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First-floor retail shows vitality, but not reality

By Marie Rohde

Urban planners say Milwaukee needs first-floor retail space with new construction, but developers say the need isn’t there and the city should relax its requirements.

The topic of empty retail space seems to come up in every planning discussion in the city — developers questioned it when the updated downtown plan was released recently and again last week at a public hearing on the proposed architectural review board for the east side.

In theory, the first floor retail space is intended to “engage the street;” to give a commercial district a sense of vitality. But what happens when the market doesn’t respond to the demands of the planners and those stores and shops sit vacant?

Jerry Franke, president of Wispark LLC, a development subsidiary of Wisconsin Energy Corp., urged the city’s Plan Commission to focus on revitalizing the Shops of Grand Avenue in Milwaukee. He agreed that the city’s requirement that new development have first-floor retail space was a problem.

“We’ve talked to the city about that and we’re pleased that we are making some progress,” Franke said.

Mike Mervis, vice-president of Milwaukee-based Zilber Ltd., says downtown is grossly overbuilt with retail space and the city needs to back off a bit. He also says the city needs to change its focus from planning for development to planning for economic development.

“The city has no overall economic development policy,” Mervis said. “They need to ask whether a plan is going to create new jobs in the long term. Everything needs to fit under that umbrella.”

Marie Rohde is a staff writer at The Daily Reporter. She can be reached at (414) 225-1807.

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