(Photos by John Sterr)
A stroll down the redesigned Cesar E. Chavez Drive is a bit like walking through the neighborhood you grew up in as a child. Though it seems familiar, much has changed. Gone are the cracked sidewalks, potholes and narrow streets. They’ve been replaced by stylish, brick-edged walkways and a wide, seamless road.
The new, glossy steel black benches contrast with most of Chavez Drive’s century-old buildings. Despite the soot lining each crack of the brick facades, the street looks like it’s finally been jostled out of neutral.
“I think it looks great and was something that needed to be done,” said Mary Estrada, a manager at Envisions clothing store, 1328 S. Cesar E. Chavez Drive, recalling the days when pockmarked, dirty streets were the norm.
Estrada’s remarks reflect the views of two-thirds of the businesses that responded to a survey distributed by the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service to all 40 businesses on Chavez Drive. Ten of the 15 businesses agreed that the streetscape improvements have had a positive effect on the business district.
However, only three of the 15 reported an increase in sales since the redesign. Respondents were asked to compare sales in June 2011 — about a year after the streetscape improvements were completed — with June 2009.
Three businesses reported lower sales during the same period; the other nine indicated that sales remain about the same.
Most owners blame the economy
“Our sales have actually gone down, but it’s due to the economic crisis,” said Jaime Guerrero, owner of La Reyna Records, 1225 S. Chavez Drive.
Despite limited financial returns from the redesign, business owners overwhelmingly agreed that the rehab of Chavez Drive was long overdue. Business leaders and storeowners precipitated the improvements by creating a Chavez Drive Business Improvement District (BID) in 2009.
“The main reason to start a BID (Business Improvement District) was to improve the appearance of the street so that the business district has a certain feel to it,” according to Ivan Gamboa, chairman of the BID.
The feel planners were going for was a unique shopper-friendly environment that fit within the tight budget, according to Jose Dominguez, concept designer of the streetscape.
“A main goal we had was to pick landscaping items that were low-maintenance while still being decorative. There is high pedestrian traffic on Chavez Drive so another major goal was to increase the width of the sidewalks to promote this,” Dominguez added. The improvements also included a wider street, brighter streetlights, landscaped bushes and decorative sidewalks and benches.
Most of the nearly $2 million project was funded by federal stimulus funds made available by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, along with $400,000 from the city of Milwaukee in the form of loans and matching grants provided by the Business Improvement District Fund and the Neighborhood Commercial District Fund. In addition, the BID assessed each business owner on Chavez Drive a $500 fee for the project, according to Gamboa.
Business owners said that the redesign has drastically changed the look of Chavez Drive. But has it changed the perceptions of shoppers?
Leslie Vazquez, owner of E & J Records, says it has. Vazquez, a member of the BID, said that in the months since the redesign was completed, she’s seen her business at 1242 S. Chavez Drive grow.
“I’ve been having new customers from other Wisconsin towns coming into my store,” Vazquez said. She attributes this to the improved image of Chavez Drive.
Patricia Torres Najera, assistant director at the Center for Urban Initiatives at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a consultant on the project, stated that improved curb appeal makes a difference for businesses.
“It helps business in the sense that people in the community feel comfortable walking around the area,” Najera said.
She added that though Chavez Drive had long been a vibrant shopping area, it was also a neglected one. “It just needed a facelift.”
Most businesses that responded to the survey were happy with the changes. Only two owners said the money used on the streetscape could have been better spent.
Bottom line remains stagnant
The goal of attracting more customers to the street has not yet been achieved, according to the respondents.
Peter Sang, owner of Fashion City at 1037 S. Chavez Drive, said his business was better when the street was smaller.
“If you have a small street, then people walk around. Now cars just drive by,” said Sang, standing inside his empty store on a recent afternoon.
Sang, who sells urban fashions ranging from jeans and tees to skirts and jackets, admits that the tough economy is hurting his business. Since the store relies heavily on walk-in sales, it didn’t help that the original Super Mercado El Rey moved to new and fancier digs across the street, he said. Still, he questions the link between improvements such as the streetscape and more shoppers in the stores.
But aside from a few shuttered businesses such as Cash N’ Gold Jewelry Store, 1214 S. Chavez Drive, and Taqueria El Local, 1202 S. Chavez Drive, stores remain open for business.
Owners Ernesto Villareal of El Rey, a grocery store at 916 S. Chavez Drive, and Bouazza Ouahbi of El Charro Liquors, 1207 S. Chavez Drive, stated that sales have gone up since the redesign. Ouahbi said that his business has increased upwards of 15 percent.
Alderman James Witkowiak said his ward, the 12th, which includes Cesar Chavez Drive, has been making a great deal of progress in recent years, even in a poor economy.
“It’s due in large part to the density and the entrepreneurship of our immigrants,” Witkowiak said.
National Avenue left behind
To get a glimpse of what might have been on Chavez Drive had the BID not been created, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service visited the nearby business district of West National Avenue from South Fifth Street to 12th Street.
There it’s easy to find a store standing alone on a block, flanked by abandoned buildings and shuttered businesses such as Lopez Bakery, 624 W. National Ave., Acapulco Lounge and Restaurant, 606 W. National Ave., and the former Milwaukee icon, Coney Island, 530 W. National Ave. Revenue did not increase from June 2009 to June 2011 at any of the businesses still operating.
A few owners on West National Avenue said that a streetscape redesign such as the one completed on Chavez Drive would improve their business.
Maria Melendez, owner of Gina’s Beauty Salon, 705 W. National Ave., said change is good. “People take notice when they see new attractions and changes to the neighborhood,” said Melendez.
Yves Pacheco, of Warming Heart Foundation, a second-hand clothing store at 1002 W. National Ave., agreed, saying she loves the improvements she sees happening at other business districts in the city. She notes that her street seems bland in comparison to Chavez Drive and the South 27th Street and Bolivar area.
“I’d like to see the beautification of the street, whether it be the landscaping or the buildings. It could bring more shoppers and a secure sense to the neighborhood,” she said.
Melendez and Pacheco are in the minority among business owners interviewed about the need for a streetscape redesign. Most owners on West National said they are more worried about increased police patrols to help customers feel a sense of security when they shop than they are about sprucing up the street. Nevertheless, the reality is that any help would be welcome, they said.
All the business people interviewed agreed that the street has an image problem.
“I think that if the city would clean up some of these abandoned properties it could help rehab the area for business,” said Galen Shelp, owner of VCA Auto Body, 938 W. National Ave.
South 16th to Cesar E. Chavez Drive
When the Chavez Drive BID was formed a few years ago, the street looked like it was stuck in a time warp. There hadn’t been a major renovation in decades, and other than regularly scheduled repaving, no improvements had been made.
The street, formerly called simply South 16th Street from West Greenfield Avenue to West National Avenue, has long been known for its authentic Mexican restaurants, produce and a variety of other goods.
It was also known as one of the first destinations for Spanish-speaking immigrants new to Milwaukee. The brightly colored buildings, Spanish signage and street vendors selling everything from paletas to elotes provided some of the sights and comforts of home, easing the transition to a new life in America.
“I think so many people shop there because it’s somewhere they can find the same products they’re used to in Mexico, Columbia and other Latin American countries. The workers also speak Spanish, which is especially important for older immigrants who haven’t mastered the English language,” Najera said.
The Hispanic business district, anchored by the original Super Mercado El Rey in 1978, is now lined with store after store. The streetscape redesign has succeeded in opening up Chavez Drive, improving parking and rehabilitating the district’s image.
“I remember six years ago when the street was dirty and ugly,” said Pedro Jimenez as he walked into the parking lot of Nuevo Mercado El Rey. “But now it feels different; it looks good.”
That “different feel” pervades Chavez Drive. Only time will tell whether the businesses lining the busy streetscape feel the same positive difference in their bottom line.