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Grand Avenue owners unveil plans to transform downtown mall

Updated: Dec 8, 2017

Old-fashioned, enclosed urban mall to transform into a first-floor marketplace mixing stores and restaurants, with modern, millennial-friendly offices above.

Milwaukee Business Journal [April 25, 2016]

The Shops of Grand Avenue’s owners want to convert the old-fashioned, enclosed urban mall into a first-floor marketplace mixing stores and restaurants, with modern, millennial-friendly offices above.

The owners team on Monday unveiled their vision to redefine the West Wisconsin Avenue property in downtown Milwaukee. Key components of the plan include opening more of the mall’s large Western Arcade to the city sidewalks and renovating its upper two floors into a large new office space.Included in the vision is a new grocery store or brewpub that would open onto Wisconsin Avenue in the space formerly occupied by Linens ‘n Things in the Grand Avenue’s historic Plankinton Arcade space.The Aggero Group and Minneapolis developer Hempel Cos. bought the Grand Avenue and its attached parking structure in December. Prior to that sale, Grand Avenue, like other urban, enclosed malls throughout the nation, had stagnated. Tony Janowiec and Chuck Biller, principals of Aggero Group, said they want to build off the myriad projects around the mall. That includes a new Marquette University athletic center that will draw people for events, and apartment projects that are attracting residents and turning Westown into a real neighborhood.“The Grand Avenue is the epicenter of downtown and it’s literally central to all of these fantastic uses that are occurring around the city,” Janowiec said. “The Grand Avenue is still sitting in an incarnation in a pre-recession era, in a development type that no longer works. It’s been in purgatory and it’s just not with the times.”

The owners' plans mean big changes for the newest portions of the mall, which stretch between Second and Fourth streets and includes the three-level Western Arcade with the Grand Avenue food court.“Everything we do has one objective -- it’s to put a lot of people in the building who aren’t there today,” Janowiec said. “We sit in an environment where the market around Grand Avenue is completely different. It’s a neighborhood now. We have all of these vibrant uses. There are more employees now than ever.”The large Western Arcade space would get an extensive renovation. Retailers and the food court would move out of its upper two levels. Those levels would be expanded with more floor space and renovated into a modern office space.The two floors could have a combined 120,000 rentable square feet of office space that could be filled by multiple companies, or one large tenant.“When we hear about the type of work environment that employers are looking for — an environment that facilitates collaboration, where people are excited about coming to work — this is the type of space employers are looking for, where they feel they can recruit the type of employees they need to succeed,” Janowiec and Biller said.

The center of the arcade would remain open to the rooftop skylight, so the offices would overlook the urban marketplace below, potentially with open patio spaces.That street-level, interior marketplace is a different concept than what is currently in the mall, and it starts with major changes to the entrances. The marketplace would have a greater variety of stores, restaurants and bars that would run through the Western Arcade and east down the current mall space to open onto Second Street. The Second Street entrance and doorways at Old World Third Street and Wisconsin Avenue would be completely redone.The large glass atrium at the Third Street entrance would be removed. Instead, it would be a covered, open plaza. An overhead door would be installed that, during the summer, could open to become a wide walkway into the interior marketplace.The Applebee's restaurant space would be opened up to have outdoor seating and a second-floor patio. The former OfficeMax store space next to the entrance could become a restaurant.“We’re trying to make it more of a place where the community gathers and wants to spend time,” Biller said. “We want to make it more accessible to the street and more integrated into West Wisconsin Avenue.”

Attracting that office tenant to the upper floors could be a linchpin for the renovation. Biller and Janowiec said they prefer to get a company to rent that office space before moving ahead with other planned renovations to the Western Arcade area. The main office tenant will also play a big role in defining the future of the mall, they said.“We’re showing naming rights, that’s such an understatement,” Janowiec said. “The user here gets to write the community development story this project creates.”Plans for the historic Plankinton Arcade involve less rehab, since the owners want to preserve the space. The intent is to keep the T.J. Maxx store, Janowiec said. But several tenants have expressed interest in the other half of the Plankinton space, formerly occupied by Linens ‘n Things. Those range from breweries, to brewpubs to grocery stores, Janowiec and Biller said.Regardless of whether it’s a brewpub or grocery, the Plankinton building’s sidewalk-level facade along Wisconsin Avenue would open up along that vacant space, creating a place potentially for outdoor seating.



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