HSA and city officials at the groundbreaking

MILWAUKEE- The suburban town of Wauwatosa has been burdened for years by a collection of obsolete warehouses that date to the 1960′s. But as GlobeSt.com reported this week, Chicago-based HSA Commercial has broken ground on a project that will preserve the warehouse shells and fill the spaces with high-end retailers like Nordstrom Rack and Ulta Cosmetics, both of whom have already signed leases. Tim Blum, an executive vice president with HSA, says he does not know of another project like it.

“We’ve made a habit repurposing buildings into new retail, but not on this scale or in just this way.” In the first phase of the project, HSA will remake three of the site’s warehouses by connecting them with walkways, redoing the fronts, the roofs and updating all building systems, resulting in 270,000-square-feet of retail called The Mayfair Collection. Preserving and using the warehouse shells, which Blum says remain quite sound, will reduce construction costs by about one-third.

Des Plaines-based Premier Design + Build will serve as general contractor and Evanston-based TOA Architects will provide the design.

“For all intensive purposes, it will look like a brand new center,” Blum says. The entire 69-acre site has about 1-million-square-feet of warehouse space. In subsequent phases, HSA will attempt to transform the remainder into other uses such as medical office buildings, general offices and multifamily residences.

“We were going to knock it down,” he says of the warehouse district. “We started assembling the land in 2005,” and at first, saw no other option. “It sits as an island in an area of retailers and residences. As Wauwatosa evolved, and as businesses evolved, the warehouse buildings became functionally obsolete.” But just when the company had acquired most of the site, the recession began darkening prospects. HSA then had time to go back to their drawing board and consider other options.

“It took us a while to get the city on board,” he adds, but officials were very interested when “we set about targeting the best-in-class merchants.” HSA was well-positioned to secure a commitment from Nordstrom. The high-end retailer had already signed a lease at Orland Park Place, a shopping mall in suburban Chicago remade by HSA. “They know our skill-set [and Mayfair] will be their first store in Wisconsin.”              

The city has agreed to create a tax increment financing district which will provide $8.5 million for needed infrastructure improvements. “The infrastructure was even more obsolete than the buildings. The road system and the utilities and everything were completely shot so they had to be replaced.”

When finished, Blum hopes the refurbished warehouses will blend into the surrounding area. The Mayfair Mall, for example, one of the primary shopping districts in Wisconsin, sits nearby, and Blum does not see it as a competitor. “This helps them as well because they want to see the retail corridor expand.”