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A New Era For East North Avenue

May. 23, 2017
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Patrick Kapple opened Yield at 1932 E. Kenilworth Place in 2005. Over the course of 11 years it became a favorite among the young and music obsessed on the East Side, hosting countless memorable local rock shows throughout its tenure. Then at the end of the night on Friday, May 27, 2016, the bar was suddenly closed for good. Yokohama 1910, a ramen restaurant owned by Aaron Gersonde and Andrei Mikhail of Movida, was announced as a replacement not long after. 

Since the spring of 2013, when Judge’s, an Irish pub that sat on the corner of North and Cambridge avenues for 25 years, closed its doors, at least 12 other bars and restaurants in the direct vicinity of North Avenue have closed. This has led to people saying the area is “dying,” and wondering what happened. But after talking to a number of business owners, residents and other stakeholders, it’s clear that the East Side is instead going through a massive transition period. 

How Did We Get Here?

North Avenue was for decades a thriving nightlife district, catering to the college students at UW-Milwaukee. Students flocked to the pubcrawls, all-you-can-drink nights and other deals that were easily accessible most nights of the week. While this model worked for years, a number of changes made these business models less sustainable. 

Bars began to see decreased traffic due to an oversaturation of similar businesses in the area. “Suddenly where we had maybe three or four real college-aged focused bars, we had seven or eight,” Jim Plaisted, executive director of the East Side Business Improvement District, explained. “They cannibalized each other. Some went out of business shortly after and some went out of business recently. For as many college students as there are, it’s still a finite market.” 

Demographics and social habits changed, and many establishments in the area didn’t take the appropriate steps to keep up. “I think clientele coming into the neighborhood wants more than just a plain burger,” said Mike Vitucci, owner of a number of bars and nightclubs, including Whiskey Bar and Belmont Tavern, as well as the building that houses Divino Wine & Dine and the former Rascals and The Winchester. “They don’t want the all-you-can-drinks.”

Technology was also a factor, with Vitucci adding, “You see Uber picking them up and taking them to what they do want. People look at what they have, and if they don’t like the product, it’s a shared Uber ride for about $2 to get them to what they want.”

Kapple pointed to another giant tech trend that is impacting the bar business. “It may sound odd, but I think the dating apps affect people going out,” he said. “If you wanted to go out and meet a girl or a guy you used to have to go out to the bars, have a couple of drinks with your friends and try and meet someone. You don’t have to do that anymore.” If this is true, one could easily imagine that higher-end establishments would be favored over all-you-can-drink nights and pubcrawls. 

One thing is certain: Neighbors in the area were not fans of the rowdy bar scene. The sudden number of closings has led to speculation about whether the city is actively trying to get rid of loud college bars in favor of more family and young professional-friendly establishments. Alderman Nik Kovac, whose third district includes the East Side, denies setting out to get rid of bars, but he did shed some light on what actually happened.

Some neighbors were vocal about their disdain for the number of bars, and the noise and disruption that came along with them. “If you go back to 2013, I had a lot of neighbors saying, ‘Why aren’t you going to shut some of these bars down?’” Kovac said. “They would come to every licensing renewal and say, ‘Would you please reduce the number of licenses.’” Despite this, Kovac insists no bars were ever shut down, or even suspended. 

While Kovac did not respond to these calls with reduced licenses, he did take steps to curb out-of-hand behavior. “We did raise the standards for bars, and insist that they not participate in massive and sloppy bar crawls, and told them that we’re keeping a closer eye on them in terms of over serving,” he said.

While these actions may have helped appease angry residents, it put a strain on many bar owners’ bottom lines according to Kapple. “There’s not a lot of support from the neighborhood associations surrounding North Avenue,” he said. “They were not particularly pleased with any of the events the bars would participate in. Not getting a lot of support from them forced the bars to not have these events, as their liquor licenses could be in danger of not being renewed if they participated.”

Kapple cited a popular bar crawl as an example. “Take something like the Shamrock Shuffle, which started on North Avenue, and this year it wasn’t even on North Avenue because the guy who runs it, Michael Sampson, didn’t want to do it there because he would get too much heat from the neighborhood association,” he said. “That hurts the bars. That was a day that bar owners could rely on for X amount of sales that could cover some of the maintenance that we needed to do for a month, or rent or our overhead. Then that’s gone, and you’re just relying on your average daily sales. That hurts.”

While things may look grim, there is an influx of people moving in to the neighborhood, and a flock of new businesses opening up, looking to reestablish the area as a citywide destination.

A New Direction For the East Side

“The grandchildren of white flight are realizing how crazy their ancestors were, so they’re moving back,” Kovac said. “They have resources. A lot of those resources are coming from their parents or grandparents who did the white flight, and they’re realizing, ‘Why do I want to have to drive 10 minutes just to get a gallon of milk?’”

The biggest talking point regarding the changing East Side, with the possible exception of the bar closings, has been the number of tall, new and, in most cases, high-rent apartment buildings that have been built in recent years. Four major developments, The Overlook, Edge on North, The Standard and Greenwich Park, have been built in the area since summer of 2014, when The Standard was completed. Another is planned for Prospect Avenue, in the lots that held a Qdoba and its adjoining parking lot.

“New apartments are coming in, and new apartments are obviously pricey,” said Vitucci. With pricey new apartments come people with disposable income and different tastes than your average college student.

April Rechlitz is a 24-year-old foundation administrator and lifelong Milwaukeean who has lived around North Avenue for nine months. She says it’s disappointing to drive by and see vacant buildings, but feels that the area is slowly moving in the right direction. Like many residents her age, she typically leaves the area when going for a night out, saying she prefers “laid back” bars, breweries and brunch spots. She hopes that new businesses in the area will offer these experiences.

Plaisted is optimistic about the future, and is embracing a changing East Side. “We’re going to continue working on shaping the evolving nature of this district,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll ever go back to what we were 25 years ago as far as the density of bars.”

He seems to have a clear vision for how to attract and keep the new residents of the neighborhood. “We have to give them reasons for coming here,” he said. “That’s the encouragement of more and better experience options. Whether it’s an experience like Nine Below, or The Oriental, or food like Yokohama, Izumi’s—which is still an excellent dining experience—or FreshFin. We’ve just got to offer more, because this demographic is just going where the heat is.”

While many older businesses have gone under, this new crop of business owners are feeling embraced by the community and ready for success. Steph Davies, who owns The Waxwing, an artist consignment shop that moved from its original location in Shorewood to the East Side in December 2015, has seen an increased level of foot traffic since the move, and is reaching a new customer base. “I love the complete diversity of who comes in here,” she said. “There are people from all walks of life, ages and economic standings.”

Nate Arkush opened FreshFin Poké this January after seeing how well the poké concept was succeeding on the west coast. When scouting new locations for the restaurant he was set on either the Third Ward or East Side. “I’ve been very pleasantly surprised with a much higher level of support than I expected,” he said. “Milwaukee really supports local businesses.”

What Does the Future Hold?

While there may be some deserved cause for alarm, the East Side is far from dying. Kapple chalks it all up to perspective. “Those who have fond memories of going out and having a bunch of drinks at bars throughout North Avenue will have the perspective that North Avenue is dying because things are changing so drastically,” he said. “Those who are now in the area that are looking for more quality places to go will have the view that it’s just changing.”

So what’s next for the East Side? In the immediate future Vitucci has big plans for the spaces that Rascals and The Winchester occupied. He will partner with Divino Wine & Dine on a new gastro pub called Izzy Hops Swig and Nosh, which will go in the former Rascals space. Kawa Japanese Restaurant, which currently has a space on Silver Spring Drive near Bayshore, will open a second location called Kawa Ramen and Sushi in the space that held The Winchester. Vitucci recently received approval from the East Side’s architectural review board to add retractable windows and create an open-air concept throughout the entire building.

Strange Town, which will specialize in cocktails, craft beer and organic wine, will open at 2101 N. Prospect Ave. by the end of summer.

Luxury apartments are reportedly in the works for the old Judge’s building, and Plaisted said progress is being made on filling the spaces Rosati’s and BBC left.

Vitucci isn’t worried about the fate of the East Side. He sees the people moving in and new businesses opening as the beginning of a major upswing. “Milwaukee is a great city, and people are coming here for a reason,” he said. “If you focus on the good of what’s happening today and what’s surviving, that will tell you exactly where the neighborhood is going.”


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