The long, low-slung Milwaukee Post Office is not a popular building. The rust-covered Brutalist structure sits along a five-block stretch of the Menominee Riverfront, a place that, until recently, was generally seen as the undesirable backside of the city. But that is all quickly changing. Just east of the post office, the Third Ward neighborhood has been completely transformed in the last ten years. The Menominee River Valley to the west is also seeing new life after over 100 years of being the city’s industrial heart. Now, Chicago-based developers R2, in collaboration with Gensler, are betting on a brighter future for the much-maligned post office.
When R2 bought the building and the surrounding land for $13 million in 2015, it knew it was going to be a long-term project. The United States Postal Service has a lease for its space through 2020, with the option to sign for up to 30 years. Even if the Postal Service were to vacate, the site would always have active train lines running under the building, between its massive concrete piloti. But that is not stopping R2 from planning ahead.
R2 and Gensler recently released new renderings and an outline of their plans for the site. Gensler’s designs call for a major mixed-use development that incorporates office space, residential, and entertainment, as well as small and big-box retail. The site benefits from extensive access to transportation, including ramps from the adjacent elevated freeway, the Milwaukee Intermodal Station, the city’s main Amtrak and Greyhound station, and the now under-construction city streetcar.
“The concerns that are on the site, that in the past have be seen as barriers to development, are now seen as potential drivers for the project,” explained Benjy Ward, Gensler principal and regional design leader. “The market has flipped. The elevated highway that runs by the site and the river have become assets.”
Along with renovating the current building, the project could include two large towers at each end of the site. The east tower would have 282,000 square feet of residential space, while the west tower (along with space in the existing building) would account for nearly one million square feet of office space. The 1,500 feet of riverfront would also be developed as a public promenade and an extension of the city’s growing Riverwalk. Restaurants will line the promenade, and kayak launches and boat docks will connect the project with river traffic. A foot bridge is proposed to connect the existing building to the James Biber–designed Harley Davidson Museum across the river.
Though the Postal Service will remain a tenant in the building for at least the next few years, Gensler’s plans are such that, if given the go-ahead, the project could begin. By working in the currently open land around the building, much of the proposal could be realized without disrupting normal operations.
If realized, the post office project will be one of many changing the face of downtown Milwaukee. Of those projects rising just north of the site, few are as ambitious in scale or program. Yet with at least three years to go before the site could be completely free of its current tenant, the city is going to have to wait a bit for delivery.