A look inside the conversion of the Grand Avenue into The Avenue
For some, the idea of a bustling Grand Avenue Mall might seem like a fantasy, but the year before I moved to Milwaukee, I was here for the opening of the mall and the place was packed. When I relocated the following summer, it was much the same.
Every space was rented, every eatery busy serving food, most every store seemingly doing a bang-up business. I worked at Woolworth's then and it was two stories and busy busy. By the early '90s, I worked at the Schwartz Bookshop in the mall and even then, the place was alive with activity.
But that would soon fade and ever since, the sprawling complex – from the former Gimbels along the river to Boston Store on 4th Street, including the gorgeous Plankinton Arcade (pictured above) and the so-called "new mall" between Boston Store and 2nd Street – struggled with declining sales, shuttered shops and a self-perpetuating ghost town reputation.
Now, the plan to convert the new mall side into office space with some retail and a first-floor food hall, called 3rd Street Market Hall – much of which is expected to be up and running by the end of the year – is well underway.
So is the plan to convert the former mezzanine level shops in the arcade to residential units (which have verandas facing the arcade's interior, pictured above).
The development is called The Avenue, harking back to the days when that was shorthand for Wisconsin Avenue, then the city's major shopping destination.
A number of the Plankinton Clover apartments are leased and some already house tenants. An amenities area (pictured below), with a conference room, yoga studio, fitness studio and more will occupy the easternmost part of the second floor of the new mall.
You'll be able to get a peek inside some of the apartments when seven of them combine to become this year's Breast Cancer Showhouse, June 1-16. Admission to the "Urban Showhouse" will be $25 in advance and $30 at the door. Proceeds will benefit the fight against breast cancer. Details are here.
For now, the first floor retail that remains active in the new mall – Walgreens, Foot Locker, Rainbow, GNC, etc. – will stay in place, though once the food hall and office spaces are complete it, too, will likely get a refresh.
Among the office tenants already committed are Graef USA, Milwaukee Downtown BID #21 (in the adjacent Matthews Brothers Building) and Bublr Bikes, which will remain in its current space.
Part of the food hall plan includes a beer hall that will occupy the former Applebee's restaurant, most recently home to the Brew City MKE Beer Museum.
The Avenue's developers, Interstate Development Partners, are still hoping to land a grocery store in the former Linens 'N Things space on the main floor of the Plankinton Arcade.
You can see renderings of the project at the development's web site.
Although it will forever alter the mall as we knew it – turning formerly open-to-the-public space into private commercial and residential areas, and filling in much of the wide-open atrium area in the "new mall" – I'm hopeful The Avenue will return this broad and increasingly moribund Downtown space to a vibrant hub of Westown.
Here are some photos of the demolition underway:
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