By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jun 08, 2015 at 9:02 AM

Those who spend a lot of time on the East Side might see all those "For Lease" signs on retail spaces and wonder why more and more new buildings are being built: in The Standard on North Avenue, The Overlook in the old Prospect Mall, OaklandNorth on the old Pizza Man site.

According the Jim Plaisted, executive director of the East Side Business Improvement District, the signs fuel a perception of excessive vacancies that doesn’t exactly jibe with reality.

"There's a steady buzz of activity in this neighborhood, and a growing number of new opportunities," Plaisted says. "Redevelopment has been deliberate, and we expect to see even more over the next 5 to 10 years."

But what about those signs, plus ones along Kenilworth Place, and others, like the one hanging at the former Crank Daddy’s a couple blocks south?

"There's a few existing properties turning over, which is typical, as well as the highly visible new construction that is now offering up additional commercial space for lease," Plaisted says. "We keep vacancies in proper perspective: these are opportunities to enhance this thriving neighborhood."

Sean Osborne, a senior vice president at Colliers International Wisconsin, agrees that the signs do create some misperception, but says they're also part reality.

"It’s a little bit of both," he says. "There have been a number of new projects built over the past few years adding to the amount of available space. That new space adds to the vacancy rate by putting more product on the market and causing other tenants in the market relocate."

So, why is more retail added when there are vacant sites available?

"Because the city encourages developers to add retail to their residential units," says Osborne, adding that, in the short term we will see vacancies in the neighborhood.

"(But) long term it might be good for the area. Much of the space being built will be filled with entertainment and restaurant type uses. The population can only support so many restaurants and bars in the area. The additional residential growth will help that."

While those signs abound, there is also clearly a lot happening in the area that surrounds Farwell and North.

Recent or impending openings include Buddha Lounge, Blooming Lotus bakery (opening this week in the old Love Handle space), Studio D’Angeli salon and Urban Om yoga studio. Von Trier has brought back food service and Ian’s Pizza is expanding into the former Subway space next door.

A new Mandel residential development across the river on North Avenue will include an Adventure Rock climbing facility.

And if you broaden the timeline to encompass the past few years, there’s Potbelly in The Overlook; Yo Factory frozen yogurt, Simple Cafe and Fushimi restaurants on Farwell; Urban Outfitters and American Apparel, among other businesses in UWM’s Kenilworth Square development; Little Monsters on Farwell; Burger King on Prospect and North; Melthouse Bistro, Schoolyard and The Hotch Spot on Kenilworth.

So, what are the challenges for retail landlords?

"Demand," says Osborne. "First floor retail can be challenging: Deliveries, parking, layout, venting are all issues retailers have to deal with in this type of product. Those issues are less demanding in traditional retail shopping centers. The demand is further limited by the type of users that will look at first floor space in an entertainment district."

But, there are strengths, too, of course, including that long-standing real estate catchphrase: location, location, location.

There are densely populated residential neighborhoods on all sides – though that giant lake nearby doesn’t especially help in that respect, says Colliers' Steve Palec – and a huge population of resident students getting ever closer to the district thanks to a trio of UWM dorm developments in the heart of the zone.

"Our strength is that we're a historic, walkable neighborhood that is steps away from both the lakefront and river trails," says Plaisted. "There's buying power in the immediate neighborhood that attracts businesses like Whole Foods, Urban Outfitters and keeps Beans & Barley and The Oriental Theatre thriving.

"Our challenge is in making sure that the energy of the area, fueled by university students and faculty, is not the only feature that is marketed by property owners and leasing agents. The addition of mixed-use developments in the past two years and strong residential density helps drive up demand for additional retail and services."

Plaisted adds that his organization has worked for a number of years to promote a more balanced image of the neighborhood – it’s not just for drinking – and the East Side BID plans to release a new retail study and plan for the neighborhood in coming weeks.

Unsurprisingly, he’s optimistic about the future.

"It's hard to view the recent investment and roughly 200 new residential units as negative in any way," he says. "Rents are solid and above market norms for greater East Side. The attractive quality of the East Side is that you have a real mix of commercial space, from the new construction to our older buildings that are mainstays in the neighborhood.

"We view the available spaces for lease as opportunities to enhance the neighborhood, not as a negative statement about the market. We've welcomed several new businesses to the neighborhood over the past two years and look forward to several more in the next year."

What else is coming soon?

"We can tell you that the trend for the East Side to attract 'firsts' in the area continues, with Yoga Six coming soon to the Overlook on Prospect," Plaisted says.

"We've had several new businesses open in the neighborhood over the past two years and right now I'm aware of six additional businesses coming to the neighborhood in the next few months: Blooming Lotus bakery (in former Love Handle space), Deja Vu (in former Village Bazaar), Rosati's Pizza and Sports Pub (in the former Replay space). Two tenants are signed for the library commercial space and for former probation and parole office next to Schoolyard."

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

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 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.