Public Policy Forum Blog

New Milwaukee effort avoids the pitfall of recreating suburbs

It is an uphill battle to revitalize downtown retail in this economy, but Milwaukee’s downtown Business Improvement District is responding by hiring Deanna Inniss to recruit retailers to the city.

One may question why her list of tasks, as reported by the Journal Sentinel, does not include the troubled Shops of Grand Avenue on Wisconsin Ave., and why she does not plan to recruit big box stores. A glance into Minneapolis’ experience with downtown retail indicates there may be sound reasons for such an approach.

The Minneapolis equivalent of the Shops of Grand Avenue is a $150 million development called Block E. Completed in 2002 with $39 million in city subsidies, the retail and entertainment complex was to revitalize a key downtown block and lure suburban shoppers to the city center. It has some features that many in Milwaukee would envy: the light rail line is just a few blocks away, and its complex contains a hotel, a 15-screen movie theater, restaurants, an arcade, and a bowling alley. It is within one block of popular downtown sporting events, a main music venue, and many nightclubs.

The debate over how to best draw people from the suburbs to spend their time and money in Milwaukee's downtown has included arguments for similar investments here: a light rail line, some brand new development with substantial city investment, and anchor stores like a movie theater and arcade. But despite having all of those things in Minneapolis, the 30% vacancy in Milwaukee’s downtown mall ends up being an exact match for the projected vacancy in Block E.

Recent coverage about Block E in the Minneapolis Star Tribune included “Downtown complex gets a C for challenged,” “’E’ may stand for ‘emptier’,” and a columnist whose opinion was summed up in the headline as, “Block E: Let’s put it out of its misery.” Crime outside Block E is an issue, its Borders bookstore closed, its nightclub closed, and major tenant Sega Gameworks just announced it will sublease its space due to declining revenue. In addition, few buildings in Minneapolis have produced such outspoken hatred regarding architectural choices. Block E’s new construction has been referred to by columnist James Lileks, who advocates a full tear-down, as a “faux-historical façade … the architectural version of the elephant designed by a committee.” One online commenter called it "a suburban eyesore." The end result is that many downtown convention-goers bypass Block E in favor of taking light rail to the suburban Mall of America.

By focusing on recruiting small independent street retailers that are unique to downtown, Milwaukee's Business Improvement District may avoid some of the pitfalls experienced by Minneapolis. The more difficult question is posed in a Journal Sentinel editorial board blog post: "OK, but what to do about Grand Avenue Mall?" There appear to be no easy answers for that. Trying to create a suburban mall experience in a downtown setting has been problematic here and elsewhere; perhaps capitalizing on the diverse street-level hustle and bustle of city life could hold promise for Milwaukee’s downtown.