and extending the mall up to the Hilton (which was then the Marc Plaza) to be enclosed by a glass atrium. There was a building that housed a corner MARC’s BIG BOY that they tore down around 1985 or so in anticipation of building on the land…and what I think was a rooming house over the old Mob hangout (FAZIOS restaurant, then the Starship club). What happened over 30 years ago that that–and a ton of proposals for other hotels on the site– never materialized?

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