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West Side Story: Former Grand Avenue Mall begins transformation

Posted at 6:54 AM, Mar 26, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-26 08:51:53-04

The former Grand Avenue Mall is unrecognizable this week, as construction crews demolish the interior of the lobby at 3rd and Wisconsin. The Avenue, as the property is now called, is undergoing a transformation, not only in the physical space, but in the tenants it attracts.

Instead of Gimbels and Boston Store, which bookended the shopping experience when the mall opened in 1982, businesses and residential development will anchor the property. GRAEF, a Milwaukee based planning, engineering and design firm is moving its headquarters to the property.

“We were involved when this whole development happened, and if you were in Milwaukee at that time, you might remember. It was a big thing,” GRAEF President and CEO John Kissinger said.

GRAEF helped design the urban mall when it launched an intended renaissance on the west side of downtown. Now the company will move its 170 corporate employees from a business park near the Zoo Interchange, to a vastly remodeled third floor of The Avenue.

“If you’re used to going to the old food mall,” Kissinger siad. “You’ll probably have a hard time imagining what it’s going to look like once we redo the space and add a significant amount of space to that third floor.”

Kissinger is a Milwaukee native, and like so many, remembers what the Grand Avenue Mall was supposed to be. When it opened, it was packed with shoppers, vibrant and bright. The revitalization that it was intended to spur other developments proved unsustainable.

For years, changes were made in hope they would bring the mall back to its former glory, but nothing ever stuck.

This time, Kissinger thinks it’s different.

“I don’t really view us as a trailblazer," he said. "The Symphony across the street here, I think that’s critical in our view in thinking of what the Symphony is doing to the Grand Theater and the huge investment they’re making. I think the Bucks arena, and the huge investment just a few blocks from here, and I do think the food hall that’s going to be going in here. I think it’s reached a point where, a flashpoint, where we’re quite hopeful that if you look at this neighborhood five years from now it will be significantly different than it is today.”

Both the food hall and GRAEF headquarters projects are expected to be finished late this year.