Vibrant hub will bring investment, resources to revitalize MLK Drive

The area around Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive once was a commercial and cultural destination for Milwaukee’s Black community. But racially motivated practices such as redlining, a freeway expansion that severed the neighborhood’s arteries and other systemic failures stripped the community of its investment and vibrancy over time. 

Nearly six years ago, when the former executive director of the Historic King Drive BID was first heading efforts to revitalize the corridor, he would often hear people say, “Who wants a King Drive address?” 

Now the vice chair of the Bronzeville Advisory Committee, Deshae Agee says that narrative is changing, thanks in part to catalytic developments such as ThriveOn King, a more than $100 million project of the ThriveOn Collaboration (which is comprised of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, Medical College of Wisconsin and Royal Capital). The building, 2153 N. MLK Jr. Drive, will house the Foundation’s headquarters, MCW community engagement programs, mixed-income housing and other components designed to advance the health and growth of the area. The Foundation invested $10 million from its endowment in the building. 

“This is our Foundation leaning in in a way that we’ve never done before,” said Ken Robertson, Foundation executive vice president, COO and CFO of the comprehensive project, which initially began out of a need for more office space. 

Conversations began in 2018 as the clock was winding down with the Foundation’s current lease at Schlitz Park, which it has called home since 2009. Foundation leaders conducted research around what type of space it needed to accommodate growth. At the same time, it explored what other foundations nationally and locally had done with place-based initiatives. 

From the beginning, the Board was overwhelmingly in favor of more than just new office space, Robertson said. Stakeholders such as Patti Brash McKeithan were calling for the Foundation to make a deeper investment in community. McKeithan, a former Foundation Board member and longtime donor, was part of a focus group comprised of donors, Board members and community members the Foundation convened when exploring options for a new space. 

“We wanted to see more involvement from the Foundation in these communities,” said McKeithan, who has given generously to the collaboration through the Patti and Jack McKeithan Northwoods Fund. “I think to better understand the community and its priorities, you need to be there and become involved with those who live, work and play there.” 

At the same time, MCW had been looking to better address lingering health disparities through community engagement and research. 

“We knew there were certain communities within Milwaukee that did not and were not going to be able to attract capital investment without philanthropic support,” Robertson said. “How could you be a community foundation and not have a true community presence? That is a big reason why we landed on MLK.” 

The location was historically significant to both partners. From 1898 to 1932, one of MCW’s predecessor institutions was located just blocks away on the southeast corner of Fourth Street and Reservoir Avenue. Specifically in Halyard Park, Harambee and along King Drive, the Foundation and its donors have invested more than $5 million in the last five years alone. 

The building was the flagship store for Gimbels-Schuster’s Department Store until 1970. Since then, its decorative terracotta and expansive windows have been enveloped in metal cladding. CH Coakley & Co. had used the building since 1992 for storage. 

Guiding stars and gut checks  

The partners saw the potential for the historic building, especially with its 18-foot-high ceilings, granite floors and other architectural details. But they didn’t have preconceived notions for what would go inside, other than office space for the Foundation and MCW’s community engagement programs and community space on the first floor. 

“We knew the first floor needed to have space to convene community because across the board, the partners were committed to wanting to invite community into the building,” said Terrell Walter, executive vice president of Royal Capital. 

Community visioning sessions became “guiding stars” for the first-floor space, said Tom Joy, architectural designer with Engberg Anderson Architects. Elements such as a demonstration kitchen, community gathering spaces and even the concept of child care emerged in that first meeting as ideas of how to address the social determinants of health. A $1 million gift from an anonymous Foundation donor is helping advance construction on the first floor. 

Equally important to residents was the desire to have the history and culture of the once-vibrant Bronzeville area reflected. Joy said that will be incorporated throughout the first-floor design and carry over to the parking structure, which will be covered in a fabric panel printed with local artists’ art. Traffic calming and other safety investments also emerged from resident feedback. 

“Without that kind of personal input, in my mind, we don’t have a project,” said Joy, who noted that lilac bushes were incorporated in the landscape plan based off the detail one long- time resident provided about how they were once plentiful along streets in the area and how their fragrance would permeate the area as they bloomed. 

Housing, learning and health  

Subsequent community engagement provided partners with a gut check to make sure they were on the right track. For example, 77 apartments were originally envisioned for the building. An additional floor of units for adults 55 and older was added based on resident input. Now 27 of the more than 80 units are for seniors. 

“Seniors are our treasures here and our gems of the community,” said Tosha Freeman, a second-generation Halyard Park resident who became involved with the collaboration to advocate for her neighbors. “They still should have a voice in what’s happening in their community.” 

For first-floor anchor tenants — Malaika Early Learning Center and Versiti — the location provides an opportunity to advance their missions and further address existing disparities for communities of color. The 14,000-square-foot space is Malaika’s second location. The 5-star child care provider has another less than 2 miles away. Executive Director Tamara Johnson is excited to serve more area families at a younger age in a building that offers services for all ages. The new location will serve up to 78 children ages 6 weeks to 5 years. 

“It’s an opportunity for early childhood education to be seen as part of the ecosystem and how we function as a community,” Johnson said. “It’s about taking care of the entire community.” 

Versiti has nine locations around Wisconsin, but its 3,500-squarefoot ThriveOn King space will allow it to connect with a more diverse community on a deeper level. It not only will collect blood donations, but also provide access to job skill training, employment opportunities and education as to why diverse blood matters. 

“Wouldn’t it be great to say we’re collecting blood in a neighborhood that then is serving people that live right in the neighborhood,” said Chris Miskel, Versiti’s president and CEO, who said they also hope to staff the site with people from the community. 

JobWorks MKE, an additional first floor tenant, also found its mission aligned with the ThriveOn Collaboration’s new hub. The nonprofit helps community residents achieve sustainable employment while strengthening neighborhood economies. 

The ThriveOn Collaboration is MCW’s community engagement priority, and when ThriveOn King is completed, it will become the new home for many of MCW’s community engagement efforts, including the Center for AIDS Intervention Research and 414LIFE violence interruption program. 

According to Staci Young, MCW’s interim senior associate dean for community engagement, “It is exciting to reimagine this space with committed partners where many of MCW’s community engagement efforts can be more proximal to Milwaukee neighborhoods, and where we can align MCW’s priorities with the health equity plans of the ThriveOn Collaboration.” 

Changing the culture of Milwaukee

Partners, tenants and residents look forward to the much-needed foot traffic — and related investment — ThriveOn King will bring. That in turn will create buzz and a boost for Bronzeville, said Freeman, who also serves on the Historic King Drive BID board. 

With public areas such as a food hall, business center and special event gathering space, the building will be activated in a way it hasn’t been for more than 40 years, bringing together people of different backgrounds throughout the day. 

“It can really change what segregation looks like in the city,” said Harambee resident Bregetta Wilson. “ThriveOn King can model what we want the city to be.” 

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