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Grand Avenue Developers Envision Dramatic Overhaul

Credit TKWA UrbanLab
Rendering of an outdoor alley.

The new owners unveiled ambitious plans Monday for the 300,000 square foot Grand Avenue Mall in downtown Milwaukee, including a trendy mix of office space, shops, restaurants and even a grocery store.

The planners say they're confident their vision will help bring back the crowds.

Shoppers have dwindled since the Grand Avenue Mall first opened in the early 1980s. Today, a few stores still lure people, so does the food court – especially during the work week. But some spaces seem to draw virtually no one’s attention.

While standing in the atrium, looking up at the food court, Chuck Biller says it’s one of the first places he wants to redesign.  

“We’re going to bring those food uses down from the third floor and bring it down to the first floor. Some of those users might stay but we also want to bring in a wider array of options both in terms of the type of food and also maybe fast casual and sit-down and those types of restaurants,” Biller says.

Credit TKWA UrbanLab
On the left is the mall currently; right is a rendering of Grand Avenue's overhaul.

Biller is one of three new owners of the Grand Avenue.

He says one problem with the mall’s current design: it’s hard to find your way into the place. So, he wants to break out the glass enclosure at the mall’s main entrance on 3rd and Wisconsin and put in a street-level restaurant with outdoor seating.

Credit TKWA UrbanLab
Rendering of office space

Biller says in addition, he wants to try something new – create office space on the top floors of the atrium.

“We’ve got these beautiful skylights. We’ve got large open floor plates and what we want to do is create the type of office space to attract employees because it’s the kind of fun, open office concept that they think the young workforce is more attracted to,” he says.

Also in the works are plans for a grocery store at the Plankinton end of the mall, opposite TJ Maxx.

Biller says he’s lived in Milwaukee for much of his life and has seen the mall change hands several times. He thinks the facelift will cater to young people, to all the new residents living downtown and to other developments.

Credit TKWA UrbanLab
Left - current exterior of the Grand Avenue; right - rendering of upgraded mall.

“There are some great things around us. Marquette has just announced this $120 million athletic research facility a couple blocks to our west, there are a number of multi-family developments that are happening, there’s the Buckler to our south, we’ve got MK Lofts, we just think the wind is at our back,” Biller says.

Also in the general vicinity will be the huge new Bucks Arena and entertainment complex.

Yolanda Johnson works downtown and says she shops here occasionally. She’s excited about the overhaul. “When you think about all the developments that are coming around here, the apartments and condos, all the new businesses, we really do need more options down here. Since the mall isn’t going anywhere they might as well make it better, right?” Johnson asks.

Johnson says she remembers when Grand Avenue opened in 1982 and the hordes of shoppers it drew. So does Rocky Marcoux, head of the Department of City Development. He says there are several reasons why the crowds dwindled.

“The mall started as a major regional shopping destination that a lot of people were very excited about.  It brought a lot of people downtown at the time, because a lot of the shopping was unique to Grand Avenue. But when those unique shopping experiences were repeated in other malls such as Mayfair, Bayshore, Southridge, Northridge, Brookfield Square, folks in the suburbs who came down for those shopping opportunities no longer came to do that, they could do that in their backyards,” Marcoux says.

Marcoux says he has a good feeling that this makeover will succeed. He says the city hasn’t contributed any money this time, but it has created TIF districts over the years to help keep the mall afloat. They essentially extend property tax help.

The new owners purchased the Grand Avenue in December for more than $24 million. They would not commit to a timetable for their project.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.
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