What's Going On With The Grand Avenue Mall's Transformation?

Feb 3, 2017

This week’s Bubbler Talk question comes from Jeanne Pehoski, who wanted to know: When is the Grand Avenue going to be a go-to destination again and get some viable anchor stores and better offerings in the food court?

I met Jeanne at the mall in the heart of downtown Milwaukee, where she shops a couple times a month. She says she visits TJ Maxx and Walgreens - a couple of the stores that have survived for years.

Jeanne recalls the mall’s heyday when it opened in 1982. She says storefronts were occupied and the place was bustling, but now… “It’s depressing. I remember when it was a place that everybody came to but now it’s like a ghost town.”

Stores in the Grand Avenue began to close in the 1990s, as shoppers flocked to newer shopping centers and the mall lost someof its anchor stores. The mall has changed owners several times, but their efforts to revive it failed.

Yet, another set of investors took a chance last year and have promised to breathe new life into the place. They're considering a trendy mix of office space, shops, restaurants, even a grocery store.

I spoke with one of the new owners, Chuck Biller, shortly after the sale was announced. He says they want to move the food court from the third floor to ground level.

READ: Grand Avenue Developers Envision Dramatic Overhaul

“We’d also like to bring in a wider array of options in terms of type of food, fast casual and sit down and those types of restaurants,” Biller says.

On the left is the mall currently; right is a rendering of Grand Avenue's overhaul.
Credit TKWA URBANLAB

The new proprietors are expected to announce more plans in coming weeks.

Sean Ryan is watching developments for the Milwaukee Business Journal. He says shoppers aren’t seeing the transformation yet, because owners have been working behind the scenes.

“One of the things they’ve been working on is the purchase of space in the neighboring Matthews Building that connects to the western arcade of the Grand Avenue mall. They had to secure ownership of that building because it’s important for access to the new office space they wanted to build out,” he says.

Ryan says the owners also have been negotiating with new tenants. The first to sign on is bike rental company Bublr Bikes. It recently moved its headquarters from Schlitz Park to the lower level of the mall, in the atrium near Boston Store.

Bublr Bike's space in the Grand Avenue Mall.
Credit Michelle Maternowski

Bublr Bikes owner James Davies says he’s excited to be part of the mall’s new vision. “It aligns very well with Bublr’s vision and I’m very confident it will make for a successful venture,” he says.

Beth Weirick, executive director of Milwaukee Downtown, says she's confident the new owners will succeed in bringing back shoppers, in part, because foot traffic downtown is growing.

“We have seen our employee base grow in downtown Milwaukee, over 83,000 employees. We’ve seen our residential base growing, over 24,000 residents and those numbers continue to go up,” she says.

Weirick believes the timing is perfect, as the revamped mall will be opening at the same time as major new developments nearby. Those include the Bucks Arena, the streetcar and the Northwestern Mutual Life building.

The hope is that the mall will once again be as bustling as this image from 1983.
Credit Courtesy of Milwaukee Public Library

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