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 have 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.
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 is being 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 LLC, the real estate development subsidiary of WEC Energy Group is the master developer for this site. Other entities that are part of the development team include Zilber Property Group, Ramboll Environ, GRAEF, Rinka Chung Architects, KM Development Corp. and Mid-America Real Estate Group.
A project approved by the Oak Creek Planning Commission features one three-story and one four-story apartment building on either side of Main Street in Drexel Town Square (DTS). The two buildings will include 64 apartments above retail stores and restaurants along Main Street. That street extends south of East Drexel Avenue and leads to a main public square in the 85-acre development.
WiRED Properties and Phelan Development, both based in Milwaukee, are developing the main street buildings.
“We started with the notion we are creating a sort of downtown environment,” Blair Williams, president of WIRED Properties, said. “One of the things that makes a neighborhood walkable is you have multiple destinations available to you by foot, so you can park once.”
“We believe these apartments will be unique in Oak Creek – bringing beautiful urban apartments that not only boast impressive features and finishes, but also have incredible retailers and urban amenities right downstairs,” Williams said.
A second apartment complex within DTS is the 167-unit Emerald Row apartments. Tenants took occupany in the summer of 2016. When approving this complex, plan commissioners applauded the "urban and pedestrian feel" of the apartment complex, which is located on the western side of the DTS site at 601 S. 6th St. The "H-shaped" development includes 110 one-bedroom apartments, 31 two-bedroom and 26 three-bedroom units.
Barrett Visionary Development LLC is the developer of Emerald Row Apartments. The building's design, by Rinka Chung Architects, has four wings.
Emerald Row includes a swimming pool between the building’s northwest and southwest wings, and a nearby outdoor natural seating area overlooking a public wetland park. A courtyard links the northeast and southeast wings. The building also will have about 1,800 square feet of street-level commercial space.