Before it was Drexel Town Square, the site was a manufacturing and technology development center, built in 1957 by Delco Electronics, Oak Creek’s largest employer. Through the years and a number of corporate changes, it became AC Spark Plug, the AC Electronics Division of General Motors and, finally, Delphi Electronics & Safety, before the plant was closed in 2008. Part of the plant was demolished to make room for the Woodman’s grocery store in 2007. The rest was demolished and has been vacant for three years.
The property was acquired in August of 2011 by Wispark LLC, the real estate development subsidiary of WEC Energy Group. Wispark is a leader in the development of innovative business settings. Drexel Town Square is a jewel on the Oak Creek landscape.
Drexel Town Square is a “hybrid” development that combines traditional suburban commercial development and a neo-urban mixed-use development, reminiscent of a traditional downtown. The 85-acre in-fill site is located in the city of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, a growing community in southern metropolitan Milwaukee. The site features a mixture of traffic-generating uses, including: civic and institutional buildings; retail and service, featuring food and specialty shops; luxury market rate apartments; a hotel; and a medical office building. Central to the project is a new city hall and public library. These municipal facilities have been constructed adjacent to a one-acre town square. The town square features year-round uses such as farmers’ market, splash pad, skating rink, and an amphitheater. The appropriate mixture of uses has resulted in a walkable and sustainable urban neighborhood. Prior to the start of this development, a large area on the west part of the site evolved over time into a low-quality wetland and scrub area. This area has been enhanced with new sedimentation ponds, rain gardens, and enhanced wetlands as well as a trail around the site. The wetlands park demonstrates best management practices for stormwater management.
Wispark and the City of Oak Creek received the 2016 Vision Award for the successful Drexel Town Square development from the Milwaukee Business Journal at a celebration on April 14, 2016. The paper’s 2016 Real Estate Award program recognizes projects that make an impact on the vitality of southeast Wisconsin. The newspaper recognized Wispark and the City of Oak Creek for transforming the former Delphi manufacturing site into a mixed-use development that is a model for other cities and communities.
“We’ve accomplished a great deal to this point,” said Jerry Franke, president – Wispark. “There’s more good news to come. The future here is very bright.”
This 85-acre site was formerly home to a Delphi manufacturing facility. It is located just east of the new I-94 Drexel Avenue interchange, which has dramatically shifted traffic patterns within the area. Existing traffic counts are in excess of 29,000 vehicles per day on Drexel Avenue (the north side of the site) and 35,000 vehicles per day on South Howell Avenue (the east border of the site). The site is in close proximity to the Northwestern Mutual Life campus and General Mitchell International Airport.
Challenges overcome at Drexel Town Square Site
There were several challenges which had to be overcome to implement the vision, including:
- The size of the site and the amount of retail it could support is larger than Mayfair Mall (81 acres) and Brookfield Square (67 acres). The market could not support retail of that magnitude.
- The property which was acquired in “as-is” condition from the bankrupt Delphi Company and the cost of its environmental remediation had to be borne by the purchaser. The high cost of demolishing the remaining concrete pads and foundations (which were crushed and used as fill on the site). These were critical reasons for the TIF support.
- There was initial opposition to a new big-box retail store (Meijer). Absorption of the large parcel has assured more expeditious development of the site. The well-known retailer established credibility of the site and will create significant traffic and activity to and about the site.
- The southern metro-Milwaukee area has lower median income and related demographics as compared to other suburban areas of the metropolitan area.
- The need to integrate the “suburban portion” of the site (east one-third) into the town square portion.
- Convincing the community to locate the city hall and library at the new location.
City Government Commitment
When the manufacturing operations ceased at this site, the City took action to order the existing vacant buildings to be razed. Had that not occurred, it is likely that the buildings would have been used for cold storage or other low value uses.
In addition to the commitment to construct a new city hall and public library within the development, the City unanimously approved a tax increment financing district to prepare the site and provide infrastructure to accommodate the town center development. The State of Wisconsin awarded a $1,150,000 grant to assist in cleaning up the existing concrete and asphalt pads which remained from the original buildings on the site. MMSD committed nearly a million dollars to create a stormwater management system and enhanced wetlands which will serve as examples of best management practices for other development in the region.
The creation of an approximately $30 million tax increment financing district was critical to the ability to move forward. Without the TIF support, the project would not have been feasible. The large size of the site; the need to install a large amount of infrastructure at one time; the cost to remove the concrete and remediate the contaminated areas; and the ability to provide incentives to developers for portions of the project created the need for the use of TIF. In addition to the incremental value created by the new development, 30 percent of the net proceeds from the sale of land at Drexel Town Square is paid to the City. The final value of the project is estimated at more than $175 million.
General Plan Description
The eastern 30 acres of the site includes the Meijer store and fuel center and retail (primarily restaurants) outlot development. The development of these types of uses supports the town center development concept and are in close proximity to encourage walkability to and within the town center. The middle 20 acres was developed as a traditional downtown area with first floor retail uses and upper floor residential apartments as well. The center also is home to the Oak Creek Civic Center which includes Oak Creek city hall and Oak Creek public library; a hotel, Marriott Towneplace Suites, and the town square. The western 25 acres of the property is dedicated to high-end apartments; medical office building; and Emerald Preserve and the Dale Richards Trail.
Wispark, the real estate development subsidiary of WEC Energy Group was the master developer for this site. The property is owned by One West Drexel LLC, which is a public/private partnership of the City and the developer designed to oversee the development of the property. Other entities that were part of the development team include Zilber Property Group, Ramboll Environ, GRAEF, Rinka Chung Architects, KM Development Corp. and Mid-America Real Estate Group.