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While Whitefish Bay blossoms with an array of new businesses and restaurants, the eastern portion of Wauwatosa is becoming a similar hotbed of development and change.
The area, which once comprised barber shops, offices and fast food is now filled with thriving businesses and eateries like Cranky Al’s, Fattoni’s Deli and Catering, Il Mito, North Avenue Grill, Ono Kine Grindz, Rocket Baby Bakery, Juniper 61, Rosebud Cinema Drafthouse and Sherbrooke (formerly Shepherd’s). With the arrival of Bel Air Cantina this summer, and rumors of other dining options cropping up as well, the area is becoming known for its good eats and busy streets.
But, how does a neighborhood keep healthy growth like this alive?
The vision statement of the North Avenue Neighborhood Alliance, made up of five neighborhood organizations and a business association, expresses the potential of the trade district succinctly: "East Tosa is a progressive, walkable, urban community offering niche shopping and dining experiences interconnecting with vibrant, established neighborhoods."
In an effort to attain a more neighborhood, pedestrian-friendly environment with a healthy business district, a number of initiatives have been enacted to improve the area.
Earlier this month, the Wauwatosa City Council approved a plan to remove the chicanes in the road on North Avenue. The plan for the street, developed with the help of consultant Ayres Associates, affects the avenue from 60th Street to Wauwatosa Avenue (76th Street). Goals of the plan include slowing down traffic and improving pedestrian safety.
Approval has also been granted for thermoplastic green colored bike lanes to be added as discrete lanes on both sides of the street. Construction will begin this summer and will include resurfacing of North Avenue. It also will put a new traffic signal at North Avenue and 68th Street, pedestrian islands at 64th and 72nd Streets, and a flashing light at 73rd Street.
Another effort which has been pursued in the area is a proposal to encourage the continued addition of independently owned restaurants along the avenue.
Errant reports have suggested that chain restaurants will be banned on the east end of North Avenue under a proposal introduced before Common Council members in February.
The plan, proposed as an amendment to a recently approved zoning ordinance by Ald. Joel Tilleson, would place restrictions on the establishment of "formula restaurants," defined as businesses that have 11 or more outlets, and possess at least two of these characteristics: a standardized menu, a standardized façade, a standardized décor and color scheme, uniforms, standardized signage and a trademark or service mark. Under the amendment, the city would be able to turn away such restaurants on this stretch of North Avenue in East Tosa.
However, a provision also allows for approvals of formulaic chain establishments within a prohibited zone if it can be shown that it fills a void in demand under certain conditions. For instance, a coffee shop or café such as Alterra, Starbucks or Panera could be approved in a retail space if deemed beneficial.
While some see the proposal as obstructionist, the neighborhood sees it as progressive.
"We see in other communities that it’s been a positive thing," says Meg Miller, head of the North Avenue Neighborhood Alliance. "We are not anti-business, but we are interested in getting people to the table to talk about things before they come in and take up a spot and slap their name on it."
Miller feels that the amendment would create an opportunity for collaboration and connection between the neighborhood and new business owners.
"We want to meet with them," she says. "We want them to ask ‘what is the feeling that you want here?’ This is a great tool for that to happen. A business will be far-better received if they’ve had those conversations and really connected with the neighborhood."
"The hope is that the proposal makes additions to the zoning code that give residents and business owners a better way to guide their future," he explains.
"What might have simply been a commuter route has become a different sort of environment, thanks to additions of places like Rocket Baby Bakery. A community has a right to protect its character, and if a business comes forward that isn’t a good match for that character, the neighbors should be able to act."
But, why would chains be excluded? It’s a matter of preference on the part of the residents, Tilleson says.
"The neighbors are deeming that with some of the increased options, they’re preferring local retailers over chains. So, we’re reacting to that," he goes on. "This is raising a red flag and saying that these establishments aren’t sticking, and we’re trying to give them better options."
Wauwatosa is not alone. According to the Associated Press, the planning commission in Richfield, northwest of Milwaukee near West Bend, voted in early April to ban construction of new fast-food restaurants near large residential areas.
Sister Bay in Door County also recently enacted a city-wide ordinance restricting formulary restaurants, which assisted them in rejecting a proposal by a Subway restaurant seeking a location.
While Tilleson agrees that the decision was right for Sister Bay, which is a very small tourist town, he says he’d never advocate for a more broad formulary restriction in Wauwatosa.
"Our neighborhoods are too diverse," he explains. "As a city we’re supportive of all types of businesses – even chains and franchises – but, when it comes to East Tosa there are simply other parts of the city where those businesses will be better supported."
Why aren’t more communities hopping on the bandwagon?
"We tend to be a bit more cautious in the Midwest," Tilleson suggests. "Milwaukee, as you might know, is kind of late to the game with some of the trends in the way government handles things. This has been happening on the coasts for the past three years or more. Communities are waiting to see how courts uphold these laws."
The trend, however, seems to support what we’re seeing in East Tosa. The fact is, Tilleson says, people are moving back to urban centers.
"People no longer want big homes and big commutes," he says. "They want homes that are easier to maintain. So, the trend is consistent with what we’re seeing in East Tosa. People are walking their dogs, creating foot traffic. I can’t help but hope that other communities are eagerly watching this."
As of May 15, the Formulary Amendment is still alive and well and is expected to return to the City Council at some point in the months ahead. In the meantime, other alternatives are being considered that could reach the same ends for the neighborhood.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.