Developable Land Grows Scarce, as Milwaukee Riverwalk Building Boom Continues

Mar 31, 2015

Downtown Milwaukee is in the midst of a building boom, including along the Milwaukee River.

The North End development was built along the Milwaukee River, on land that once housed the Pfister & Vogel tannery
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl

The city credits its ongoing Riverwalk construction for luring people to a stretch of land most had ignored.

Now as the decades-long project nears an end, builders are gobbling up the remaining land along the walkway.

There have been so many projects along the Milwaukee River, you can’t write a list that’s both short and comprehensive.

 “If you look at valuation increases in the city of Milwaukee on property that is along the river system, over $1 billion of development,” says Milwaukee Development Commissioner Rocky Marcoux.

The projects include corporate headquarters, restaurants and lots of housing.

Development continues on additional buildings in the North End complex
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl

“Two-thousand units of new folks living along the river is an extraordinary amount of growth for any city, but particularly Milwaukee, which had not seen a significant increase in its downtown population until really the last 15 years,” Marcoux says.

A lot of the riverfront development is on former industrial land. It’s available because factories went out of business.

On the east bank of the river, land where the former Pfister & Vogel tannery stood is now the mixed-use North End complex.

A couple blocks to the north, similar activity could be underway later this year, on the site of another former tannery.

“It’s now a huge, vacant lot along the river,” says Milwaukee Ald. Nik Kovac.

A 400-unit apartment complex is slated for the old Gallun Tannery land. Kovac says the project would include construction of one of the final, unfinished portions of the Riverwalk.

Condos and apartments dominate the neighborhood on the west bank of the Milwaukee River, just south of North Ave.
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl

“There are really two main goals the city has for this. One, is we’d like to get taxable residential development there, and the other is we’d like a beautiful and accessible Riverwalk, so this proposal gives us both of those things,” Kovac says.

Kovac believes development has flourished along the riverfront, because people are drawn to the water’s calming effect.

“There’s something to be said for just looking out your window and watching the water go by,” Kovac says.

Yet for some, the draw to the riverfront is the hive of activity nearby.

Vacant land on the west bank of the Milwaukee River, near North Ave., will be preserved as green space
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl

“This is where the young people are. When we’re looking for a new staff, they want to be downtown somewhere, because this is where the action is,” says David Raysich, managing partner at Plunkett-Raysich Architects. The company is building its new headquarters in an old warehouse in the Fifth Ward, just across the street from the river.

“This is where the apartments are, the restaurants, Summerfest, a lot to do at lunch time, a lot to do after work, so it just seemed the logical thing for us to move here,” Raysich says.

The building will replace the company’s suburban offices.

Raysich believes riverfront development will continue as long as plots of land remain available.

Kimberly Gleffe hopes projects remain focused along the Riverwalk. She heads the River Revitalization Foundation.

“I think a lot of the density that’s being kept downtown and along the Riverwalk is a really good thing. It helps us protect the upstream corridor,” Gleffe says.

Plunkett-Raysich Architects is renovating an old warehouse across the street from the river, just south of downtown, as the firm's new headquarters
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl

Yet Gleffe also urges planners to integrate open and green spaces in development along the walkway.

“We need to balance that built and natural environment, especially where all these people are living,” Gleffe says.

Ald. Kovac reminds development critics that local officials have passed zoning rules for projects upstream from North Ave. They keep buildings from being too close to the water’s edge, or so tall that they mar the view.

“You have to plan for some parks, but you do need buildings in between them, or you don’t have a city,” Kovac says.