Plans to revitalize mall’s south end moving forward

By Hannah Weikel - Freeman Staff

Feb. 12, 2018

 Brookfield Mayor Steve Ponto (left) and Dan Ertl, city community development director, discussing a Marcus BistroPlex cinema that could be built on the south end of Brookfield Square Mall
later this year.
Hannah Weikel/Freeman Staff

BROOKFIELD — Brookfield Square Mall’s south end will soon look entirely different, city officials say.

Redevelopment plans and land acquisitions are well underway in the mall’s south end, which will see a new conference center, hotel, a movie theater and several high-end restaurants in the next few years.

The plan to revitalize Brookfield Square and spin it forward as an entertainment destination has been an ongoing collaboration between city government, mall owner CBL & Associates Properties Inc. and local tourism authorities at Visit Brookfield — all have devoted time and money to ensure the mall stays relevant in the age of online shopping and specialty stores, said Brookfield Mayor Steve Ponto.

Historically, the mall has done fine on its own. It’s located right off Interstate 94 in a city with middle- to highincome residents and a swelling workforce that brings thousands of people into the area every day.

Brookfield Square has adapted and reinvented itself over the years with very little local government involvement, but that’s starting to change.

“We have to do all we can to ensure that the mall does well into the future,” Ponto said. “Brookfield Square is very, very important to the economic well-being of the city of Brookfield.”

Underperformance to entertainment

Sears at Brookfield Square Mall announced last month it would close later in 2018, taking a rather sleepy side of the mall into a tailspin.

But CBL Properties, a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based company that owns dozens of malls including Brookfield Square, had made another announcement several months before; the mall’s south end would be completely redeveloped and was the future location of a Marcus BistroPlex cinema, WhirlyBall facility and several new restaurants.

CBL Properties bought Sears last year, along with a detached and defunct Sears Auto Center nearby.

“CBL made it clear from the beginning that this was going to be an entertainment development going forward,” Ponto said. “Because of online shopping and shopping changes in general, malls feel like they need to offer entertainment.”

The BistroPlex theater would feature Dream-Lounger recliner seating, a standalone bar and lounge, and dining inside all eight screening rooms. Next door, the first WhirlyBall facility in Wisconsin will have a number of courts devoted to a game that melds whiffle ball, bumper cars and lacrosse.

Since CBL Properties bought the mall in the early 2000s, they’ve taken steps to update and diversify the store offerings, like a two-story Barnes & Noble bookstore built several years ago, said Dan Ertl, city community development director.

“But this is five leaps forward,” Ertl said of the south end redevelopment plan.

Sears will still have a small presence in the mall with an approximately 18,000 square-foot store selling appliances and mattresses, he said.

A CBL Properties spokesman declined to comment for this story and said the company won’t release additional details of the redevelopment for another few months.

Creating synergy

With CBL Properties investing in Brookfield Square, city officials have also decided to purchase 9.5 acres surrounding the Sears Auto Center and build a conference center and hotel in its place.

The city recently entered a purchase agreement with CBL Properties for around $850,000 per acre for the 9.5 acres — 2.5 of which will be resold to North Central Group, a Middleton-based hotel property manager, for a 170-room Hilton Garden Inn attached to the conference center. North Central has also agreed to manage the conference center, said Andy Inman, vice president of development.

A four-lane road would run between the mall and conference center with lighting, sidewalks, landscaping and a bus stop, Ertl said.

“It’s not very pedestrian-friendly today,” Ertl said of the parking lot on the south end. “You take your life in your hands if you try to cross that lot.“ Project architects are tasked with creating a “live, work, play” environment with an easily traversable space between the mall and conference center, Ertl said.

“I think the conference center being there will have a synergistic effect,” Ponto said. “The conference center there will be good for the mall and I think it will also make the conference center a more attractive location.”

City’s involvement

Brookfield Square is the largest real estate taxpayer in Waukesha County and in the city.

The city is slated to spend about $24 million on the conference center project, but the development’s expected benefits in the region are priceless, said Nancy Justman, president and CEO of Visit Brookfield.

Justman said Brookfield loses business every year because it doesn’t have a meeting space big enough to accommodate groups larger than 300 people.

“We’ve been focused on going after business that we can’t currently accommodate. It’s not cannibalism of the business that’s already here,” she said.

Visit Brookfield has been involved in the conference center from the start. It helped fund a feasibility study five years ago and two other studies when the city was looking at other locations, like the Bluemound Road corridor, Justman said.

Before the city had settled on the Brookfield Square location, officials learned the state changed its rules on hotel room tax revenue, she said.

Cities must now spend a whopping 70 percent on tourism promotion, up from 30 percent, Ponto said.

One of the things now considered tourism promotion is having a conference center, so the city realized it had ample funding for the project, he said.

“I would much rather spend the money on a conference center than advertising,” Ponto said.

The state has allowed Brookfield to raise its hotel room tax to 10 percent, up from 8 percent, if it spends the difference on a conference center. Visit Brookfield handles the room tax revenue, and has agreed that the money will be returned to the city to help pay off bonds for the conference center project, Justman said.

The city is expected to close on the land at the southern end of the mall at the end of June and will begin work to reroute the site’s utilities shortly thereafter, Ponto said. During the following 12 to 16 months, the conference center and hotel will be constructed.

“There’s a lot happening with retail, and I think it’s difficult to position our retail in a way that will make it successful,” Ponto said when asked if he thought the redevelopment would keep the mall open into the far-reaching future. “There will undoubtedly be more challenges with malls going forward.”

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