Pabst Brewery site rejuvenation nearly complete

When the $524-million Fiserv Forum opens with considerable fanfare on Sunday as the new home of the Milwaukee Bucks, it will mark another big step in the revitalization of the once-blighted area around the old Pabst Brewery.

And while the new sports and entertainment arena is impressive with its glass facade and an arched, zinc-paneled roof that stretches down to the street on one side, a quieter makeover has occurred just a few blocks west toward the Interstate and up the hill where the old brewery buildings lie.

The remake is more than a decade in the making. It followed a failed attempt by a group of developers known as the WisPark Co., but all the building and rehab projects in the 6.5-block Pabst neighborhood — now known as The Brewery — should be finished by next year, officials said.

The progress is due in large part to the late Joseph Zilber, a Milwaukee-born real estate titan and philanthropist who died in 2010 at age 92. He wrote in his autobiography that he viewed revitalizing the once humming 21 acres of cream-colored brick structures, where 5,000 Pabst employees had toiled, as his civic duty and his legacy.

“It’s costing me a lot of money, much more than I would have expected, but it’s worth it,” Zilber wrote shortly after he created his Brewery Project LLC as the area’s master developer. Since its inception in 2006, more than $300 million has been invested in The Brewery.

“I’m pleased at what I’ll be able to do for the city,” he wrote a dozen years ago. “Milwaukee has a chance to improve itself. It’s on the brink. The Brewery may very well play a role in the city’s revival.”

Zilber’s vision for the former Pabst Brewery complex, which closed in 1996 after a 152-year run, included a neighborhood “both historic and ‘green,’ with apartments, condos, hotels, retail shops, restaurants, office buildings, a manufacturing plant, and college classrooms.”

Much of that has come to fruition, with about half the old buildings restored. Developments have included UW-Milwaukee’s Zilber School of Public Health, five apartment buildings (three market-rate and two affordable), the upscale 400-bed student residential property known as ELEVEN25 at Pabst, three office buildings. There are also – appropriately – two breweries: MKE Brewing, which is across 9th Street from the Eleven25 student housing structure; and the Pabst Milwaukee Brewery & Taproom in an 1873 First German Methodist Church. Plus, the NO STUDIOS building dedicated to promoting the city’s growing film industry and fostering the creative arts.  

Three restaurants and two banquet halls serve the hospitality needs of the neighborhood with more retail spaces planned. Two private parking areas also have been developed to serve the neighborhood, including a 78-stall surface parking lot and a 908-stall, 8-level LEEDGold parking structure.

A modest man, statues of the Towne Realty founder and his late wife, Vera, now stand in the small Zilber Park, just around the corner from the 90-room Brewhouse Inn and Suites. The inn is one of two hotels in the Brewery. The other is 481-room Hyatt Place, which opened in late June month and is within two blocks of the Fiserv Forum.

Dan Casanova (cq), who works in Milwaukee’s Department of City Development, said Zilber stepped in as the master developer a year after an effort led by WisPark (WEC Energies’ real estate subsidiary) failed to gain support from the city council. WisPark wanted $41 million to rehab the area with an entertainment focus and bring in a House of Blues, ESPN Zone, a movie theater, apartments and retail. It faced heavy opposition from operators of other Milwaukee venues and people who feared too many Pabst structures would be razed.

Zilber was successful in getting the city to create a Tax Incremental Finance District and spend $29 million – to be repaid by 2030 with increased fees – to rebuild streets and other infrastructure in the 20-acre zone, while keeping as many of the historic buildings as possible. Though the recession slowed progress, Zilber’s company was able to complete the sale of the last of the building sites by 2017.

“But for the city investment, this private development wouldn’t have happened,” said Casanova. “It wasn’t controversial. The idea was pretty solid.”

Casanova said the Pabst Brewery site, north of the Milwaukee County Courthouse and blocks from the main commercial district, has always been “a little bit off on its own and out of the way. But it’s evolving with with all the activity around the new arena. Before, you could easily spend time downtown and not know it’s up there.

“Now, though, it’s a destination. And it should only benefit from its location next to the Fiserv Forum and the entertainment block that the Bucks are building to the east of the arena.”

The Fiserv naming rights agreement was announced in late July. One of the Bucks owners, Wes Edens, in a statement said the NBA team “deeply shares our commitment to bettering and growing Milwaukee.”

Former Bucks owner and former U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl will attend the Sunday ribbon-cutting, marking the opening of Herb Kohl Way. Outside the forum, the world’s largest welcome mat — 92 feet long by 24 feet wide — will be unveiled.

Top players including Giannis Antetokounmpo will be joined by Gov. Scott Walker, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, Bucks alumni Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and many others.

See more on Sunday’s event here:

By Brian E. Clark