There’s always a lot of talk about development in the heart of the city, but a group that includes Minnesota-based Roers Companies and Milwaukee’s Scott Crawford, Inc. is walking the walk at a sprawling former industrial complex in the 30th Street Industrial Corridor.
The $67 million plan – dubbed The Community Within the Corridor – which calls for 197 apartments, a giant gym and community space, a laundromat, small grocery store, daycare, skate park, putting green, dog park, after-school programming, a small business incubator and a creative space – has already gotten underway at 32nd and Center Streets in a maze of buildings atop 6.2 acres that have a long manufacturing history.
About $37 million of the project’s funding comes from state and federal affordable housing and historic preservation tax credits. The rest comes from a variety of loans, grants and other sources.
Located on the edge of Sherman Park neighborhood, across the street from Master Lock, the buildings – which date from 1906 to the mid-20th century – were, over the years, home to Romadka Brothers trunk and luggage company, Harley-Davidson, Columbia Knitting and Manufacturing, Milsco Manufacturing, Westinghouse Lamp Co., Reliance Boiler Works and a number of shoemakers, including Mid-States Shoe Co., Ideal Shoe Manufacturing and A.H. Weinbrenner Shoe Co.
Also in the complex, but not currently part of the plan (though it may be added) is the lovely cream city brick Romadka Brothers headquarters.
“For the neighborhood, we are bringing much needed amenities such as STEAM after-school programming, a food hall, an indoor recreational facility, a laundromat and an early education center that will support the entire community,” says Que El-Amin, owner of Scott Crawford Inc.
“This project will mean an anticipated $119 million economic boost and more importantly is showing that the 30th Street Industrial Corridor is viable for economic development. Being that the project was conceptualized and executed – with considerable help from Roers Companies – by a Milwaukee-based team shows the next generation a baseline for what they can accomplish.”
A little history
While many of the companies listed above built the variety of buildings that will form The Community Within the Corridor, over time Briggs and Stratton came to own and occupy them all, beginning with the cream city brick gem running up from the northeast corner of 32nd and Center, which was designed by Alexander C. Eschweiler and built for Romadka Brothers and later sold to Westinghouse.
In 1936, having outgrown its five-story East Plant, built in 1920 near 13th and Center, Briggs & Stratton – founded by Stephen Foster Briggs and Harold M. Stratton in the Third Ward in 1909 building automobile ignition systems and expanding to other electrical parts for cars – bought the Eschweiler building to serve as its West Plant.
By then, the company had expanded into motors for bikes, scooters, washing machines, lawn mowers and other objects.
The location near the railway corridor was surely a draw and over time Briggs & Stratton acquired building after building, adding five more structures (most of them pretty big) to its West Plant between in 1937 and 1977.
The Mid-States Shoe/Ideal Shoe building, for example, at 2769 N. 32nd was added in 1941, the Weinbrenner Shoe Co. site on 33rd Street came on in 1972, the old Reliance Boiler Works at 2784 N. 32nd was acquired in 1977.
In the 1940s, Harley-Davidson rented the one-story building (two photos above, a 1944 exterior and 1947 interior, courtesy of Harley-Davidson Museum) on the northwest corner of 32nd and Center for the manufacture and storage of parts and accessories for the military. That structure will house the day care and retail space in the new development.
According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, “By the late 1940s Briggs & Stratton was one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of small gasoline engines of this type, and the company continued to acquire adjacent factory buildings on both sides of North 32nd Street between Center and Locust Streets. The property retains sufficient integrity to the period of significance.”
The company's expansion was never-ending for a time, as Briggs added facilities in Wauwatosa in 1955 (expanded in 1967 and 1974), in Glendale in 1973 and in Menomonee Falls in 1981.
The East Plant was torn down in 1976, and Briggs & Stratton traded the site to Reliance Boiler Works for the 32nd Street building the following year.
The West Plant was closed in 1986 and sold off in ‘87.
In more recent years, the company – headquartered in Wauwatosa – has expanded to include factories and research facilities in five other states.
In September 2020, Briggs & Stratton was sold to KPS Capital Partners.
The Community Within the Corridor
Now, Continuum Architects has taken this hodgepodge of structures of different ages, heights and floor levels and drawn in a massive development that’s being built by Greenfire Management Services.
The buildings on the east side of 32nd Street will have some of the nearly 200 subsidized affordable housing units and, in an 25,000-square-foot three-story manufacturing shed, a giant gym (pictured below), as well as underground parking.
Across the street, the west portion will have more units, some on upper floors with skylights and nice views over the low residential neighborhood that surrounds the complex, as well as the 8,000-square-foot New Horizon Day Care and other amenities, including a recording and podcasting studio, classroom/lecture space and band rehearsal area.
When I visited, work had already begun – it started in November – clearing out junk and doing some interior demolition work and the like, but the buildings still looked much as they would’ve when manufacturing was going on here.
While it takes some imagination for a layman to see apartments in some of the enormous industrial spaces on the east side (two photographs above) – most of which will keep their exposed steel beam ceiling supports and gorgeous hardwood floors – in other areas, especially on the west side, it’s much easier to envision beautiful apartments sprouting (two photographs below).
The apartments will be managed by Common Bond Communities.
While a smokestack at the east group of buildings will come down, another in the west complex (pictured below) will be repaired and kept.
On the far west end, facing North 33rd Street, there will be a landscaped circular driveway serving the main entrance to the complex.
The Romadka Brothers building facing Center Street, which isn’t yet part of the plan, but which is being considered for addition, is quite lovely, with its two-story reception lobby, a giant safe painted with the Romadka Brothers name and some well-executed graffiti art that will surely be covered up if the building is renovated.
The renovation of the massive development is expected to be complete by summer 2022.
“The project was extremely complex,” says El-Amin. “We had to obtain a number of different financing sources, the development itself is multifunctional, and it took four years for construction to start. Ald. Russell Stamper was with us throughout the entire process. He championed for city support in countless ways which helped simplify the project.”
Roers Companies' Director of Development Shane LaFave echoes El-Amin, saying, “There's a reason it took four years to bring this project from conception to closing. We brought together nine sources of financing to fund the $67 million total project cost that it takes to renovate a 100-plus-year-old industrial facility into a multifamily community.
“All of those partnerships came together to create what will be an incredible asset for an underserved community for decades to come.”
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.