Economy & Business
1:00 am
Thu July 18, 2013

Changes Contemplated for Milwaukee's Westown

The Reuss Federal Plaza is one of Westown's best known buildings.

A local group wants to bring more "gusto" to Westown revitalization efforts.

An unanswered question for years has been - what to do with the parking lot across from the downtown convention center.

The city owns the lot.

It seems like prime real estate in Westown – with the Milwaukee Hilton to the west and Boston Store to the east.

However, Stacie Callies says the property might be most valuable without a building.

“This lot being on West Wisconsin Avenue I think is kind of a unique opportunity to build a gathering green space. Could there be an ice skating rink? Could there be a place to do art events on the Avenue? I think bringing this activity to the Avenue itself is kind of the key,” Callies says.

Callies works for the Westown Association.

It sponsors outdoor concerts and other seasonal events such as a farmer’s market.

She says the green space idea emerged during the recent strategizing sessions – so did calls for residential units.

An empty lot stretches between 4th and 5th Streets across from the Wisconsin District Convention Center. Today, a parking lot, it used to be the site of the Randolph Hotel.

Mayor Tom Barrett calls living space an essential component to enlivening downtown west.

He says the neighborhood near the central library is perfect for apartments.

“We could start attracting young faculty at Marquette University, young people who live in the city and work downtown,” Barrett says.

Barrett says there are plenty of older buildings developers could transform.

Some already have.

For example, the former Wisconsin Hotel and upper floors of Boston Store are now apartments.

According to city records, Westown has added 12-hundred living units in recent years; the mayor says 90 percent of their residents are under age 35.

A popular pub fills part of the street level space of the Posner Building at Plankinton and Wisconsin. A plan to redevelop upper floors into residential and office units fell through and the building remains empty.

David Price is a local real estate agent specializing in downtown rentals.

“You know such a big thing about housing is “walkable,” that’s a big term we hear now. That’s a perfect area if we wanted to make our downtown more walkable, and have bars and nice restaurants in every direction, that’s a perfect place to expand our housing,” Price says.

The proximity of attractions lured Claude Krawczyk  and his wife.

They bought a condo on the ninth floor of an old furniture store on Plankinton.

From the rooftop deck, Krawczyk  can point to many of his favorite haunts.

“We are really at the heart of Milwaukee. We can take a walk down to the lakefront and be there in 10 minutes. We can walk to the Marquette and Bucks games, which we do, and be there in three or four minutes. We can walk to any one of a dozen restaurants on this block, without crossing a street, which I think is very cool,” Krawczyk says.

The former Hotel Wisconsin, now apartments, and the Milwaukee County Courthouse are visible from the rooftop patio of the former Nelson Bros. Furniture store. The building has been converted to condominiums.

Krawczyk grew up above a family owned grocery store on 6th and Becher, on Milwaukee’s south side.

Now he harbors high hopes for Westown.

In fact, he helped create a group called the Downtown Neighbors Association –D N A for short.

“We like the DNA  acronym because like DNA provides all the building materials for the body, we feel like the residents provide the building materials for the body of downtown,” Krawczyk says.

More people living in Westown would help power a renaissance, according to Alderman Bob Baumann.

However, he finds another crucial element lacking – a robust commercial presence.

“I think that is where the city should direct its resources in terms of providing public investment in projects. When there’s more people which are following those types of developments, retail will materialize on its own, because they’ll see the people,” Baumann says.

One idea strategists germinated during their Westown brainstorming session won’t have to wait.

The group will create a redevelopment corporation.

Its job will be to market Westown to retail and residential developers.