By Julie Lawrence Special to Published Aug 22, 2006 at 5:17 AM
While Downer Avenue was once a hub of activity and entertainment for the East Side, it's no secret that the last decade has shown signs of the neighborhood standing still, even possibly regressing.

Four vacancies on the strip is intimidating, but Milwaukee's New Land Enterprises has a vision for the future of Downer Avenue that would potentially fill those holes pretty quickly.

Pending approval and permits from the city, the development company says that it could provide the initial ingredients for a catalyst that would essentially revitalize the Downer neighborhood -- both from a residential and commercial standpoint.

"We'd like to make Downer more active and alive throughout the whole day, as opposed to just at certain peak times," says Tim Gokhman, New Land's director of sales and marketing. "That's going to involve coordinating residential plans with retail and office spaces."

According to Gokhman, New Land's is a three-part plan that begins with filling the four vacant storefronts.

So far, he says, three of the four are taken care of, starting with the interior renovation of Diablos Rojos' (Mike Eitel, Scott Johnson, Leslie Montemurro and Eric Wagner) Café Centraal, which opens in November in the former Gil's Café spot. The Diablos team has plans to expand the restaurant, which would place Optix on Downer, currently at 2616 N. Downer Ave., a few doors north inside the empty space next to Breadsmith.

Gokhman says that the space that was used as Time To Kiln, 2565 N. Downer Ave., is to be occupied by New Land and used as a showroom for the condo project the developers are planning for the northeast corner of Stowell Avenue and Webster Place.

That leaves only the former Einstein Bros. Bagels, 2567 N. Downer Ave., up for grabs.

"We are actively looking to fill it," says Gokhman, "but we want to be selective. We want someone that matches the flavor of what the street is becoming."

The second part of the plan, then, is the construction of an 11-story condominium project. The proposed plan includes 84 units -- 36 one-bedrooms, 37 two-bedrooms and 11 penthouses -- a community room and a fitness center. Gokhman says prices start at under $200,000 and range to $500,000, with the 11 penthouses ranging from $500,000 to $800,000.

"It's an incredibly gorgeous building," says Gokhman, referencing the exterior's Promeda grade wood, stone work and abundant glass. "It's not designed to upset the balance of the neighborhood, or stand out. The materials are intended to exhibit a timeless look that will work well with the area. We are incorporating elements of the homes already there, such as outdoor porch and patio areas, into a modern building."

Of course, it's difficult to bring more people into an area without adding parking -- a variable that ties into part three of New Land's proposal.

"We want to rehabilitate and rent out the two floors above Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop as office space," says Gokhman. The two floors total 26,000 sq. feet of empty space that Gokhman says was once used to store cars. "It's a very unutilized space and would be such a great location for something like a doctor's office or an attorney -- something that would be useful for the neighborhood. But right now, aside from it having no positive impact, the structure is starting to deteriorate. Time takes its toll, and there are major repairs that need to be made to that building."

In conjunction with the office space and condo proposal, New Line would add 200 parking spaces -- 70 dedicated to whomever occupies the offices and 130 available for the condo's residents.

"Without the parking, the redevelopment is going to be tough, but we're very eager. We've taken plans to the City of Milwaukee, which then have to go through the approval process. If everything goes as planned, we're hoping to start construction early next year and reach completion in spring 2009."
Julie Lawrence Special to staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.

As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”