Center of the action: The winding path to realizing The Avenue’s grand vision

Rewind back to 2015 in downtown Milwaukee: The Bucks are in their first season under new ownership, a group of New York hedge-fund billionaires with lofty ambitions. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra is quietly planning a massive fundraising campaign to make the long-vacant Warner Grand Theatre its new home. The Wisconsin Center needs to be expanded, but funding hasn’t yet been secured to bring those plans to fruition. And the Shops at Grand Avenue has seen better days. 

Fast forward seven years, and the mall’s main entrance at West Wisconsin Avenue and North Dr. Martin Luther King Drive (formerly Old World Third Street) is now almost unrecognizable compared to its original appearance. GRAEF-USA Inc. was the first tenant to commit. The Milwaukee-based engineering firm relocated its headquarters to a 35,000-square-foot space on the third floor while heading the office development project.


Office of the future 

In 2016, John Kissinger, chief executive officer at GRAEF, and Pat Kressin, vice president of business development, toured The Shops at Grand Avenue as they searched for a new headquarters location for its 170 Milwaukee-based employees. The firm was looking for an “office of the future,” equipped with flexible and collaborative workspaces, amenities and a central downtown location to attract talent. Its previous headquarters were at the Honey Creek Corporate Center office complex on the city’s west side. 

“Because GRAEF had worked on the Grand Avenue Mall back in the ‘80s, our ability to come in and be the anchor tenant to help revitalize a project in Westown was a great story for GRAEF as well as Westown,” said Kressin.

At the company’s new office space, an outdoor patio overlooks the intersection of West Wisconsin Avenue and North King Drive. Inside, natural light pours in from the skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows, and there’s a balcony offering views of the other offices and food hall below. The mall’s original elevator was kept in service, giving office tenants private access to 3rd Street Market Hall. Employees also have free rein of the building amenities, such as a private fitness center, pickleball courts, indoor dog park, free structure parking and a shared conference area. 

GRAEF’s new hybrid work policy requires employees to come into the office three days a week, but most people are coming in more frequently, Kressin said, and the new location has something to do with that. 

“What we’re finding from new hires or recruits is that they love the fact that we’re a part of something bigger,” he said. “They love that they can look down and see the food hall and the (Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce) and where Good Karma Brands is building their space. They’re part of something more, we’re not just in an office building anymore,” he said. 

By: Maredithe Meyer, BizTimes