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Thursday, Feb. 11, 2010

Reshaping North Avenue in UWM’s Image

As university expands, North Avenue adjusts to increased student presence

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Milwaukee’s East Side lost one of its historic landmarks early in the morning on Jan. 19, when after 40 years anchoring North Avenue, the restaurant Pizza Man burned down in a four-alarm blaze. The fire, which has been ruled arson, demolished a building that also housed Cush Lounge, the Black and White Café, the Grecian Delight restaurant and 10 apartments.

Pizza Man will reopen, but almost certainly at a new nearby location “so we can get back and running as quick as possible,” said co-owner Deanna Amidzich, who already has a potential spot or two in mind.

“We were lucky, since we were able to salvage quite a bit from our restaurant,” Amidzich said. “We were able to save the bar and some booths and the arch above the bar. We’re hoping that if we can get the smoke smell out of it, we can do kind of a marriage of the old location and the new location.”

It will likely be quite a bit longer until the charred property at the corner of North and Oakland avenues is rebuilt, though. With insurance and mortgage issues unsettled and zoning questions unanswered, officials estimate it will be at least a year until that prominent strip is redeveloped.

A Growing University

The Pizza Man fire follows a decade of transition for the North Avenue area. Columbia St. Mary's Hospital unveiled ambitious expansion plans. After years on the wane, the quirky Prospect Mall shuttered. A towering Whole Foods arrived in 2006. Condos have given the2010-02-10 neighborhood new density.

By far the biggest change in the area, though, has been the greater presence of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

After UWM created a real estate foundation in 2005 to scout properties for student housing and expedite their development, dorms began sprouting quickly. The Kenilworth Square Apartments, an upperclassmen complex at the corner of Farwell Avenue and Kenilworth Place that holds 330 students, was first, opening in 2006, followed in 2008 by the 475-student RiverView Residence Hall just west over the river. The area will receive its third—and biggest—shot of students this fall, when the 700-student Cambridge Commons building opens on North Avenue just east of the river. The complex will include a university-run coffeehouse and retail space.

“UWM is no longer the commuter college it was 10 or 15 years ago,” said UWM Real Estate Foundation President Dave Gilbert. “There’s now enormous demand for student housing, with 90% of our freshmen requesting it, but each year we turn away thousands of students from residency halls because we can’t meet that demand. The foundation test-marketed potential areas with student focus groups, and we found this was the area students most wanted to live.”

It’s easy to see why. The neighborhood has long been one of Milwaukee’s most vibrant areas, rich with shopping and dining and near parks, bike paths, the river and the lake.

With those amenities, North Avenue was always a destination for students, but particularly in the last half-decade it has embraced the student population as never before, catering to them with a slew of new bars, shops, pizza places and other fast-dining options. The Kenilworth Square dorm, for instance, shares its block with student-targeted chains like Urban Outfitters, American Apparel and Toppers Pizza.

“It’s convenient,” UWM senior Jim Tindell said of living in the area. “If you want to go out, you have a lot of options. All the bars have their own character, and everything is just a short walk away, so you don’t have to worry about parking.”

Tindell, a film studies major, believes the area has become a selling point for the university.

“I do freshman orientation, and a lot of incoming students are excited about all the restaurants and bars around here,” Tindell said. “It’s something a lot of them are aware of before they even move here.”

Frank Vitucci, a third-generation manager of the 75-year-old Vitucci’s lounge on North Avenue, said the change in the neighborhood’s demographics is unmistakable.

“I’ve been managing Vitucci’s for three years, and just in that time we’ve seen the crowd has become younger, more vibrant and hip,” he said.

That crowd is bigger than ever, too.

“We never used to even open our back bar on Thursday nights; now it’s one of our busiest days of the week,” he said. “We’re full staffed five to seven days of the week now.”

Night Versus Day

District 3 Alderman Nik Kovac, who represents the East Side, said that UWM’s greater prominence has been a boon for business in the area, though the growth hasn’t been seamless.

“We’ve seen a lot of new businesses open up, which is a good thing, but the question is does North Avenue have the right balance between night activity and day activity?” Kovac asked. “It’s a great entertainment district, better than Water Street, but the night-life amenities have become more visible than the daytime ones, and we want a balance.”

Kovac said the greater emphasis on daytime businesses is particularly important since so many of the incoming students aren’t of legal drinking age, and because too much night life could scare away potential older residents. There are already tensions between UWM and its neighbors closer toward campus over student house parties.

“I wouldn’t want North Avenue to be considered exclusively a student-life district,” Kovac said. “You want to have businesses that appeal to students, like bookstores, grocery stores and convenient, fast, affordable food, but you also need to have small businesses, a little bit of fine dining and first-run movies, like the Oriental Theatre is currently offering. I think you can do it all.”

Lynn Sbonik, co-owner of Beans & Barley, an independent natural-food store and restaurant on North Avenue since 1979, is more worried about the changes.

“When we first moved into the area it was a really nice assemblage of really small, individual-owned businesses and a couple bigger businesses,” Sbonik said. “I think the trend, though—and it’s driven by real estate—is that there are more national businesses coming in. For certain people, that’s a real coup for the neighborhood. For me, it’s a mix. We used to know the owners of all the businesses here when we began in 1979, but that’s not the case anymore.”

Sbonik fears that independent stores are being priced out of the area.

“One of the things we loved about this city is those small, funky stores,” Sbonik said. “I hope we can maintain those sweet little spots. I’d like to see this be a street where people can afford to open a small store.”

Many of the area’s used book and record stores have closed over the past decade, as have some of the music venues that once made North Avenue a countercultural hub, including The Globe and Thai Joe’s. As college bars dominate the area’s night-life scene, North Avenue has ceded its reputation for live music to other neighborhoods, like Riverwest and Bay View.

Like a lot of Milwaukeeans who now prefer to frequent those neighborhoods, Ryan Schleicher considered the East Side an artistic hotbed a decade ago, but says the area no longer has much to offer him.

“I still take in shows at the Oriental and eat and shop at Beans & Barley, but never do I plan an entire North Avenue evening,” he said. “The personality of North Avenue just doesn't appeal to me much anymore.”

A Nice Middle Ground

As executive director of the neighborhood’s Business Improvement District, Jim Plaisted pushes back against the notion that North Avenue is a student-dominated district.

“We want to highlight that anyone can do business here,” Plaisted said. “Businesses like Beans & Barley and Alterra show the types of people you can attract to this area that aren’t just students. Whole Foods didn’t pick this neighborhood as its only southeastern Wisconsin location for the student population. This is demographically one of the most diverse areas in the city. There are older, single family homes just to the east of us, and we have over 30,000 people living within a square mile.”

Plaisted said the neighborhood is being smart about the businesses it attracts.

“Before Urban Outfitters came in, we went to some of the smaller clothing boutiques and asked, ‘Is this a threat?’ and they said, ‘No, it can’t open soon enough,’ because it will draw in more traffic,” Plaisted said. “The other thing we’ve always communicated is that we’re not looking for national food. Milwaukee does both affordable and upper-end restaurants better than anyone else. One of the biggest surprises we have down here is a wide array of local restaurants, and we want to keep it that way, though places like Toppers do sometimes slip in, since you can’t totally control the marketplace.”

Though there’s no consensus on exactly what the right balance should be, everyone in the area seems to agree that North Avenue needs a mixture of student and non-student businesses, including students themselves.

Milwaukee Area Technical College student Dana Heitman previously attended school in Madison, where “the whole city felt like one big campus.” He said he’s much more comfortable living on North Avenue because it has student amenities but feels like a real city.

“I like the cafés and restaurants,” he said. “The whole area just has this really relaxed atmosphere. It’s a nice middle ground between the city and the university. You don’t have to be solely associated with one or the other. You’re not just a Marquette person, or a UWM person. You’re just an East Sider.”

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