Revisiting the ‘heart of Mequon’

By Gary Achterberg - News Graphic Staff

May 16, 2017

 Café Hollander anchors the Mequon Town Center development at the corner of Mequon and Cedarburg roads in this photo taken with a drone. Proponents say the project has brought upscale businesses to the community and provided a walkable downtown area that Mequon previously lacked. Opponents point to a lack of parking, vacant storefronts and architecture that is different from elsewhere in Mequon.
Photo by Nick Pelant of Pulse - Aerial Production

MEQUON — Two years ago, the first businesses opened in the Mequon Town Center at the corner of Mequon and Cedarburg roads.

City leaders and planners saw it as a much-needed advancement for Mequon. Businesses have opened that never would have given the city a second look before. Despite skepticism of many lifelong residents, the apartments are full. Many like the vibrant “town-center” feel.

Others aren’t fans. The architecture is much different from anything else in Mequon. The buildings sit close to the street. The height dwarfs surrounding buildings. Parking can be a hassle.

Whether you love it or hate it, everyone can agree the Town Center represents a bold new direction for Mequon – and it’s here to stay.

“I think people like it,” said Mequon Mayor Dan Abendroth. “It has been successful, but like anything, after it opened, things taper off a bit.”

  Aside from a couple visible empty storefronts, occupancy has been brisk in the
Mequon Town Center.
Photo by Mark Justesen

Mequon developer Cindy Shaffer initially invested in the property more than 10 years ago. She eventually partnered with Blair Williams, who has been involved with several similar projects in the Milwaukee area. Plans then took off quickly.

“The goal of the Town Center was to create a ‘heart of Mequon’ – I believe we have accomplished this,” she said. “I see parents and grandparents with young children, business meetings and high school students among others regularly meeting in the Town Center. It has brought our community together in positive ways.”

Alderman Andrew Nerbun said he’s pleased with the project.

“Mequon finally has something resembling the start of a downtown and quality retail establishments have been added in this development,” he said. “It has also given the residents of Mequon’s west side an excuse to spend time and money in Mequon as opposed to Germantown.”

One vocal critic has been Alderman Mark Gierl, who joined the Common Council after the initial plans had been approved, but has since opposed most – if not all – proposals for additional expansion in the Town Center district, which stretches up Mequon Road to Wauwatosa Road.

“The original version turned out to be something different,” he said. “I didn’t envision it to be as big as it turned out to be. And, everyone knows parking is still a mess. I know there is one business that has closed. Others are complaining about the parking. That’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room.”

Many of the businesses are succeeding and happy to be there. One reason parking can be tight at peak times is due to the popularity of Café Hollander, which anchors the development with its two-story restaurant and spacious outdoor patio. Colectivo Coffee next door does steady business throughout the day.

Leo & Lou, a store featuring children’s apparel, related items and candy opened by Anna Zuckerman, who has several other businesses in town, has pulled out. It has left a large, vacant 2,111square-foot storefront adjacent to another 2,625-squarefoot retail space along Cedarburg Road that never has been occupied.

Zuckerman did not return a phone message, but an employee at her jewelry store said a lack of parking was a driving reason the business moved out.

Other tenants are thrilled with their decision to locate in the Mequon Town Center.

“It’s been a great experience; I’m glad we did it,” said Dr. Bobby Fisher, who moved his Fisher Family Chiropractic practice from North Port Washington Road to a second-floor suite in the Town Center building that faces Mequon Road. “There’s steady traffic from all of the other businesses.”

Abendroth said the city has learned from its experience with the first phase of the Town Center to be a little more careful with the parking analysis. While parking is tight in the area, the mayor stressed it is available.

“I think people are used to being able to pull in and park wherever they are going,” he said, adding that is not the case in more urban areas. “The parking is actually available. You do have to somewhat look for it and walk a little bit.”

Kim Tollefson, Mequon’s director of Community Development, who played the lead role for city staff as the developers advanced their plans through the Planning Commission and Common Council, said the Town Center project has, for the most part, attracted the type of tenants the city had hoped.

“I think the project is exactly what we were encouraging through all of the planning efforts,” she said. “I think it’s a successful project from a financial perspective; it’s valued at $3 million more than we projected.”

The project was projected to be worth $16 million; its current value is more than $19.5 million, she said.

With the Town Center, other projects already approved for elsewhere in the Town Center district and Shaffer’s planned Spur 16 development – along Mequon Road just west of the railroad tracks – the city will be financially successful in paying off its Tax Incremental Finance district, which is set to expire in 2028, Tollefson said.

“From a financial perspective, that project did exactly what we expected it to do,” Tollefson said.

The Town Center will continue to mature and evolve as the area continues to develop, she added. Tollefson and the mayor agreed that the addition of more residents in apartments now under construction or being planned will help fuel the businesses and contribute to the goal of making the area more pedestrian friendly.

“You have to increase the number of residential rooftops to get the types of business you want,” Tollefson said. “We’re looking for something more unique than the typical chain.”

Tollefson added that she believes that the vacant retail spaces will be filled. Shaffer, who along with Williams sold the development to Wausau-based Lokre Companies last December, said she has heard there is a prospective tenant for one of the spaces. Owner Rollie Lokre did not answer an email.

“I think it’s natural to see turnover in some of the retail,” she said. “That happens in successful mixed-use neighborhoods; it’s going to happen here.”

>>RELATED: City funds Town Center parking study

<<EARLER: Mequon Town Center sold