Wisconsin

The Bottom Line: ‘Fantastic’ Addition in Store for Downtown

For a peek into Downtown’s future, take a good look at the picture you see here.

The artist’s rendering shows what we will see emerge next year at the vacant northeast corner of State and Main streets. The $18.6 million project, called State and Main, will be the latest in Racine for Gorman & Co. of Madison.

First, a reminder about what it will contain: ground-floor retail space and 84 apartments and 30 condominium units in the second, third and fourth floors. Below ground will be parking.

Gorman was the developer of two other distinguished Downtown area projects here: the Belle Harbor Loft Apartments, which are directly across Main Street from this site, and the Mitchell Wagon Factory. Both of those were at least partial conversions of old buildings; this will be Gorman’s first here consisting of all new construction.

In this reporter’s opinion, it looks fantastic. Notice the roof line, for example. The raised areas are there solely to create a more-interesting exterior than a flat top would give. Better yet is the way it flanks both Main Street and Gaslight Drive (the eastern extension of State Street).

“We wanted to make sure we’ll have a building that will have some prominence,” said Chris Laurent, senior development manager for Gorman.

I looked at the rendering and assumed the building had an L-shaped footprint. In fact, it’s more of a doughnut, Laurent said. It encircles a courtyard at floors one and two. On the top two floors, the building is a U from above. The mouth faces east to maximize the number of lake views. The retail portion, at street level, consists of 17,000 square feet divided into six pods, Laurent explained. Some could be combined to make larger spaces.

Johnson Redevelopment Corp., the Johnson family companies’ real estate arm, will either hold the master lease on the retail space or buy it outright from Gorman, Laurent said. The plan is to situate a restaurant in the corner space, he said. In addition, “We have some hope for a small grocer,” such as a Trader Joe’s. Trader Joe’s, some Downtown followers may recall, spurned Racine a few years ago, saying it did not have a large enough population base. We’ll see if that attitude has changed. Other possible types of stores in State and Main could be a bicycle shop or kite store.

The residential portion will be marketed especially toward active baby boomers age 55 to 65, or “zoomers,” who seek an urban setting. That group has helped fuel urban renewal on the coasts, but much less in the Midwest. Thus, the thinking about a bicycle or kite store. Laurent also mentioned a coffee shop and/or bookstore, “to create the kind of space where you want to hang out.”

A bookstore would also seem to be a perfect complement both to the building itself and Downtown. Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop was killed by a succession of misfortunes and bad timing. But this would seem the right time to look for a Borders or other established bookstore chain.

In order to connect State and Main to the rest of Downtown, Gorman and the city will have to resolve one problem: that ridiculously over-designed intersection at State and Main streets. With its rounded right-turn lane, it’s designed to speed cars through it – not ensure pedestrians a safe crossing.

Laurent said Gorman would like to see it changed. If the right-turn lane was taken away, that would create a lane for street parking and therefore serve the stores of State and Main.

The company has an ally in Mayor Gary Becker. “Any time you can make an intersection more pedestrian-friendly, that’s a plus,” he said. “That’s what downtowns, that’s what cities are all about, making them to a scale that people can enjoy.” Becker added, “Who (fondly) remembers the great, wide streets with no trees? You can see that around any mall in America.”

Laurent said Gorman plans to close on the land purchase Dec. 15, break ground soon after Jan. 1, and have the first apartments available in about late summer 2006. By about October they want the retail and condos available. The whole project should be finished about next December. With its mix of residential and retail and its position at that critical and empty corner, State and Main is truly one of the most exciting projects in Downtown’s continuing rebirth.