Located in the middle of downtown Milwaukee, the Grand Avenue Mall opened in August 1982. Part of a larger civic revitalization effort, the mall premiered downtown during a time when retail (and nearly everything else) had moved out to the ‘burbs and downtown Milwaukee was left to the 9-to-5ers and the bums. A nationwide problem not unique to Milwaukee, the loss of downtowns across America led city planners to develop resurgence programs, and many plans offered up enclosed malls. I suppose they figured what was working well in the suburbs at the time might work in the downtowns and save them.
The plan worked. For a while, at least. Many who had abandoned downtown to shop in the suburbs returned to this large, glassy, modern two-level structure. Occupying two city blocks on two levels with a third level food court at center court, Grand Avenue Mall skywalks over a street on the second level and is split into discontiguous pieces by the street on the first level. The 1980s and early 1990s saw the mall at near 100 percent capacity, with upmarket local stores as well as chains such as Laura Ashley and Banana Republic.
However, you can’t reinvent the wheel, especially in the midst of dramatically changing demographics. As soon as the mall opened, Milwaukee’s manufacturing economy began to erode, with unemployment jumping high as more and more factories left town for cheaper labor elsewhere. As a result, crime in the city spiked at unprecedented highs during the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the murder rate doubling in the eight years between 1982 and 1990.
While few of these murders occurred in the heart of downtown, where the mall is located, many were too close for comfort in the poorer neighborhoods adjacent to downtown to the west and north. As a result of these changing demographics, shoppers jumped ship and instead chose to plug their money into malls closer to where they lived, like Bayshore, Southridge, and Mayfair. Vacancies skyrocketed at Grand Avenue in the mid- to late- 1990s. Longtime east anchor Marshall Fields, which was previously a Gimbels flagship, decided to leave in 1997 after years of declining sales. This sent the mall further into a downward spiral, and many stores in the eastern section of the mall (Plankinton Arcade) closed as a result. The western section of the mall, with the large third-level food court and Boston Store anchor, fared slightly better but also eventually faltered.
By 2002 the mall was on life support. The few stores remaning were mostly athletic and urbanwear chains, and the food court remained viable due to the large number of office workers nearby. However, a huge breath of life came in the form of a remodel and repositioning. The mall’s dated, early-1980s look was replaced with a more modern facade inside, and the main entrance on Wisconsin Avenue was given a facelift as well. Management leveraged this remodeling to attract new stores, citing the recent growth of residential space downtown. Extensive development in the third ward, downtown, and lower east side would provide a significant local retail base to give Grand Avenue viability again. Also, crime in the city scaled back dramatically to pre-1980s figures, and job loss in the region was slowed.
But, instead of reinventing the wheel and trying to re-establish a top-tier superregional mall downtown to compete with Mayfair, Bayshore, and Brookfield Square, management sought to instead establish a different niche for Grand Avenue. The first step in this transformation was to rename the center from Grand Avenue Mall to The Shops of Grand Avenue. In-line small store space was scaled down dramatically in the eastern section of the mall by replacing all of the stores on the first level and the hallway with two box stores, Linens ‘n Things and TJ Maxx. The result is kind of interesting, design-wise. One can look down from the second level of the mall directly into the stores, as little was done to change the old configuration other than removing the small stores’ walls. Old Navy was also brought into the mall, replacing another large section of vacant in-line space. Also, the vacant Marshall Fields was redeveloped into a Borders and Residence Inn and renamed ASQ Center. Although not technically part of The Shops of Grand Avenue, ASQ Center is connected to it by the same skywalk which connected Marshall Fields.
Today, The Shops of Grand Avenue is chugging along all right. By no means is the center as successful as it was during the 1980s, but neither is that the current owner’s intention. Instead, the mall functions to serve the needs of the retail base which supports it, the newer neighborhoods downtown, and the 80,000 office workers which funnel in and out of the city center daily. The store roster speaks to this, and the food court is still as busy as it ever was. If management continues to woo more tenants in, it could really work out. The design features of the mall, and the way it’s hemmed in with hundred-year-old buildings, is rather unique and pleasing to the eye.
At any rate, Grand Avenue is currently the last enclosed shopping mall in the city of Milwaukee. As of ten years ago there were three others: Southgate, Capitol Court, and Northridge, but each met its own fate largely due to the same demographic problems which felled Grand Avenue. We took the pictures featured here in April 2007.