Wisconsin

Outside Interests

URBAN RENEWAL IN DOWNTOWN (AND OUTSIDE OF IT) HAVE BROUGHT A LOT OF NOTICE TO RACINE

It has really started to roll. I’m talking about the urban renewal concentrated at Downtown Racine – but also beginning to creep outward. The proof just keeps surfacing, again and again. This phenomenon is becoming the proverbial snowball tumbling down the hillside.

What has become particularly evident of late is an intriguing trend within the above trend. It’s becoming abundantly clear that outsiders are now the ones buying and improving Racine’s building stock – sometimes making vast transformations.

They’re lavishing love and attention that these buildings have not seen in decades, and dreaming of new uses for them.

Both the physical improvements and the new uses are drawing, and will draw, new interest – from renters, condo buyers, merchants and shoppers.

Here’s a look at the movement, from a few different perspectives.

Looking for work
“We get calls on a regular basis from people looking for buildings, primarily in Downtown,” said John Crimmings, president of N. Christensen & Son Real Estate. “All the things happening Downtown have kind of piqued their awareness.”

Moreover, much of the original building stock remains, albeit sometimes altered.

“And people are seeing the resurgence in retail and restaurant activity,” Crimmings said. “They will say, ‘If (a building) becomes available, give us a call.'”

He believes Racine’s Downtown is more vibrant than Kenosha’s and therefore is drawing more investor interest.

The market for office space remains sluggish, Crimmings noted, but said that’s true nearly everywhere.

“Truly,” said Mayor Gary Becker, “if you’re from outside the community, you go through Racine, and you’ll fall in love with it. We’re just abusive as hell on ourselves. I’m sure a lot of communities are the same.”

“The word is out…that we’re heading in the right direction,” he said. “I have developers coming into my office every week. It used to take us a year to see 10 of them.”

“A fair amount of them are just saying, ‘I’ve heard things are going on around here, and I want to see what’s going on.’ So we go driving around and take a tour.”

It’s natural that the big deals are sprung by outside companies, because the Racine area just doesn’t have many large developers, Becker said.

As for the spread of this investment beyond Downtown’s traditional edges, Becker said, “You’re not going to drive down here next year and see a complete renaissance of everything. That’s just not how these things work.”

But it has begun.

Money from Madison
Madison-based Gorman & Company has been a stalwart in Downtown’s revival. First it converted the former Olson Auto Supply building at 134 Main St. into the Belle Harbor Loft Apartments, bringing Downtown 78 new more apartments.

Then Gorman converted a vast, former industrial building into the 100 artist lofts of the Mitchell Wagon Factory.

Next, it is expected to plant a brand new, roughly building at State and Main streets. The combined investment will be about $42 million.

Tom Capp, Gorman’s director of real estate development, explained the interest in Downtown.

“I always look for a community where there’s a commitment to a plan to be moving forward,” he said. “Racine’s plan was already in place when we started to take a look. That was just pivotal.”

“Things in (the plan) had already been accomplished. And people were looking you in the eye and saying, ‘These things are going to get done.'”

The biggest factor, Capp said, was this: “You look for an area anywhere that’s trending upward.”

With Gorman’s help, it is.

Branching out
Until fairly recently, investor interest had been largely confined to the downtown area, with a few exceptions.

That’s starting to change, and that may be the most promising news yet for Racine’s urban renewal.

In early April, Harvest Development of Kenosha announced that it wants to convert the former Badger Uniforms building, at Sixth and Marquette streets, into 51 loft condominiums. Then it will build 28 townhouse condos on the same block, for a $15.3 million project called Riverbend Lofts. Because it lies west of Marquette Street, the project has monstrous importance as a potential catalyst for that former industrial zone.

“I’m always looking for interesting projects, and I like city renewal-type projects,” Harvest owner James Walter said about his boundary-shattering proposal. “So it suited my interests. And it allowed us to do architecture on a larger scale.

“We are really excited about this project because we see so much potential in Racine,” he added.

In other words, urban renewal begets more urban renewal.

Less than two weeks later, two men doing business as F & A Development announced a project that leap-frogs over the Riverbend Lofts plan just described.

Theirs uses the former Shoreline Manor at 11403 W. Sixth St. as the foundation for 24 units of senior housing to create a “senior campus” just west of the river.

Co-developer Patrick Anderson said he’d been watching Racine for some time. “When you look at communities, there’s a downtown, then there’s revitalization, and that’s the upward swing. We were coming in on the upward swing. We were trying to capture that momentum.”

Their project uses state housing tax credits. And a surprising factor helped convince the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Administration to grant them, Anderson said: the bike trail along the river there.

“That was one of the big things WHEDA looked at,” he said. When the city sank resources into that project, the agency saw commitment to the area.

Multi-tasking
Robert and Rebecca Venn of Kenosha are quietly upgrading several properties in or near Downtown. For example, they recently bought 615 Wisconsin Ave., which formerly housed Avenue Gallery & Frame.

“It’s an eccentric old building,” built in a prezoning era as a hotel/rooming house, Robert said. It’s actually two or three buildings stuck together, with part of it reaching over an alley. The Venns – both freelance illustrators – will upgrade the apartments and lease out the store.

They recently finished revamping 512 Eighth St. and found it easy to rent out the apartments. “It was in really terrible condition,” Venn said.

They also are completing a rehab of 949 Washington Ave., just outside of Downtown. The new Incognito Gallery is nearly ready to open there, adding to Downtown’s offerings as an arts district.

Venn explained why he’s been so active in central Racine renovations. “In my opinion, it’s one of the more interesting places to do it.”

He predicts a downtown-based growth that is off the charts of many people’s imaginations – especially if commuter rail ever arrives. He forecasts that Racine will become a Chicago bedroom community to rival Lake Forest, Highland Park or Glencoe.

Like Kenosha, Venn pointed out, Racine has a huge amount of public lakefront – which is rare among communities that lie along the Metra path.

Unlike Kenosha, Racine preserved enough of its buildings “that you get a feeling of the old Downtown. Downtown has a very nice esthetic,” he said, “and it’ll really be something.”