Milwaukee’s redevelopment of its Park East Corridor is attracting young entrepreneurs. After the Park East Freeway was demolished in 2004, freeing up 26 acres (11 ha) of undeveloped land on the city’s near north side, new projects have arisen, including the Park East Enterprise Lofts offering live/work apartments.
“It is in a very visible part of downtown Milwaukee,” says Antonio Riley, executive director of the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA) in Madison. “It wasvery controversial. The freeway was torn down, and we financed the first housing development in that area.”
In an effort to push the scope of economic development, WHEDA contributed $6.4 million in financing and $7.5 million in tax credits spread over ten years to support the $12.5 million Park East Enterprise project, built by Madison-based
Gorman & Company Inc.
“Housing is by itself economic development,” says Riley. Creating a strategy for goods and services to support young entrepreneurs in Milwaukee was important to the downtown area, he explains.
“Downtown Milwaukee has seen a huge building boom for very expensive condos—million-dollar condos. Those things are selling like crazy,” Riley notes. “We want to make sure, as we see this boom in downtown Milwaukee, people of
modest income can afford to still live in downtown Milwaukee. We want our young entrepreneurs to see our city as a place that they can do business,” he adds.
Park East Enterprise Lofts consists of 85 one- to three-bedroom apartments with integrated workspaces. The common areas also feature conference rooms, a media presentation room, and a computer equipped business center.
“All the units are designed with some type of workspace integrated into them,” says Chris Laurent, senior development manager at Gorman.
“We have 16 units that have frontage on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, which is a major thoroughfare that goes into downtown. The front part of the units can accommodate a small waiting area. There is direct access to the street and living spaces behind and above those.”
Gorman designed a 12,000- square-foot (1,115-sq-m) main floor on the mezzanine level with amenities for start-up business to draw on.
“We have a movie theater that doubles as presentation space. We have a couple of conference rooms that will have plasma TVs in them,” says Laurent. “We have a business/copy center with a computer center. We then have free-form, overstuffed chairs and other tables set up in an area that has wireless Internet.”
To accommodate the unique needs of entrepreneurs, the common areas also have a commercial kitchen and an entertainment area. “We heard from our focus groups that entrepreneurs really liked the ability to network and have
networking events,” says Laurent.
“We have a preparation space for people to prepare hors d’oeuvres and a wine bar setup for meet-andgreet events. We also have set up on the fourth floor a community room with a fireplace and large entertaining peninsula, and an outside deck that overlooks the Milwaukee River and the downtown.”
The units, which rent for $540 to $1,300 per month, have been leased as soon as they have become available, says Laurent.
“We have some businesses inside,” he says. “Some people are operating as full-time entrepreneurs, and more than that, we have folks trying to make that transition.”
The rental market in Milwaukee is strong. “We look at market analysis for lease-up because we don’t want to build excessive rental units in a market where there are huge vacancies,” says Riley. “In Milwaukee, we have not been seeing that. In the downtown area, because of the condo boom, we have concentrated on making sure that we are blending
in affordable housing that people of modest means can afford to live in downtown.”
Live/work properties, typically seen on the East and West coasts, are still gaining traction in the Midwest. The Milwaukee economy is still trying to redefine itself, Laurent says. While the economic gears are turning, residents of the city continue to seek unique living spaces to interact with like-minded individuals.
Laurent hopes he is on the right track of meeting those needs with Park East Enterprise project. “I think Wisconsin is unique in that they [WHEDA officials] provide a lot of latitude to be creative from the developer side of things,” Laurent adds. “WHEDA did both the tax credits and the conventional firstmortgage financing on this. I think it’s a real testament to the HFA [WHEDA housing finance agency] that it is willing to take risks and try new models of what economic development can be and look like.”