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Explosion of Development Seen in Downtown Milwaukee

Marti Mikkelson
Workers are preparing SpringHill Suites to open later this year in downtown Milwaukee.

There seems to be renewed interest in downtown Milwaukee. This week, another hotelier announced plans to build on a lot near the Shops of Grand Avenue. 

It’s just the latest hotel in the works, while hundreds ofnew apartmentsare also in the formative stages. Several factors are behind the activity.

Ald. Bob Bauman sits at a table in the atrium of the Grand Avenue mall. He’s excited about all the new development in his downtown district.

“Downtown Milwaukee is on a big upswing, there’s no question about it. We’ve had about $2.8 billion in new investments since 2005 and we have $2.1 billion either on the drawing board or in the planning stages,” Bauman says.

Credit Solomon Cordwell Buenz
Rendering of the apartment building.

He specifically cites the Northwestern Mutualtowerunder construction, and the company’s future apartment building that will begin rising in spring. The alderman believes some developers appreciate Milwaukee’s downtown assets.

“I think the proximity to the lakefront, I think our Riverwalk, I think the quality of historic buildings that Milwaukee has,” Bauman says.

Bauman cites another factor regarding the hotel boom downtown - the EB5program.

“It provides an opportunity for foreign investors to invest in different types of real estate projects to create jobs in exchange for green cards for themselves and their families. That project has funded most of the new hotels that have been built in the past eight to 10 years,” he says.

Bauman admits, there are concerns about the program.

“Some in the hotel business argue that this EB5 program is artificially distorting the market. It’s creating incentives for hotel development based on immigration benefits and not return on investment. It’s not really the economics of the deal that’s motivating the investment, it’s the fact that somebody’s going to get a green card,” he says.

Yet Bauman enjoys touting the city’s strengths; for instance, traffic congestion is minimal. City Development Director Rocky Marcoux also cites accessibility as the reason residential development is booming. He says 1,700 apartment and condo units are currently being built and he expects them to attract young people and empty nesters.

“They can live here, they can work, they can play, they can learn, all of the things that you want in a strong, vibrant community and a lot of it’s walkable within the various neighborhoods and before long it will be connected to the streetcar network, so these are all important pieces of that puzzle that are coming into play right now,” Marcoux says.

Marcoux attributes the catalyst for the building boom to Northwestern Mutual Life. The company has been headquartered in the city for more than a century. In 2014, it broke ground on a 32-story office tower and will follow it with a high-rise apartment complex. Sandy Botcher of NML says it wants downtown Milwaukee to become attractive to young people.

“We have a beautiful campus that overlooks Lake Michigan. When we were thinking about where we would want to build, the firms we were asking to help us think about that looked at our location and said you have a stunning spot on the doorstep of Lake Michigan and you really ought to capitalize on that,” Botcher says.

Botcher expects the surge in downtown development to spill into the surrounding neighborhoods. For instance, she says NML is patronizing local suppliers during the construction phase of the tower.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.
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