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Urban Renaissance
Downtown's real estate revival


March 2017

Milwaukee’s post-World War II real estate market was marked by an exodus of residents. The freeway system expanded, and urban sprawl and weekends at the mall became a way of life. For decades, the city slowly emptied as residents and businesses moved to the suburbs. “Demographics and Data,” a report published by the city of Milwaukee, notes that from its peak of 741,324 in 1960, the city’s population fell to only 596,974 in 2000 — a decline of 19 percent.

Now that trend is being reversed, and people are moving back to the city. A 2008 American Community Survey estimated that Milwaukee’s population had increased to more than 604,000, and the Wisconsin Department of Administration is projecting the population will grow 4.3 percent, to a total of approximately 623,000 by 2025.

The increased demand for housing triggered a development boom that began in the late ’90s, and although it stalled after the 2008 recession, the cranes are now back at work. According to a report by Milwaukee Downtown, more than $3 billion in private and public projects have been completed since 2005, and there is another $2 billion currently under construction.

Jim Bohl, alderman of the 5th District of Milwaukee and chairman of the Common Council’s Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee, says the reason for Milwaukee’s urban revival is in great part thanks to millennials and empty nesters. To the old adage of “location, location, location,” Bohl adds, “convenience, convenience, convenience. These people want to live in a place where they don’t need a car to get to work, grab a meal or drink, or enjoy a sporting or cultural event. It’s all about ease of living and walkability and having immediate access to the many amenities that the greater downtown area affords.” 

Mike Ruzicka, president of the Greater Milwaukee Association of Realtors, says the type of client looking to move into the city depends a lot on the neighborhood. “Downtown is predominantly empty nesters and younger singles and couples,” he explains. “Bay View is mostly younger singles and couples, and Story Hill is couples and families.”

Both men say that when it comes to real estate, finding the hottest area in the city is easy, with Ruzicka describing the entire city market as high-flying. Bohl sees unprecedented infill development in all areas of the city, and growth expanding into areas outside of the greater downtown neighborhoods. “There will be great growth opportunities in the coming years in Westown, Park East, the eastern edge of the (Historic) Third Ward, Walker’s Point/Fifth Ward and Martin Luther King Drive extending to Bronzeville,” he says.

Ruzicka adds Bay View to the list. “Over the last decade or so, the area has been hot because it offers similar amenities to the Upper East Side, but is much more affordable. Story Hill has also become a very popular neighborhood,” he says.

In the coming years, the market is expected to be affected by big developments that will draw even more people. The Streetcar, the lakefront redevelopment project and the Milwaukee Bucks’ entertainment center are all set to transform urban life in Milwaukee. “All of these developments will add to the quality of life Milwaukee offers,” Ruzicka says. “People have moved to the neighborhoods because of low crime, ease of moving around (transportation), multiple activities, natural environment, etc. All of those add to the overall quality of life. When they buy a home, they buy more than bricks and mortar; they are also buying the quality of life that can be accessed from that property.”

“I think the Bucks’ new home will transform the area. The owners are committed to creating a sustainable neighborhood in its own right in terms of live, work and play,” says Bohl. “The problem with the current (BMO Harris) Bradley Center is that short of a game or concert, the area is pretty much dead. That will change because of the commitment to create the Live Block, which will serve as a center for community events year-round.” 

Looking ahead, Ruzicka thinks Water Street will continue to see heavy development and remain a hot real estate market. “The (Historic) Third Ward will also see more density,” he continues. “And I also like the financial district, now that the Northwestern Mutual building is coming along. It will add a ton of interest to commercial and residential development downtown.”

Bohl feels that to get anywhere near the peak numbers of the 1960s, many holes still need to be filled. “We have a lot of great green spaces in Milwaukee, but they are not all accessible to these new developments,” he says. “To make living here more attractive, we need increased pocket parks and rooftop green spaces. Fortunately, I think the developers are beginning to understand this. We also need to provide more convenient shopping and retail opportunities. People need to buy groceries, and they want to have clothing, home goods and drugstores close by. This will happen sooner or later, and my hope is for sooner.”


This story ran in the March 2017 issue of: