MILWAUKEE — Is this the time it’s finally going to work?
Anyone who’s lived in Milwaukee for any length of time knows the decades-long tale of promise and disappointment following the Grand Avenue Mall property. The signature piece of the years-long redevelopment is set to open this summer, and with it a formula the investors and partners believe will finally be the one that works.
“There’s so much nostalgia for this place. So much early childhood memories,” the current property owner Josh Krsnak began, detailing conversations he has had with long-time Milwaukeeans. He wouldn’t otherwise know. He’s from Minneapolis.
“And then there’s almost this like, sadness,” he continues, “…that the building was let go.”
For a guy who’s only been invested in Milwaukee for five years, Krsnak has the relationship between the people and this property pretty well figured out. So many remember it fondly. Wish it had survived. Thought each attempt at revival might be for real, and then found themselves disappointed over and over again. There is a “sadness” about it.
Krsnak is President & CEO of Hempel Companies. He buys properties all over the country and discovered Grand Avenue, this is true, on a website called DeadMalls.com.
“I didn’t see that when I walked in here,” Krsnak said. “It was just this beautiful structure. It had wonderful bones. I saw just a clean palette. I had no preconceived notions.”
That’s important. It was that fresh perspective that led Krsnak to telling anyone who would listen that the key to saving the Grand Avenue Mall was to make it… not a mall.
“It wasn’t until you took the mall and said, this is not a mall anymore. This is housing. This is office space. This is amenity space. Until you take that concept, that’s why it was always going to fail.”
That was a tough sell in Milwaukee.
Krsnak paid just $750,000 for three blocks of downtown real estate, and he couldn’t get anyone around here to finance his new vision. “I went to almost every bank in town, initially, and first of all no one knew who I was. Second of all, they had this history of the mall, of the millions of dollars that had been lost converting this thing over years, building and converting it.”
He financed a residential build-out with cash, before finally attracting additional investors and financing. “The Avenue” as it’s now called, has former retail space converted to apartments that are fully leased. Other areas converted to office space, leased to 75%, and the final piece of the puzzle… a dining and entertainment space set to open in the old area where that giant bear used to ride the tight rope.
“I don’t think I’ve believed in anything more than this project,” declared local businessman and restaurateur Omar Shaikh.
He’s leading the redevelopment in that atrium area, converting it to a food hall to be called 3rd Street Market Hall.
It’s not a food court. Shaikh points out major differences. 3rd Street Market Hall will open with at least a dozen vendors and room for at least a dozen more. Local ingredients. Local restaurants or start-ups. Chef prepared foods, and a solid business model.
“Food halls you’ll see have a lot higher success rate,” Shaikh explained. “Almost the opposite of restaurants, because restaurateurs can get in for a smaller investment and put their concept where a lot of people are. We’re surrounded by 2 million square feet of office space.”
The Market Hall will also be heavy on experience. There will be tons to do inside. Shuffleboard courts. Video game centers. A place to take selfies. Top Golf simulators. Some game called snookball that’s like billiards with soccer balls. A huge central bar for hanging out and watching sports. It’s all meant to be part of the draw for food and entertainment.
Shaikh is a local guy. He remembers old Grand Avenue fondly. He also understands selling yet another promise of revitalization is a challenge. “For me personally, hearing a lot of people say they don’t think it’s going to work, you know, how are you going to turn around the stigmatism of Grand Avenue and I think it’s already turning around.”
He points to other major developments in West Town, including Fiserv Forum and the Milwaukee Symphony’s soon to open new home in the former Grand Theater across the street. Shaikh believes it’s all coming together. “I think I’ll be in tears, to tell you the truth because I know what’s going to happen. It’s not just going to happen. I know we’re going to have a line out the door.”
Meanwhile, the guy from Minneapolis is putting the finishing touches on amenities to attract more residential and business leases. He’s building pickleball courts where Linens and Things used to be. An indoor dog park is almost complete. He can do it, because he paid so little for the property in which his fresh eyes saw so much promise.
“There’s a bunch of great developers in town that build a bunch of nice high rises, Krsnak observed. “Their costs are over $300 a foot. A lot of these guys are $400 a foot. I bought this building for $5 a foot.”
Now with things turning around, Krsnak says he’s slowly converting skeptics into believers. “A lot of real big stakeholders in the city started to say, oh my gosh, this is real this time.”
He’s dropped “Grand” from the name, but may just be the guy who puts the grand back in this historic piece of Milwaukee.