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New Owners Release Plan To Revamp Milwaukee’s Downtown Mall

A rendering of one of the revamped entrances. 

A new ownership group unveiled plans Monday for a major redesign of Milwaukee’s flagging downtown mall. Milwaukee-based Aggero Group partnered with Hempel Cos, a Minneapolis-based firm, to buy the Grand Avenue buildings late last year.

The plans released Monday would create a marketplace of retailers and restaurants on the ground floor of one of the complex’s three buildings, while the two upper levels would become 120,000 square feet of flexible office space. Owners are also working to attract a compact, urban grocery store to anchor a second building.

Developers say office space would bring hundreds of potential customers to the city center for the complex’s shops and restaurants, while the new design is meant to physically draw people into the space with new street entrances and indoor/outdoor walkways through the restructured marketplace.

“I envision a more walkable city that’s woven together in ways where it’s not just patches of good things happening,” said Chris Socha, project architect at Milwaukee’s TWKA UrbanLab and lead architect on the proposal. “So when we create a place that has more ways to get in and has more shops and uses that face the street, it starts to sort of lift up everything else around it.”

Aggero Group’s Tony Janowiec said the new Milwaukee Bucks basketball arena and other downtown development sets this group up to produce a revitalization that eluded the last local ownership team more than 15 years ago.

“The economic development drivers within a five-block radius are completely different today than they were 15 years ago. So it’s time to just take a look at the project with a blank canvas as if we were building a new project today, saying what would be here if we just started from scratch,” he said.

Janowiec and Socha took questions from a largely supportive but skeptical audience Monday morning in a space once occupied by Linen’s N Things, that they hope will be leased by a grocery store.

Without committed new retail or office tenants there is no timeline for beginning the complex’s overhaul. But that didn’t appear to phase Mayor Tom Barrett, who was on hand to support the proposal.

“I’m seeing more energy out of this ownership group than I have in the last decade,” he said. “They clearly understand this is a lot of work, they understand the challenges here, they have a lot of positive energy and creativity.”

Janowiec said the Milwaukee project has a road map from cities like Minneapolis and Rochester, Minnesota, where aging urban malls were turned into desirable multi-use buildings.