When Chicago-based North Wells Capital purchased the 331 W. Wisconsin retail and office building in downtown Milwaukee, the plan was simple. But that was before the building’s tenant, the Bon-Ton Stores, announced it was declaring bankruptcy and closing all 256 of its department stores.
So now? North Wells Capital, the investment affiliate of Urban Innovations, has a new plan.
The company will renovate and rebrand the building in Milwaukee’s Westown neighborhood, renaming it HUB640. North Wells Capital will market the building to both retailers – who will occupy its first floor – and office users, who will occupy floors two through five.
James Fox, co-founder and chief executive officer of North Wells Capital, said that the building is an attractive one for both retailers and office users thanks to its prime location in one of the more booming neighborhoods of downtown Milwaukee.
“There are so many things we really like about the building,” Fox told Midwest Real Estate News. “The location is close to highway access. It offers great visibility for tenants. There is a tremendous amount of parking in the immediate area. It is close to the intermodal station. It has access to the Amtrak line.”
And those are just the location benefits. Fox says that the building itself is a special one, one that stands out in Milwaukee’s downtown area.
“The building is a classic turn-of-the-century space,” Fox said. “I hate to be cliché, but they really don’t build them like this anymore.”
Fox says that HUB640 boasts tall ceiling heights, huge windows and expansive floor plates. The competitors for office space in the area lack the classic amenities, Fox said.
“The other available office spaces in this area will never elicit the same feel that this building does,” Fox said.
This is the first time in the 120-year history of the 429,000-square-foot building, located at 640 North 4th St., that it has been available for lease. It had always served as the corporate headquarters for department store owner The Bon-Ton Stores. It was also the flagship location for one of its department stores, the Boston Store.
North Wells Capital bought the building in 2017, and planned to modernize the space for The Bon-Ton Stores. Those plans changed earlier this year when the retailer announced its bankruptcy and plans to close all of its stores across the country.
North Wells Capital is now looking to the future of this classic building, and is looking at Bon-Ton’s closure as an opportunity.
“The Boston Store and The Bon-Ton Stores were an important part of Milwaukee’s business community for more than a century,” said Tony Lindsay, principal of North Wells Capital. “They will definitely be missed. Despite this sad turn of events, we believe Westown has a very bright future, and HUB640 is at the center of it.”
Milwaukee’s Westown neighborhood is a desirable one, filled with retailers, restaurants, office space and apartments. the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra is building a new location in the neighborhood, too.
To take advantage of this activity, North Wells Capital is planning several renovations to HUB640. The company has already started construction on a new office entrance and lobby at 640 N. 4th St., and plans renovations to the first-floor retail space to give it a more modern look.
“We all know that change can be hard, but we are also very excited by the tremendous opportunity for new retailers and office users to join this rapidly changing part of the Milwaukee market,” Lindsay said.
Fox said that the building is a perfect fit for North Wells Capital, which has already made an impact in Chicago’s River North neighborhood by turning old manufacturing buildings into creative office spaces.
Fox said that North Wells Capital has been a pioneer in this Chicago neighborhood, a community that is now one of the busiest in Chicago, filled with restaurants, entertainment and shopping options.
“We were in River North before it had the swagger it has today, back when it was just a low-cost alternative to the central Loop area of Chicago,” Fox said. “We see a lot of the same characteristics in Milwaukee’s Westown area right now. There is increased activity here. The area is growing. And the building really called to us.”
The building, in fact, reminded Fox of one of the key buildings in Chicago’s River North area, the impressive Macy’s department store building at 111 N. State St. Like the now renamed HUB640, the Macy’s building is larger than life. But like Macy’s, the HUB640 building also needed some attention and modernization.
This is the right time for these changes, Fox said. Milwaukee is in the early stages of a movement back to urban areas, with a growing number of residents seeking multifamily units in the center of the area’s downtown neighborhoods.
The residential development in the city is encouraging more retailers and restaurant owners to open locations in the urban centers of Milwaukee, Fox said. And that, in turn, is attracting the attention of office users, he said.
“It is becoming an increasing factor in every corporate space search in this market,” Fox said. “Every corporate space search that used to focus on the suburbs will involve at least a look at the downtown areas, too, to see if there’s a good fit for these companies.”
Employers who want the Millennials and other younger adults who often want to live in urban areas, are now more likely to consider city locations, Fox said.
“We might be a little bit early in the process, but I think Milwaukee is ready and poised for urbanization,” Fox said.