More shopping ahead? Barely.
More shopping ahead? Barely.
If crowds and lines make you nervous, then you might be in luck.
If crowds and lines make you nervous, then you might be in luck.
5 p.m. on a weeknight during holiday shopping season at the Shops of Grand Avenue.
5 p.m. on a weeknight during holiday shopping season at the Shops of Grand Avenue.

The empty shops of the not-so-Grand Avenue

Even though I do most of my shopping online these days, procrastination and morbid curiosity sent me to Milwaukee's suburban malls recently. With Hanukkah right around the corner (it starts Wednesday night), I waded through the jam-packed stores at Southridge and Mayfair malls.

Recession? Don't tell that to these shoppers.

Today, for scientific research purposes only, I thought I should check in with our Downtown mall, the Shops of Grand Avenue.

This may not be news for anyone who has been there lately, but the Grand couldn't be less so. It's an empty, pitiful eyesore, and it doesn't need new owners, it needs to be demolished or completely reinvented.

On the other hand, if crowds and lines make you nervous, then you're in luck.

I could use this platform to discuss the many potential reasons this once great destination is now a flop. We could talk about the social-economic or racial stereotypes that may or may not drive people to the suburbs for their shopping. We could even speculate whether a Downtown mall can survive anywhere, much less on Wisconsin Avenue.

Or, we can leave that talk for another day, and just report what was going on the month before Christmas, 2010. The answer: not much.

The east side of the mall is incredibly empty, other than T.J. Maxx and a dry cleaner. The skywalk holds a Stone Creek Coffee. The west portion still has Walgreen's, a few hat shops, Brew City Beer Gear, a smattering of jewelry stores and nail salons, the food court and the mall's anchor, Boston Store. But even Boston Store was largely empty at 5 p.m. during the height of holiday shopping.

But I didn't have to wait in line for a slice of pizza at Rocky Rococo's. And, lest you suspect I'm contributing to the mall's decline, I bought myself a $9.99 dopp kit at T.J. Maxx.

If you think I'm picking on the Grand Avenue Mall, well, I am, but I don't take pleasure in it. I remember when it opened, and it was a big deal to drive Downtown and visit. I remember the Puzzle Box and Marshall Fields and a jungle-themed Banana Republic and a bear on a tight rope. The mall was a beautiful, old piece of architecture that hearkened back to another era Downtown.

Now it's our city's biggest retail letdown.

It actually angers me, and not just because OnMilwaukee.com is a vendor of and partner of both the Westown Association and the Milwaukee Downtown Business Improvement District. I'm embarrassed when first-time visitors to Milwaukee view this shell of its former self and assume that's all we have to offer. For all the vibrant shops in the Third Ward, on Brady Street, in Bay View and on the East Side, the Grand Avenue is like a beacon announcing that Downtown is dead.

I'm not a city planner, so other than complaining, any suggestions I make to improve the Grand Avenue Mall would be ignorant and without merit. Sure, I'd love to see it converted into a Target, and IKEA or a House of Blues. But I'd also settle for condos or a casino.

Anything but this.

According to a report in the Business Journal, one of the debt holders on the mall was the high bidder in the October auction for the property. It's a credit transaction, which means no cash was paid, and the mall's management wouldn't comment on the deal.

But I will. It's time to start fresh. As sad as it looks, though, my advice is this: go the Grand Avenue one more time. Before it goes away for good. Then say goodbye to a Milwaukee landmark past its prime.

I'd love to hear your thoughts using the Talkback feature below.

Talkbacks

numa201064 | Dec. 19, 2010 at 10:54 p.m. (report)

35796 It's a dinosaur let it die. online is the venue of the future no parking hassles and a fresh bottle of wine in the cooler.

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DowntownRed | Dec. 6, 2010 at 12:13 p.m. (report)

Milwaukee is not alone with their problem of a "dead" downtown mall. Similar cities including Cincinnati, St. Louis and Salt Lake City all have malls that have declined over the year. Milwaukee was lucky to have theirs last this long. We could take the approach that Columbus, OH did and tear down the entire downtown mall that was only 20 years old. They are now making the entire space their "signature" downtown park (http://www.downtowncolumbus.com/progress/columbus-commons).

I really don't think we'll see any change to Grand Avenue until Bon-Ton makes a decision about what to do with the Boston Store. Yes, a lot of their offices are there but they could easily close the store and move the offices back to York, PA or someplace else.

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CarolV | Dec. 6, 2010 at 10:27 a.m. (report)

I think its free parking with $5 in receipts for the first 1-3 hours I believe. Meters $1.50/hr on the street. But honestly, if you go to any larger city you are paying for downtown parking - Chicago parking is soooooo expensive for example downtown in lots. Not a lot of meter options there.

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oldmike | Dec. 5, 2010 at 12:05 p.m. (report)

I agree with WFBMommy about the parking. Grand Avenue is the onl shopping venue around here that I know of which requires you to pay for parking. People go out of their way to save 2 cents per gallon on gas. They are reluctant to come downtown vs another mall. Parking downtown has always been an aversion to many people. Free parking after $75 dollars? Not if you are just browsing.

Milwaukee needs a master plan. A long range plan, not a series of mistakes that fight each other.

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spoon.fork | Dec. 4, 2010 at 2:28 a.m. (report)

a house of blues would add into the mix of the pabst-riverside-turner hall triad, and complement the big gig and other festivals. Many of our ethnic and other fests have great musical talent as well, and I think this could further a reputation as a real happening place. Just a few blocks away is the bradley center who has big acts like bon jovi...we have incredible live music here, and the triad i mentioned hosts awesome, fresh, up and coming talent of a wide variety. why not build a rep as a little austin city? everyone i talk to is so impressed with the wide variety of musical acts that Im able to enjoy
here in milwaukee. we need more advertising/promotion regarding this, as the music scene here is a real hidden gem, but without the hassels of chicago traffic and crowds. The acoustics and intimacy of the beautiful northern lights theater at potowatomi is mind blowing--and needs to be promoted more too, and be included into this magical musical circle. Including shank hall to the east, and the rave to the west!

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