Premier Suburb of Milwaukee Grows More Vibrant While Preserving Its Roots

City of Wauwatosa, WI

The City of Wauwatosa, population 47,000, is just five miles from downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Known for its historic beauty and modern amenities, Wauwatosa (named after the indigenous Potawatomi word for “firefly”) features three rivers running through the city, an entire subdivision on the National Register of Historic Places, topnotch shopping destinations and restaurants, and the 19.5-acre Hart Park.
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Much has happened in Wauwatosa, known to locals as “Tosa,” since we first featured the lively city in 2014. The latest expansion of Mayfair Mall, a popular shopping and dining area that boasts one of the highest occupancy rates in the country, has been completed. The expansion includes the addition of the only Nordstrom in the State of Wisconsin, and a new Container Store. Mayor Kathleen Ehley informs us that Wauwatosa has also entered an agreement with a developer to construct a large luxury hotel on the mall property. Interestingly, the brand will be re-using what was once an outdated office tower. The project will involve demolition of the interior and re-cladding of the exterior. The full-service hotel will feature a chef-driven restaurant, ballroom, and roof-top amenities.

To the north of Mayfair Mall is The Mayfair Collection, the mall’s stylish new neighbor. It offers the Milwaukee Metropolitan Area a walkable place to shop for groceries at Whole Foods, browse stores like Nordstrom Rack and Saks off Fifth, and grab a coffee at Corner Bakery Café – all without getting in a car.

The first phase of The Mayfair Collection project consisted of adaptively repurposing functionally obsolete warehouse structures along I-45 into new, contemporary retail space. The lifestyle center features 18 shops, 10 restaurants, a Homewood Suites by Hilton hotel, and a public plaza to host community events such as concerts and a farmer’s market.

In the project’s second phase, ownership transformed an under-utilized warehouse building into a 47,563 square foot Whole Foods Market and a HomeGoods, which opened in early 2016.

Currently under construction is the first phase of a large luxury apartment complex. The long-term vision for The Mayfair Collection includes up to 1,000 residential units and up to 500,000 square feet of corporate office.

“We have always shared the vision with the City of Wauwatosa to transform this once lifeless industrial warehouse complex into a vibrant, mixed-use district,” says Tim Blum of the HSA Commercial real estate agency. “Having best-in-class retailers like Nordstrom Rack and Whole Foods Market at The Mayfair Collection has helped us to advance that goal, but the addition of hundreds of new luxury apartments and a substantial corporate office component will make that vision a reality.”

However, Wauwatosa is careful to always keep the past in mind as it continues toward a modern future. Along with the expansion of the region’s prime retail facilities are revitalization projects that preserve Wauwatosa’s rich heritage. The City is about to finish construction in The Village, a thriving business district that resembles the cobblestone streets once lined with artisanal shops in old Europe.

“There has been an intentional redesign of that space to activate the streetscape, bringing our old-world charm and marrying it with our modern amenities. It has beautified our downtown area,” says Melissa Weiss, Director of Administrative Services for the City of Wauwatosa.

Wauwatosa has also invested in East Tosa, a thriving and active business district that runs along North Avenue. City leaders, businesses, and residents created and implemented a plan that transformed a parking lot on the corner of 69th Street and North Avenue into a gathering space to be enjoyed by visitors, residents, or business people who want to unwind, eat a snack from a nearby restaurant, or catch up with a friend. Parking was moved to the edge of the space, as well as across the street, making room for fun yet functional furniture, permeable pavers, landscaping, a canopy structure, bike fix-it station, and creative lighting installations to improve the ambience of what was formerly an underutilized space.

“Wauwatosa continues to invest in its public spaces throughout the city when the opportunity presents itself. It’s what makes Tosa livable and ‘cool’,” adds Paulette Enders, Development Director at Wauwatosa. “Both East Tosa and The Village are perfect examples of how the city has brought to life the ideas in area plans, creating unique, one-of-a-kind destinations for residents and visitors.”

On top of the revitalization of Wauwatosa’s two business districts in The Village and North Avenue, new businesses and start-ups are also attracted to the city because of its business-friendly attitude. “We provide one-stop permitting assistance, a variety of financing programs, and help in finding just the right location.”

Wauwatosa’s new University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Innovation Campus, which opened in 2013, has helped to encourage an already growing entrepreneurial spirit in the city. The award-winning UWM Innovation Campus is a catalyst for academic, medical, and business organizations in the region, allowing them to collaborate and thrive together. It features both an incubator for start-ups as well as an accelerator for more established businesses that have graduated from the incubation phase.

“Innovation Campus is being developed as a state-of-the-art public/private research park in partnership with the City of Wauwatosa. The Campus embodies the ‘Live, Learn, Work, Play’ concept sought out nationally by forward looking companies that want to attract the next generation of highly educated and skilled employees,” says David H. Gilbert, President of the UWM Real Estate Foundation.

In just five years, Innovation Campus has preserved and reused historic buildings, protected critical wildlife habitat, built high-tech university laboratories, and attracted the regional headquarters of a Fortune 500 company.

“Innovation Campus is strategically positioned in what we call the ‘Crossroads of Discovery,’ taking the nickname from its proximity to the busiest and most modern interstate interchange in Wisconsin and the cluster of high-tech academic and industry research facilities growing rapidly in the vicinity,” continues Gilbert.

Innovation Campus is a stone’s throw from the Milwaukee County Research Park and the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center (MRMC), which employs 15,000 people and serves as Wauwatosa’s top employer.

MRMC is a private, non-profit service corporation that supports and offers services to multi-organizational academic health centers. It has undergone two significant expansions since our last feature on Wauwatosa. Just two years after opening its Center for Advanced Care in 2015, the formerly eight-story Froedtert Hospital & the Medical College of Wisconsin (which are at the MRMC campus) added four more stories, and the project, with a value of about $180 million, is now nearing completion.

Continual expansion and upgrading of Froedtert Hospital is always needed, as its occupancy rate is among the highest in the State of Wisconsin. The hospital also expects that its Level I Trauma Center, which is the only one of its kind in the eastern part of the state, will double in size over the next 20 to 25 years, creating 13,000 new positions. Indeed, MRMC forecasts long-term success in Wauwatosa’s healthcare sector.

“There’s a great opportunity here for complementary businesses in the biomedical technology field, as well as for start-ups, to establish themselves in Wauwatosa,” adds Mayor Kathleen Ehley.

One such success story is Zywave, a healthcare insurance software solutions provider that has seen exponential growth. Since we last featured Wauwatosa, the software company has moved into the brand new Meadowland office building at the Milwaukee County Research Park. They have grown their footprint and number of employees significantly. There are several businesses, both big and small, at the Research Park, which has a covenant that mandates a certain number of tech companies are present in the diversified business hub.

But Meadowland won’t be the new office on the block for long. The Muir Woods office development has also recently received approval. When complete, this four-story building will offer over 100,000 square feet of office space to accommodate even more of Wauwatosa’s burgeoning businesses.

Because Milwaukee’s premier suburb has an abundance of prime shopping centers, hotels, great restaurants, and top healthcare facilities, there is also a wide variety of jobs available across its many industries, ranging from health and medical, to the retail and service sector (both at national chains and the quaint mom-and-pop shops downtown), information technology, and manufacturing.

Of course, Wauwatosa isn’t just a great place to work or set up a business; it’s a great place to live. And the City is committed to keeping it that way. “We anticipate continued business growth, namely in the biomedical field. We are now planning how to manage that growth as far as roadways, transportation, and housing. We are in the midst of a very significant planning project,” the Mayor reveals. “Whether we do the planning or not, this growth will happen, so we know that we are better off with well-paced planning, working collaboratively with the medical complex and other industries. The exciting thing is that we are doing this so we can have the growth and modern businesses in our community while maintaining our welcoming community feel. That balance is very important: to have the walkability, the trails, the shopping and entertainment… all complemented with these great businesses where our residents can work.”

Mayor Ehley elaborates that since the last feature was published, Wauwatosa has continued to invest in parks, trails, cycling paths, pedestrian crosswalks, and green spaces, all as part of a concerted effort to make the community more bike- and pedestrian-friendly. This not only boosts livability for residents, but helps to attract tourists to the growing Milwaukee suburb.

The artsy community has a longstanding history in both visual and performing art. One of Wauwatosa’s new endeavors is the Hartwork Project, featuring community-selected sculptures as part of a summer art installation at Hart Park, the gem of Wauwatosa’s park system. Named after Wauwatosa’s founder Charles Hart, the park has a football stadium, baseball diamond, and several tennis courts. Last year, Wauwatosa also became home to the only professional outdoor soccer league and women’s professional soccer league in the State of Wisconsin, and the games have also brought out-of-state visitors to the expansive park.

To further the sense of community, Wauwatosa is also now collaborating with three other Milwaukee-area municipalities in a regional bike share program. At the moment, there are 15 bike share stations in Tosa, and the City is applying for grant funding to establish seven to nine more stations.

With new programs, businesses, and housing units popping up all over town, Wauwatosa continues to ensure that the needs of all residents from all walks of life are met. Its healthy housing market is complemented by the handful of retirement communities in the city, which range from independent living quarters all the way up to intensive care units. The latest development complex is called St. Camillus, a 15-story independent living complex with one- and two-bedroom units and a memory care section which has recently been expanded to host up to 72 units.

While the city is full of options for new home buyers, they are also able to choose from an ample collection of well-kept houses from the 1900s and post-war periods. “We are a blend of the past and the future,” emphasizes Melissa Weiss. “We talk about new developments that are happening, but when you walk through Wauwatosa you also see beautiful tree-lined streets and charming historic homes. There is something for everyone, from apartments, to starter homes, to senior care units.”

Wauwatosa’s perfect blend of urban modernity and historic preservation has created a unique community that has come to be known as Milwaukee’s premier suburb. Wauwatosa has both the amenities of a metropolis and the livability of a quaint small town.

“I’ve spoken to consultants and planners who have said that what makes Wauwatosa great is its historical genuineness. Many communities today are trying to recreate that. But we have it. It’s a part of who we are,” concludes Mayor Ehley.

June 1, 2020, 11:43 PM EDT