Recreating A Suburb: Oak Creek Seizes Opportunity To Develop Town Center

Jan 11, 2016

When a major employer closes shop, it can leave a big hole in the community. But a different story is underway in Oak Creek, the sprawling suburb south of General Mitchell International Airport. Leaders there believe the city is turning a major loss into a treasure.

Drexel Town Square is coming to life on a huge, former industrial property in Oak Creek
Credit Rinka Chung Architecture Inc.

Picture a huge property -- larger than the Summerfest grounds -- that's fallen out of use, right in the heart of town. That's what happened in Oak Creek in 2008, when the former Delphi plant closed.

In its heyday, the enormous factory on the corner of Howell and Drexel employed more than 6,000 people.

"We had a million-square foot building that was used by Delco -- GM -- it served many purposes. It made catalytic converters in some of its lifespan, it made parts for the aerospace -- NASA -- but that was done and the building was vacant," says Mayor Steve Scaffidi. He says it was time to make way for something new.

A clock tower tops Oak Creek's new city hall and library in Drexel Town Square
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl

"We had the opportunity to take the building down at no cost in exchange for the recycled materials. We did that," Scaffidi says.

People began sharing ideas for the site. After much debate, what stuck was the concept of creating a Main Street, something the 60-year-old city never had.

Now, the area is known as Drexel Town Square. It includes a public square, as well as a new city hall and library.

Most of the other buildings are still under construction. They'll house retail and restaurants, including Bel Air Cantina.

"Their outdoor space is right...on the square, so I can imagine a year from now -- not in the wintertime, but in the warmer months -- where people can actually go out and have a drink and eat and be able to kind of take in the entire Drexel Town Square experience," Scaffidi says.

The Drexel Town Square development will include restaurants and retail on the ground level, with the Forge and Flair apartments on upper floors
Credit Rinka Chung Architecture Inc.

Scaffidi gives me a driving tour, heading to an outer ring of the development. It includes a Meijer store and a Water Street Brewery, both of which opened their doors last summer. Scaffidi says almost all of the remaining land has been sold.

He points out a couple of properties: "There's two sites up here that aren't developed currently. One of them just changed hands -- the property was sold two weeks ago -- is the site of a new hotel, 108-room hotel, and it's a Hyatt property that'll start construction in the spring," Scaffidi says.

"For this very large site to be activated, you have to have people that live there," says Matt Rinka of Rinka Chung Architecture Inc. It’s the master plan architect for Drexel Town Square, and designer of three apartment complexes on the site. When they're completed, they'll provide more than 500 units.

People are signing leases quickly for the Emerald Row apartments, which will open this year
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl

"Emerald Row as well as the Forge and Flair apartments on Main Street are going to be key to having residents that are there 24/7, live there, shop there, take their families or friends to the town square," Rinka says.

Rinka says instead of having a suburban feel, the Emerald Row apartments are meant to give the vibe of a boutique hotel. For instance, in the main entrance there's a lounge space, as well as a fireplace and concierge.

The apartments are much pricier than most others in the community. That doesn't appear to be scaring off residents. They're signing leases quickly.

The Emerald Row apartments will feature a concierge and other features to make the complex feel more like a boutique hotel
Credit Rinka Chung Architecture Inc.

Mayor Scaffidi believes the Drexel Town Square development marks a turning point for Oak Creek. Instead of shaking its head about the loss of a big employer, the city is breathing new life into the abandoned expanse.

"Cities can recreate themselves and this is our opportunity to do that," Scaffidi says.

Yet not every community can pull off a renewal on this scale. In our next report, we'll examine how Oak Creek has been able to orchestrate its new city center.