Lofts Inject New Life in Onetime Industrial District

It’s not your typical Milwaukee neighborhood with tree-lined streets and well-manicured, green, grassy lawns.

Instead of parks and playgrounds, the view looks onto old factories and manufacturing buildings, the city skyline, the Hoan Bridge and I-94.

Away from the traffic on a quiet street, the block-long, five-story, red brick building is flanked on each side by two railroad tracks. Built as a farm implement factory about a century ago, the building has undergone a $12 million renovation that’s turned it into a modern, urban apartment complex and part of an emerging downtown neighborhood.

Today the Historic Fifth Ward Lofts at 133 W. Oregon St. has become home sweet happenin’ home to a few hundred residents who want to live near downtown, the lakefront, restaurants, clubs, theaters and the other city attractions.

To help lure residents into the 98 lofts and apartments, developers Gorman & Company reworked the interior of the building, retaining such old world and industrial features as the Cream City brick, wooden beams and overhead metal pipes and vents. The ambience has so far helped fill the building to about 96% capacity.

Some new amenities were added as well. There’s an indoor putting green and driving range, a movie theater with stadium seating, a workout room, a community room complete with kitchen, fireplace, overstuffed couches and chairs, a business center complete with computer, copier, fax, scanner and Internet access and a rooftop deck.

To deal with the two railroad tracks on either side of the building, plumbing and other mechanics were isolated in the sub-floors to keep them from reverberating when the trains rumble by. Door jambs were insulated and sound-tampered windows were used to further reduce the noise. “It was a challenging environment, but the building was great and lent itself to a top-quality loft development,” said Tom Capp, executive vice president of Gorman.

The aim was to create a development more affordable than real estate in the neighboring Third Ward, he said. To help finance the project, federal tax credits for historic preservation and moderate income housing were secured. One-bedroom apartments start at $695, two bedrooms at $821 and three bedrooms range from $949 to $2,000.

“We wanted to build a project that would be what city planners call catalytic in that it would jump-start other development in the area,” Capp said.

And that’s just what’s happened, said Julie Penman, commissioner of the Department of City Development. “Housing in this neighborhood is poised to take off,” she said, ticking off a number of developments that are under way in the neighborhood, such as:

The Teweles Seed Co. building, at 222 S. 3rd St., that is being converted into 127 rental apartments at a cost of $10 million.

The conversion of a former auto parts warehouse at 215 W. Maple St. into 60 condos known as The Parts House.

The Water Street Lofts at 200 S. Water St. that combines adaptive and new construction to build 80 condominium units into a $16 million investment.

The Waterfront at 130 S. Water St., a $20 million new construction project of 60 condominiums on land now used by the Great Lakes Towing Co., a tug boat operation that will relocate.

Ald. Angel Sanchez, who represents the area, said the Fifth Ward Lofts and the other new developments are changing the area between the Third Ward and Walker’s Point, slowly but surely, and for the best.

“Investors are looking in the neighborhood because they’re looking for something just a little bit different – something that had an industrial-railroad-tracks-warehouse feeling to it, similar to the Third Ward,” he said.

“Where buildings once sat unattended or boarded up for years, they are now being renovated, and that’s bringing new people into the area,” Sanchez said.

Gloria Jackson, a consulting physician in integrated medicine and the healing arts, moved into the Fifth Ward Lofts less than a year ago from Wauwatosa and loves being downtown in an urban environment.

“I wanted a more central location, and this is great,” she said, adding that she often works at home or consults at hospitals and schools in the area. “This area is a more diverse part of town and there’s a higher energy here than in a bedroom community.”

Born in Racine, she lived in San Francisco for a number of years and returned here when her mother retired. In San Francisco she lived in a loft and loved it. “I just feel it’s a more open environment,” she said of her two-bedroom apartment decorated with Egyptian artwork.

Her partner, Tanyah Cotton, a musician who plays the keyboard and a Web designer who works at home, said she was looking for a building that had a mix of ages, social and economic ranges. “Here, there are corporate people, a few artists, musicians and college students,” she said.

If there’s a problem with trash or some noise on a floor, the people involved come together to solve it, she said. “I feel like this is a community.”

Both women enjoy the movie theater and the community room, which they consider a relaxing setting.

Andy Kliscz, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee majoring in marketing, moved to the Fifth Ward Lofts from a rented house in Bay View because he wanted to be closer to downtown and bars and restaurants in neighboring Walker’s Point.

“I’m not big into suburbs with 50 kids and people driving five miles an hour,” he said. “This is a great building, and my friends come over all the time. It’s not loud like a college dorm. People are more respectful.”

Kliscz’s second-floor bedroom overlooks the railroad tracks, but he rather enjoys that. “I love trains,” he said. “And when the Amtrak train passes you can see the passengers and wave.”

As for the noise, it becomes white noise, the kind of background noise you just get used to, he said.

He especially likes that the plumbing, electrical and appliances are new and that the building still maintains a certain historical feel. “And if something doesn’t work, it’s fixed right away,” he said.

Although more residents are calling this area home now, some residents aren’t newcomers.

Ellen and Craig Gyland moved to the building at 313 S. Water St. nine years ago after their children were grown and they sold their home in St. Francis.

Craig Gyland is a potter who teaches art at Pius High School and wanted a place for a kiln, potters wheel and other equipment, Ellen Gyland said. “That meant either moving to the country or the city, and I’m not a country girl,” she laughed.

So they found the building that now serves as home and studio and they have enjoyed living in the area, she said.

“We can walk to the Third Ward and to the theater, and Walker’s Point is getting nicer all the time,” she said.

Although this area is adjacent to the Third Ward and on the edge of Walker’s Point, the term Fifth Ward was resurrected by Capp for the development because, he said, he was looking for a name that would distinguish the building from the Third Ward, yet imply the close proximity.

“Historically, someone said this is the Fifth Ward, and we liked that name,” he said.

Carlen Hatala, associate planner with City of Milwaukee’s historic preservation section, said the Fifth Ward was designated as the old Walker’s Point area. Today that’s made up of two national historical registered districts – Walker’s Point and the historical district called South First and Second streets,” she said.

Milwaukee historian John Gurda had a simpler explanation. “When the city was incorporated in 1846, the city had five wards, and the south side was the Fifth Ward, he said.