The city of about 35,000 residents in southern Milwaukee County is a mix of rural farms and suburban-style subdivisions, retail strip malls and big box stores, fast food chain restaurants, industrial parks, schools and churches.
And like many post-World War II communities, Oak Creek lacks an important aspect common in older cities and villages: a downtown, a place that is the unique identity, historic heart and gathering place for a community.
But now a partnership of city officials and an all-star development team is working to literally change the identity of Oak Creek and create a new mixed-use downtown for the city that also will be a unique destination on the south side of Milwaukee County.
In sum, Oak Creek is on the cusp of an historic and catalytic, game-changing reinvention.
"It is rare that a community the age of Oak Creek can completely redefine itself," said Blair Williams, one of the developers working on the project. "That story is completely compelling. It rises to a national caliber story."
Wispark LLC, the real estate development division of Wisconsin Energy Corp., acquired the 85-acre site southwest of Howell Avenue and Drexel Avenue, where a Delphi plant was located until it closed in 2008. Wispark, in a unique partnership with the city, plans to transform the site into a mixed-use town center, creating a downtown for Oak Creek.
City officials have committed to build a new city hall and library in the development, called Drexel Town Square. The city has committed to providing up to $19.9 million in tax incremental financing for the project, mostly for infrastructure and public amenities. The city also is lending $2 million to Wispark, which will be paid back under an agreement to share the proceeds from land sales in the project with the city.
Drexel Town Square will be a unique development that few, if any, other communities in the United States have tried. It will combine suburban-style retail, civic buildings, a classic mixed-use Main Street and urban-style apartments.
"It's going to be a new type of downtown in a suburban area," said Jerry Franke, president of Wispark. "This is a town center. We're not talking about a mall, we're not talking about a lifestyle center. We're talking about a neo downtown, something that mimics the traditional downtown and has a mixture of uses. We will do everything we can to make this the best possible downtown area."
The $175 million project, as currently proposed, includes a typical suburban-style retail portion anchored by a 193,000-square-foot Meijer store that will be surrounded by restaurants, a traditional Main Street area with street-level retail stores and apartments above, a two-acre town square, the city hall and library complex and 500 to 600 urban-style apartments.
That is a unique combination of uses for a suburban development and the potential to create a planned downtown, which traditionally develop organically, also sets the project apart.
"These uses all generate activity, and it's the conglomerate of these activities that will make it a place where people want to be," Franke said. "We believe that we can come up with a mixture of activities that will drive other retailers to want to be here because they will see the success of the retail operations that come here."
All-star development team
Inspired and intrigued by the bold and unique vision of Drexel Town Square, some of Milwaukee's premier commercial and urban residential developers plan to partner with Wispark on the project, although contracts have not been finalized.
- Milwaukee-based Zilber Property Group, perhaps the region's most prominent real estate development firm, will be the development manager for the project.
- Mid-America Real Estate will handle the retail real estate brokerage.
- Milwaukee-based Barrett Visionary Development, which recently completed The Moderne, a 30-story residential tower in downtown Milwaukee, will build hundreds of urban-style apartments.
- Milwaukee-based WiRED Properties, owned by Williams, a former executive with Milwaukee-based multi-family housing developer Mandel Group Inc., will develop the Main Street area.
- Steve Chamberlin, former president of Milwaukee-based construction firm C.G. Schmidt, is the owner's representative for the city of Oak Creek's buildings in the project.
- The design team for the project includes Matt Rinka, owner of Milwaukee-based of Rinka|Chung Architecture, who designed The Moderne, and Sheboygan-based Bray Architects, which is designing the city's buildings.
"It's an A-list of talent," said Oak Creek Mayor Steve Scaffidi. "We have the best minds coming together to look at what realistically can be done in Oak Creek."
"The team that Wispark has put together is a very, very professional team," Barrett said, "I feel honored to be part of this team."
Barrett said he is often approached by cities asking him to do projects, and he told the Oak Creek Common Council, "I want to be here. We're very, very excited about this project."
Regional public access to the Oak Creek site will be greatly enhanced by the recently completed Drexel Avenue interchange on Interstate 94.
The Drexel Town Square project consists of three major parts: the typical suburban retail component along Howell Avenue with the Meijer store surrounded by stand-alone restaurants, the Main Street area in the middle and the urban-style apartments on the western portion.
The Meijer store is the most controversial aspect of the project. Some Oak Creek residents are disappointed to hear that Drexel Town Square will bring yet another big-box chain store to the Howell Avenue corridor.
However, the developers say a big-box store is necessary to drive traffic to Drexel Town Square and to attract other retailers. The Meijer store, with a combination of grocery and general merchandise, will bring residents to Drexel Town Square on a regular basis (see accompanying story).
"We're faced with that market reality," Scaffidi said. "This will drive the other aspects of this development, the other retail and restaurants on the site, the unique retail that people are looking for."
The Meijer store will be surrounded by several stand-alone restaurants. The restaurants will be sit-down, mid-priced and will be a mix of chains and locally operated establishments, Franke said. There will be no fast food restaurants unless the sites are unsold after five years, he said.
An Oak Creek resident survey indicated residents want more restaurants in the city.
"This town wants, this region wants, this region needs more restaurants," Franke said. "The restaurant business is extremely hot right now. We're hoping that if we can get going on this project during 2013, we won't miss that wave."
Business executives in Oak Creek would like to have quality local restaurants in the community they can take clients to, Scaffidi said.
"In a lot of ways, the restaurants will define this project," he said.
Developers will not name any potential restaurants, but Franke said they hope to attract a brew pub.
Although the Meijer store will anchor the retail component of Drexel Town Square, the developers say the Main Street area is the overall project's true anchor.
That part of the project will include a traditional Main Street with retail space on the ground floor and 60 to 80 market-rate apartments above the retail space. The city hall, library and town square will also be part of the Main Street area.
The library will be 40,000 square feet. City hall will be 19,000 square feet. There will also be 16,000 square feet of space that is shared by the city hall and library. Altogether, the city hall and library complex will consist of 75,000 square feet and will cost $16 million.
Oak Creek's city hall has 54 full-time employees. The current city library has five full-time employees and 20 part-time employees. The library gets about 275,000 visits a year, said city administrator Gerald Peterson.
"Libraries are a very active place," Franke said. "They bring a lot of traffic. City hall, it's the heart of the community. That's what we're really trying to make Drexel Town Square."
Williams will develop the Main Street portion of Drexel Town Square, except for the city's portion, which is being handled by Chamberlin.
"To me amongst the most compelling aspects of this development is Oak Creek's commitment to it," Williams said. "The importance of city hall and the library simply cannot be overstated. When folks come to interact with the library or come to interact with city hall, it really is an extension of their civic life into that public reality that is community."
The idea of the entire Drexel Town Square project is to attract people to come, park their cars and walk to a number of different uses, and the Main Street area is the focal point of that anticipated activity.
"Main Street needs to have people on the street," Williams said. "This is coffee to cocktails. This is an 18-hour day for activity on the street. It's a 24-hour community with heads in beds at night. It's an environment that really is dedicated toward the cultivation of community."
Retail uses in the Main Street area could include a coffee shop and fitness center, Franke said. An "online university" and a hotel are also interested in the project, Scaffidi said.
Details for the two-acre town square are still up in the air and the developers are seeking community input on how to design it, Franke said. The town square could provide space for farmer's markets, splash pads, an ice skating rink, outdoor movie viewing and more.
A professional management firm will maintain the town square.
"This will not be a park that's managed by the recreation department or some other public agency," Franke said. "Rather, it will be by a private operator that knows how to make the most out of that facility."
The western portion of Drexel Town Square will be developed by Barrett, who plans to build 500 to 600 urban-style apartments between the Main Street area and a pond with a fountain.
"They're going to be more of a Third Ward appearance than a typical suburban apartment development," Franke said. "It is going to be apartments that rent at higher-than-typical rents (in Oak Creek) right now."
The apartments on the western portion of the project will be upscale and will be larger than the apartments in the Main Street area. The apartments will be built in three phases, Barrett said. The first phase will have 173 units. The second and third phase will include some rowhouses and townhouses along the street edge, "which I think will be in line with what we are trying to accomplish in more of the building of a city and a town center. It will garner that feel," Barrett said.
Demolition at the former Delphi site is expected to begin soon. Infrastructure work and construction of the new city hall and library are expected to begin by the end of the year and be complete next year. The entire development of Drexel Town Square could take five to ten years, Franke said.
When complete, the Drexel Town Square project could help reshape the image of Oak Creek, "from being a city predominantly rural and not progressive to being very forward-thinking in how we deal with things," Scaffidi said.
Scaffidi's short tenure as mayor has been eventful. The city was shaken with the Aug. 5 mass shooting that killed six people and wounded four others at the Sikh Temple.
The emergence of the new downtown is helping to redirect the local conversation and move the city forward.
"Steve Scaffidi has risen to the occasion on many fronts since being elected less than one year ago. He has taken an aggressive, no-nonsense approach to running the city while having great passion for helping a broad spectrum of its constituents," said Gary Billington, an Oak Creek resident and business executive who has been active in the community. "The Drexel Town Square is yet another example of his leadership and vision. He has demanded high-quality development using long-term tenants that will create a unique regional destination to work, live and play for years to come. Not to be underestimated in these very uncertain economic and political times, Steve has done a great job of getting everyone on the same page with the same vision."
"I'd like to commend Oak Creek for making the commitment to redefine its downtown and community life," Williams said to the Common Council. "This is a story that you will be able to tell for generations. And I think it is an incredibly exciting opportunity."