Packed house hears about Downer Avenue vacancies; residents and officials discuss possible solutions

A standing-room-only crowd attended a community meeting April 29, 2015, hosted by Ald. Nik Kovac and the Milwaukee Department of City Development (DCD) about foreclosures and vacancies plaguing the retail area on the 2500 and 2600 blocks of N. Downer Avenue.

IMG_3817City officials explained what they were willing — and not willing — to do financially for property owners and businesses on the street, and the owner of the majority of the properties told the audience why he wants a major city subsidy.

The meeting, at the Milwaukee Public Library – East Branch, followed a February 2015 forum at St Mark’s Episcopal Church and Journal Sentinel article that also focused on the foreclosures and related issues. We’ve posted the minutes from that meeting and the related JS story on our website.

The April meeting started with a detailed presentation by DCD’s Sam Leichtling on the retail area’s property owners, zoning, area demographics, past city support and other data. It showed $649,100 in city grants and $150,000 in city loans to Downer Avenue businesses from 2009 through 2014.

Ald. Kovac and DCD Commissioner Rocky Marcoux then took questions, many which focused on a request from the area’s main property owner, Joel Lee, for a city subsidy through a $2.5 million tax-incremental financing district.

The city officials acknowledged that they are opposing Lee’s request, prompting residents to ask, what the city plans to do instead.  City officials said they were open to continuing to assist individual businesses. They noted that developers are interested in acquiring the foreclosed Lee properties if the bank auctions them off.

Meanwhile, the city is currently looking for input from residents on the situation. Kovac wrote the following in a news release issued after the meeting:

Thank you to the hundred-plus neighbors who attended the meeting at the East Library last Wednesday to discuss the Downer Avenue Commercial Corridor. In case you weren’t able to attend in person, or would like more time to review the information presented by our Department of City Development (DCD), all of the slides from the meeting can be viewed here.

Wednesday night was the beginning of a community process that I hope gives all of us confidence in the present and future of Downer Avenue.

In addition to the verbal and written feedback we received at the meeting, we are encouraging everyone to provide further input about the future of Downer Avenue via an online survey. Please click on the links below to provide input that will be incorporated into the Downer Avenue Commercial Corridor Snapshot that will be prepared by DCD over the coming weeks.

What types of retail would complement the existing stores on Downer?
What should Downer look like in two years?
What should Downer look like in ten years?

Once completed, this snapshot will guide the efforts of the city and our partners as we work to support investment on Downer Avenue that is consistent with the neighborhood’s vision for the corridor.

DCD will incorporate the online comments into the Snapshot, but if you would prefer to submit your comments by email, please send them to

Nik Kovac
3rd District Alderman

We encourage you to submit your opinions about the Historic Downer Avenue retail district via the links above.

You can read more about the meeting at the library and the issues in this detailed article by Urban Milwaukee writer Michael Horne.