The idea of creating a downtown and a town center from scratch, while not unprecedented, certainly isn't common, either.
But the developers and architect involved with the Drexel Town Square redevelopment project, planned for the corner of Drexel and Howell avenues in Oak Creek, say its the uniqueness drew them in.
Rick Barrett, Blair Williams and Matt Rinka are bringing their high profiles in the Milwaukee development community—and more importantly, their successful track records—to Oak Creek to help develop an entirely new identity for the city.
Barrett will develop the residential component on the west end of the site, which will include about 500 to 600 high-end apartments. Williams is focused on the downtown portion of the project, where first-floor shops and second-floor apartments will lead to a town square. Rinka is involved with the design of the site and connecting all of the components together.
In an interview this week with Oak Creek Patch, the trio talked about why they got involved, what they envision for Drexel Town Square and what will set it apart from other suburban redevelopment projects.
Collaboration seen as key
Barrett and Williams know exactly how multiple developers can join together for a successful project. They were involved in creating the Beerline neighborhood near downtown Milwaukee, in which a new neighborhood was essentially built from the ground up—just like in the Drexel Town Square plans.
Beerline happened because all of the developers succeeded, Barrett said. But Williams also said developers mostly worked in "silos" and not together. They didn't communicate with each other about what they were doing, he said.
That's what makes the Oak Creek project "refreshing," Barrett said. All of the developers are working together and pulling for each other because, well, they don't have a choice.
"The more successful (Williams) is, the more successful we are," Barrett said. "The more successful Meijer is, the more successful we are. That, to me, is the really exciting part."
Added Williams: "When we sat down at the table for the first time, we were all going to do this together. There was going to be independent efforts to make sure that we each did our own bit as best we could, but there was going to be collaboration and effort jointly to get this thing as strong and successful as it can be."
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Barrett said he has seen similar redevelopment attempts in other suburban communities in the country go awry. But he believes the "world-class team" working on Drexel Town Square will create a project held up as an example of how to do it right.
"With great design and really smart people involved," he said, "this project will be, in my mind, something that sets the new standard for suburban development and how it can be done properly."
Barrett recently completed the 30-story Moderne in downtown Milwaukee and is planning the 44-story Coutre on the lakefront. He will present multiple options for housing on Drexel Town Square after a close study of the demand in the Oak Creek area. Rents are anticipated to be on the higher end, with young professionals and employees of nearby corporate headquarters like Caterpillar and PPG calling the apartments home.
Those residents will be just a few steps away from Oak Creek's first true downtown.
Oak Creek's Main Street
Williams, of WiRED Properties, helped develop Shorewood's Main Street. He was attracted to this project in large part because of the civic component on the south side of the town square.
The Oak Creek Common Council's decision a year ago to relocate the library and city hall to Drexel Town Square was full of contention and divided city aldermen. But the city's commitment is what makes it different from other town center projects, Williams said, because those buildings will truly signify the new heart of the city.
"I don't know how compelled I would have been it if it wasn't for Oak Creek's participation," Williams said.
- Review the plans and give your input at a public meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday at the Oak Creek Community Center.
He plans on bringing a "coffee-to-cocktail" approach to the downtown area. In other words, a place where someone could spend the first part of the morning, the middle of the day or the evening hours—or all three.
That fosters a sense of community that can't found at other developments, Williams said. The hope for Drexel Town Square is to create a neighborhood where one sees familiar people on a regular basis and engages with the community.
"Familiarity breeds intimacy, intimacy breeds a sense of responsibility, a sense of responsibility builds community, and all of a sudden you realize you do have a neighborhood and a community in one localized place," Williams said.
Williams has also heard Oak Creek residents' desire for more nice restaurants in the city and says that will be a big part of Drexel Town Square.
"I feel extremely confident there will be a mix of restaurants and a mix of food and beverage opportunities here," he said.
The plan shows room for restaurants not only in the downtown, but also on land adjacent to Drexel Avenue and Howell Avenue, on the outskirts of a parking lot for a proposed Meijer store.
Meijer is the component that has drawn the most reaction and criticism from Oak Creek residents, with many expressing their displeasure about another a big box and another grocery store entering the city.
The developers involved with Drexel Town Square see it differently.
Meijer an 'advantage' for project
"I look at (Meijer) as an advantage, believe it or not," Barrett said. "It's going to be convenient the way that it's been designed, such that you can walk to Meijer. To me, from just the residential side of things, I look at that as a plus."
Williams said he sees Meijer as a catalyst, a business that will help facilitate the project by assuring potential retailers and restaurateurs that people will come to the site.
"They help us tell the story to all the other retailers that we need to recruit to this location, that there will be people here," Williams said.
"From my perspective, having an obligation to lease a fair amount of retail space, it's very important there be traffic generation like what Meijer can provide."
Unlike department stores, a grocery store like Meijer generates more regular and repeat trips, Williams said, which means more people becoming familiar with the site.
The project will be designed in a way that makes it easy for people to access both Meijer and the downtown, Williams said, as well as for those living in the apartments to walk to Meijer.
"If this becomes part of someone's regular shopping habits, I feel pretty confident that they're also going to come into Main Street, and they're also going to visit these other retailers," Williams said. "And they're going to go have a cup of coffee or they're going to go have a cocktail."
That combination, of Meijer next to a new downtown, could change the entire perception of Oak Creek, Rinka said.
"That's what's so unique about this project—you have all of those amenities that people who live in Oak Creek enjoy and is convenient for them in a Meijer," he said. "But now they can also live in a community that has a really strong identity to it and a strong downtown."