Mike B.'s Commentary

Posted May 9, 2011 (user submitted June 29, 2004)

It has been said that there is only one place in the world where you can shop, work out and visit a clown museum, and that's the Grand Avenue. However, just because there is a mall in a large downtown area, there is a token clown museum, and a big lunch crowd in the food court doesn't mean that it will have lasting success. This was exactly the case with the Grand Avenue Mall, constructed across four city blocks just west of the Milwaukee River. The mall is divided into two sections -- the Plankinton Arcade and the New Arcade -- connected by a skywalk. Above the Plankington Arcade is the Downtown YMCA, and beneath the arcade is the International Clown Hall of Fame.

High Hopes

Since it opened in 1982, "The Grand" has experienced incredible ups and bleak, horrible downs. Funded largely by the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, the mall opened with expectations that it would spark a revitalization of downtown Milwaukee. Milwaukee's downtown retail scene was suffering, as the malls that sprang up in new neighborhoods and suburbs built after World War II lured away shoppers. The Grand Avenue was designed to add some sizzle downtown and bring them back. Originally anchored by Boston Store and Marshall Fields, with Woolworths and Gimbels across the street, this was the premiere shopping destination in Milwaukee. But five years after it opened, there were signs of trouble. Lunchtime was busy enough, when downtown office workers ran to do their errands. But shopkeepers complained that there were few customers in the evenings and on weekends. Retailers who had stores at the Grand Avenue and at locations outside the city noticed that their most expensive merchandise sold best closer to where their well-heeled customers lived -- in the suburbs. The mall was viewed as a key link between downtown's east and west sides, and a destination tourists and conventioneers, as Milwaukee's old and new convention centers are located on the opposite side of the street from the mall. In the 1980's, The Grand Avenue carried downtown. In addition to Fields and Boston Store, over the years, the mall housed a safari-style Banana Republic (ultimately the last of its kind), The Nature Company, Gap, the Limited, Laura Ashley, Eddie Bauer, and scores of other once prime retailers.

The Dark Years

By the mid-1990's, the Grand Avenue had lost its charm. Despite a $25 million dollar offer from the city to renovate its Grand Avenue location, and a mammoth new convention center being constructed across Wisconsin Avenue, Dayton-Hudson opted to close Marshall Fields down, shuttering a 110 year old building. In the coming months and years, stores including The Nature Company, Godiva Chocolatier, Banana Republic, Warner Bros. Studio Store, Casual Corner, The Body Shop, and upscale local stores such as The Puzzle Box and Goldi's would pull out, and spaces would be filled by national chains selling lower-end merchandise and to lofcals on temporary leases for less rent. Wisconsin Avenue, the mall's main thoroughfare, lost its charm, and the mall's Westown neighborhood was viewed as little more than a high-crime area full of panhandlers and liquor stores.

On the Mend

In the early 2000's, then-mayor John Norquist oversaw the investment of over $12 million into the mall, giving it a major facelift, and a renaming of “The Shops at Grand Avenue.” With brightly-colored walls, lots of granite, and updated interior lighting, the mall now has a very contemprorary, urban feel. The YMCA located above Plankington Arcade is heavily used by downtown professionals, and the mall is finally seeing some new tenants. Boston Store underwent a multi-million dollar renovation that included loft-style apartments opened on floors above department store. While better than nothing, the Plankington Arcade has been fitted for big box retailers. TJ Maxx and Linens and Things opened in Plankington Arcade in Spring of 2004, preceeded by Borders Books which opened in the former Marshall Fields site in 2002. Although the New Arcade currently holds Children's Place, Payless Shoes, Rainbow, Wolf Camera, Trade Secret and Foot Locker, as well as food offerings including Applebee's, Wild Flour Bakery, Chocolate Factory, Qdoba, Subway, and Potbelly Sandwich Works, it still feels hollow on the inside, with plenty of skeletons of retailers long gone. Talks of a Virgin Mega Store linger in the rumor mill, and an Old Navy set to open in July 2004. Other adjoining buildings being renovated and turned into loft-style apartments and there is a new Sheraton Hotel about to break ground in a vacant lot just north of mall.

For more of this mall's life than less, it has been widely viewed as a crime-ridden shopping center in a bad part of town, with nothing more than a few five-and-dime stores. Hopefully with a shift of demographics in residents of the area, the mall will truly return to it's former grandeur—in ways beyond a new coat of paint, a fancy new entranceway, and a new name.

Mike Prymula's Commentary

Posted May 9, 2011 (user submitted December 11, 2008)

Whenever a mall starts dying, there are usually one or more renovation attempts that either work or don't work; there seems to be no in-between most of the time. Fortunately for Grand Avenue Mall, it's total makeover and name change to The Shops Of Grand Avenue helped it become very succesful and even now has it's own website.

Looking back now, it's hard to believe that this mall was once the verge of meeting the same fate as Northridge mall. Indeed while the mall thrived in the beginning due to it's convenient location, the massive unemployment of the new decade caused crime rates to soar downtown, and because the crimes usually happened near the mall, shoppers were too fearful to make the journey downtown and instead began shopping at closer malls. As a result the mall saw massive vacancies in the mid 90s, which was the time when I started visiting the mall with my family. We usually went the day after Thanksgiving as a tradition. I remember how empty and gloomy the mall was and how outdated it looked next to Illinois shopping malls like Hawthorne and Northbrook Court.

The mall further declined when the Marshall Fields anchor left in 1997 after years of declining sales. Many stores in the east section of the mall also began to close. By 2002, things were looking grim for Grand Avenue Mall, as it was mostly populated with urbanwear and athletic stores, which is usually a sign that the end is near for the mall. With 2002 being my recent visit to the mall, it definitely looked like it was going to close very soon, as it was even more vacant than it was on my previous visits. I realized how outdated the mall was firsthand when shopping at Sam Goody and they were still selling Sega Gamegear games, despite the Gamegear having been discontinued some 5 years ago in 1997.

I'm definitely happy that the mall has been rejvenated, though i've heard some complaints about the new look, I would certainly love to go shopping there now to see what's it like there since the last time I visited, judging by the pictures of the new mall, i'd say it's barely recognizeable.

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