By GREG MOORE
MILWAUKEE (AP) — A few years from now, downtown Milwaukee won’t look much like it did a few years ago.
The core of Wisconsin’s largest city is being transformed by hundreds of millions of dollars and more than a thousand workers combining to renovate dozens of old buildings, erect three new skyscrapers and establish a new streetcar project.
The blast of activity — which Mayor Tom Barrett said at a recent groundbreaking ceremony was the result of the “greatest amount of investment we’ve seen in our lifetime” — is particularly welcome as the city seeks to boost its regional profile and shake its Rust Belt reputation. It hopes to attract businesses and workers to an area that just a generation ago was “deader than a doorknob,” according to Diane Hamiel, longtime owner of The Sophisticated Man, a clothing boutique.
In years past, Milwaukee’s downtown was essentially a corporate office park that cleared out each day at 5 p.m., but it’s since become a magnet for restaurants, hotels and apartments, continuing a national trend toward downtown projects fueled by research that shows millennials and empty nesters prefer city life.
“It’s great, because for years I never came down here. This was not the place you wanted to hang out,” Mitz Erickson, owner of The Soup House, said. “We’re catching up to the rest of the country.”
Many credit former Mayor John Norquist with laying a foundation for growth. Norquist, who led the city from the late ’80s through the early 2000s, said he focused on “the ingredients that make people want to develop downtown.” He cited the construction of the Riverwalk, rewritten regulations to allow outside dining and work to eliminate one-way streets to make it easier to get around as examples of his approach.
Today, development plans call for the skyline to be reshaped by high-rises of 32, 33 and 44 stories. A mostly empty corridor will be home to a new NBA arena, and potentially a large entertainment district — a pair of developments that could cost more than $1 billion over the next several years. And long-dormant sites such as the Pabst Brewery Complex have been turned into lofts, shops and classrooms by tens of millions of dollars in work.
The 32-story project will become an office building for Northwestern Mutual that the financial company says will allow it to keep about 1,000 jobs in Milwaukee and add nearly 2,000 over the next 15 years. The $450 million project overlooks Lake Michigan and should be complete in about two years.
The same company’s real estate arm is developing a $100 million, 33-story luxury apartment building nearby as an investment. Tony Zale, head of the firm’s real estate arm, said the company is confident there’s room on the market for the 324 upscale units.
The 44-story Couture project, meanwhile, is a planned mixed-use residential development that aims to be as stylish as the name suggests. Matt Rinka, the high-rise’s architect, said a nested ellipse — an interlocking series of oval-like shapes — will form a sleek and slender tower to replace a squat transit center that Milwaukee County spokesman Teig Whaley-Smith has called a “glorified bus shelter.”
The design, Rinka said, seeks to speak to “a city that’s putting itself on the map internationally with great architecture.” He cited the Calatrava architectural structure at the city’s art museum — which is debuting its own $34 million renovation nearby — as another example of acclaimed and progressive design.
Rinka’s $122 million lakefront project would become one of the tallest skyscrapers in the state, and work is expected to begin soon.
It will feature a transportation center that includes a hub for a new streetcar, a project Milwaukee leaders have argued over for a quarter-century. Plans call for the roughly $125 million streetcar project to go online within the next few years.
Business owners such as Hamiel and Erickson hope the developments continue to pump new customers through their doors. Both have noticed an uptick in recent years and want it to continue.
“It’s totally different” now, Hamiel said. “We really thank God.”
“Hopefully, our business thrives more from it,” Erickson said. “Hopefully, they keep more local businesses.”