Kenosha Is ‘Building The Heart Of A New City.’ But The Pressure Is On To Rebuild Equitably
KENOSHA, Wis. — The August 2020 police shooting of Jacob Blake led viewers from all over the world to tune into this small lakefront city.
Television screens filled with images of burning businesses and gun violence — yet another chapter in America’s long summer of protests kicked off by the murder of George Floyd nearly three months before.
It was a painful time for Kenosha. Out of public view, the televised violence also imperiled what municipal leaders call a golden opportunity to resuscitate its once-industrial economy. Longtime Mayor John Antaramian had developed plans to help revitalize the city by planting new luxury homes and parks around the downtown’s picturesque harbor, and it wasn’t a pie-in-the-sky dream.
Investors were lining up, ready to pour in capital.
But Joe Chrnelich, the primary developer of the downtown revitalization effort, said a phone call early in the morning after the Blake shooting delivered a shock. He was a few days away from completing a financing deal that would kick-start the effort, but the investors backing the venture were rattled and told him they were pulling out.
“Picture yourself on the beach and letting sand run through your fingers,” Chrnelich said. “That’s what it felt like to me, like we had $500M in our hands, and it went right through our fingers.”
But other investors kept circling, ready to commit funds. The city announced in December that the downtown redevelopment was back on, at least the first phase, and the $100M Brindisi Towers, a planned luxury complex with 54 condos and up to 104 apartments, would soon fill in one of the downtown’s open fields. Chrnelich said he could break ground late this year.
“Getting this first piece started is really key; it’s the launching pad for everything else,” he said. “We’re building the heart of a new city.”
Many U.S. cities — including Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh — have financed rebirths that don’t depend on obsolete smokestack industries, remaking their aging downtowns with luxury housing, boutique hotels, entertainment centers and tourist attractions.
Critics charge that those fresh starts ended up serving high-income downtown residents, while surrounding neighborhoods — especially ones populated by people of color — continued to stagnate.
Some Kenosha residents worry their hometown will follow the same path.
“We’re going to bring in all this great stuff, but what happens then?” Tanya McLean asked state and city officials during an open-air town hall at Kenosha's Juneteenth festival last weekend.
McLean, a mental health clinician and Uptown resident, said she worried her neighbors would get priced out and not benefit from the positive changes now coming after so many hard years.
“There is a good story to tell about Kenosha, one that is about more than riots or police violence, and I’m excited by [Antaramian’s] development, but what if you’re Black, Brown or impoverished, and there is a spillover effect from the downtown strategy?” Tenth District Kenosha Alderperson Anthony Kennedy said.
Antaramian has pushed his vision for more than a decade. If fulfilled, in another 10 years the 19 acres surrounding the Brindisi will host a new City Hall, an entertainment and performing arts center with a 1,200-seat theater, a 10K SF art gallery, a high-end hotel, parks, condominiums, more residences and retail.
The mayor said the Kenosha plan encompasses everyone, not just future lakefront residents. He also wants to fill in the former site of a Chrysler plant just west of downtown with an innovation district, creating jobs for adjacent neighborhoods such as Wilson and nearby Uptown, all left behind when Kenosha manufacturing declined.
“I like to think our strategy is a bit novel, because we’re doing all these things at once,” he said.
2020 presented the city with another challenge. Although the downtown shows little evidence of the summer riots, Uptown’s commercial strip a short distance to the southeast lost about 30 businesses, and the property damage could total between $30M and $50M. The destruction led Antaramian to unveil yet another pillar of Kenosha’s rebirth: a reconstruction of the Uptown district that will bring much-needed affordable housing, as well as a new grocery store, which it has gone without for years.
“We weren’t prepared for what happened, or for the scale of what happened, but to the city’s credit, they already have a plan to revitalize the neighborhood,” said Mark Modory, a former member of the city council and county board.
Hopefully, the city’s action will help address the inequities laid bare by the unrest surrounding the Blake shooting, inequities found in every major U.S. city, Antaramian said.
“We have many issues in this country that we need to deal with on a long-term basis; it’s not just the city of Kenosha that needs to look to that.”
It is about time, according to Kenosha NAACP President Anthony Davis. The former autoworker, who retired from Chrysler just before it closed for good, said something positive could eventually come from the city’s crisis if it improves hard-hit neighborhoods.
“It’s put a spotlight on a lot of these things,” he said. “The city decided it needs to do something now, and that’s good, but these issues should have been addressed years ago.”
The city’s lakefront once hummed with machinery, and cargo ships cruised into the downtown harbor used now only by pleasure craft. But Chrysler shuttered its downtown lakefront operation in 1988 and its other plant west of downtown in 2009. Antaramian, a lifelong resident who was also mayor from 1992 to 2008 before retiring and then winning re-election in 2016, said the town’s manufacturing glory days are long past, and Kenosha needs a new identity.
“From the 1970s on, this community took a lot of major hits,” he said. “One of the reasons I came back from retirement was to figure out how to keep our young people here.”
Antaramian sees the vast expanse of available land downtown, much of it abandoned when the lakefront industry left, as a unique opportunity. Few U.S. cities have so much land around a harbor, the perfect backdrop for communities such as the Brindisi. And the city of about 100,000 is just 66 miles north of Chicago, a short train ride away, with far lower housing prices than Chicago or its immediate suburbs. Antaramian said he expects many of Kenosha’s new residents will be young and affluent and commute to jobs in nearby cities.
“Where can you find this amount of land, that developers can piece together, that overlooks Lake Michigan, all in a community where residents will have access to both Milwaukee and Chicago?” he said.
Kenosha partly morphed from a factory town to a more suburban bedroom community in the 1990s and early 2000s, so Antaramian’s vision isn’t really a break from the past. The population increased from about 80,000 in 1990 to almost 100,000 20 years later, according to census reports, as thousands poured into suburban-style developments such as Strawberry Creek, a collection of upscale homes near I-94 about 9 miles west of downtown.
By 2010, more than half of Kenosha’s residents were from elsewhere, census researchers said, the highest percentage of any Wisconsin city. Most were highly educated commuters who worked in the Chicago area. In 2017, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that nearly half of Kenosha County’s population commuted to work outside the county, and 64% were traveling each workday to jobs in Illinois. Manufacturing employed less than 8,000 people, a 22% decline from 1990.
Chrnelich, the CEO of New Kenosha LLC, said that the ability to attract new residents draws eyeballs from investors and developers. He came on board the downtown project in early 2019 and quickly secured massive commitments from China-based investors to fund the entire downtown project. But tensions between the Trump administration and China soon escalated, and the investors pulled back as the Chinese government set restrictions on outbound investment.
The onset of the coronavirus pandemic knocked out yet another group of investors, but the Kenosha developers kept dialing up potential funders and eventually scored enough capital to get started on Phase 1.
“This is really a northern suburb of Chicago, that’s what we explain to investors,” he said. “We have 9 miles of beaches, and on any given day on the beaches, you’ll see Illinois license plates all over the place.”
“We just needed to get past all the drama,” he added.
Antaramian, who ran unopposed for re-election in 2020, has won a lot of support for his plans, including within neighborhoods such as Uptown and Wilson. But Kennedy, one of two Black city council members, still worries Black and Latino neighborhoods, including Wilson, could get left out of such a boom. He backs Antaramian, who is White, even calling him a visionary, but looking at the renderings of Kenosha’s future lakefront leaves one nagging worry.
“Is this going to be for the poor and lower middle class in Kenosha?” Kennedy asked. “Will a new firefighter, a police officer or a teacher be able to find good, affordable housing within the city’s confines?”
Teachers have a starting salary of about $43K, according to the Kenosha Education Association, and Kennedy said that’s not enough to afford many of the new homes. Even now, before the development begins, there are one-bedroom apartments near the lake renting for $1,400 per month.
“That boggles my mind,” he said. “Kenosha was a shot-and-a-beer town, and now some people want to make it into a white wine and spritzer town.”
“That doesn’t mean we don’t do the development,” Kennedy added. “It just means we need to do smart development.”
Alvin Owens opened his new barbershop near downtown Kenosha on the day Blake was shot. What was supposed to be a celebratory day turned harrowing as protesters surged toward the city center.
“That night I ended up getting pepper-sprayed as I was trying to calm everybody down,” Owens said. “And we stayed up all night to make sure no one broke into the shop or burned it down.”
Police mostly kept protesters away from the downtown core after that first night, and crowds instead hit the commercial strip near the intersection of 60th Street and 22nd Avenue in Uptown. It was on one of those nights that Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old Illinois resident, shot and killed two protesters near 60th Street and seriously wounded another.
“It looked like a war zone,” said Third District Alderperson Jan Michalski, whose area includes Uptown. “About two blocks were charred and burned beyond repair. It was a hellish experience.”
Owens always wanted his Regimen Barber Collective at 1345 52nd St. to be a community gathering place as well as a barbershop, and the crisis that engulfed Kenosha last summer helped that vision come true.
“It became a mini civil rights hub even as we were running a barbershop in the middle of Covid,” he said.
Volunteer cleanup efforts were organized out of the shop. Owens also organized protest marches that made a point of avoiding clashes with the police department, and he brought Kenosha officers into the shop to meet and talk with neighborhood residents.
“Our marches were the ones that always ended at 6 p.m.,” he said.
Owens said that while he’s optimistic about Kenosha’s future now that both the civil unrest and Covid have subsided, he’s also wary, and he hopes minority business owners will get a fair share of the development contracts.
“With development coming to Kenosha, of course we want development to happen in Wilson, Uptown and Lincoln,” he said. “However, it always just seems our neighborhoods’ opportunity to be a part of new development is pushed aside.”
Owens added that the businesses burned or damaged during the civil unrest, including those owned by minorities, need to be re-established.
“They’re going to need storefronts,” he said. “I don’t want them to be boxed out by a Starbucks.”
Mayoral allies say Antaramian’s Uptown plan will result in more affordable housing and bring back business. The city brought in Gorman & Co., an Oregon, Wisconsin-based developer, to create Uptown Lofts, a planned $18M mixed-use complex on the devastated commercial strip that will bring 104 apartments, about 80% of them affordable and funded by state tax credits, along with about 24K SF of retail.
The Gorman project may also help solve one of the neighborhood’s worst problems, and one that disproportionately affects people of color around the U.S.: the lack of a sizable grocery store.
A Pick ‘n Save grocery had been at 63rd Street and 19th Avenue, but the parent company shuttered it in 2017. The 2019 closure of another grocery to the south near 80th Street was another blow.
“We’re talking about a 2-to-3-mile hike for neighborhood residents without cars to the nearest full-service grocery store,” Michalski said.
What really bothers Kennedy is that majority-White neighborhoods, which have more than a half-dozen groceries, don’t lack food options.
“The distribution of these stores is troublesome,” he said. “If the downtown development comes to fruition, we’re going to need new grocery stores that serve these communities.”
Gorman & Co. Wisconsin Market President Ted Matkom said La Estrella Supermarket, a 22nd Avenue business destroyed by rioters, would reopen in Uptown Lofts, and double its original footprint to more than 10K SF. And to help preserve local businesses, retailers at the complex will be charged affordable rates, about $5 per SF.
“This will be a major step in the right direction,” Michalski said. “Investment activity tends to draw interest from others and trigger other investments. The Uptown neighborhood may ultimately be like a phoenix that rises from the ashes.”
But Owens also said it won’t be enough to just rebuild Uptown. The city’s working-class neighborhoods lost too many businesses in the past couple of decades, so simply putting them back where they were on the day of the Blake shooting wouldn’t be sufficient.
“I was here when Chrysler shut down, and people felt deflated, because there were a lot of jobs there. It affected both White and Black Kenosha, but, there’s a saying, when America has a cold, African American communities have pneumonia. It affects my community differently. So, these new plans better include something that’s going to help bring in jobs.”
Antaramian said he’s got a plan. Another key pillar of Kenosha’s revival will be transforming the old Chrysler site a little more than a mile west of downtown and sandwiched between Wilson and Uptown. There the mayor envisions a job-creation engine called the Kenosha Innovation Neighborhood — KIN for short.
The city recently finished a $30M cleanup of the now-vacant site. The first phase will include a 60K SF mixed-use building called the STEM Innovation Center, which will house educational institutions such as the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, nonprofits and incubator space for startup companies. Antaramian wants KIN to be more than an antiseptic research site that empties out at 5 p.m.; he wants it to also include bike paths, parks, community gathering spaces, restaurants, residences, retail and a new home for LakeView Technology Academy, a specialty high school run by the Kenosha school district but currently located in suburban Pleasant Prairie.
“The downtown development is an extension of what we started long ago, but KIN is the next phase,” Antaramian said.
A successful innovation district could dramatically change the neighborhoods hit hardest last summer, and Kenosha officials are bringing in the community to speak about how development can benefit a wide swath of residents. Officials recently began attending public meetings at an Uptown bank building, which the city purchased and plans to renovate into a community center, to garner ideas for the KIN. Several hundred people have attended these meetings since May.
“We’re not just going to build something and then tell you, ‘Well, this is what you’ve got,’” Edward St. Peter, Kenosha’s project director for both the downtown and the KIN, told a diverse crowd of about 50 people at a June 16 meeting.
But the specter of possible gentrification was on the mind of many that evening.
“What are we going to do to make sure families in [the neighborhood] will be able to continue living here?” asked Gabrielle Hood, who owns an electrical contracting business and coaches basketball, football and soccer at nearby Wilson Elementary School.
Tim Casey, Kenosha’s director of city development, said he understands why gentrification is a widespread concern. But the city wants to create more affordable housing in and around the KIN, and he said if officials keep an eye on the issue in the coming decades, gentrification can be held at bay.
“We have 107 acres to play with, so there’s no reason to displace anybody,” he said. “But we can’t allow [gentrification] to happen, so what we need to do is make sure we develop housing with a range of price points.”
Casey pointed out that the neighborhoods surrounding the old Chrysler site contain 24% of Kenosha’s total population, but more than 40% of its Black and Latino populations, and incomes there are roughly $10K below the citywide average. One of the top goals of the KIN will be creating jobs that directly benefit the surrounding neighborhoods, possibly through job training programs that allow local residents to break into the construction trades.
And the city plans to annex up to 3,100 acres near I-94 where a massive e-commerce and warehousing district has sprouted up, and set aside 2,400 for industrial development, creating another rich source of jobs.
Many of the questions raised at the June community meeting, as well as at the Juneteenth town hall, concerned the reconstruction of a collection of about 30 fourplexes near where Blake was shot, some plagued by absentee owners that allowed the homes to fall into disrepair.
The city struggled for years to get the reconstruction started and gave up its original plan of clearing all the homes. Instead, it will start small, and it is now seeking a developer to build new homes on a half-dozen or so city-owned lots in that area, according to Veronica Flores, a Realtor and member of Kenosha’s City Plan Commission. Flores said the Wilson project will be a way to show investors that homes can be built and sold there. She prefers to see a mix of homes eventually rise in the neighborhood, including affordable single-family homes, while preserving some of the better fourplexes and tearing down those that are substandard.
“Redeveloping the downtown will bring in more tourists, and they’re good to have because it helps the economy, but we also need to focus on more than downtown, and the mayor is doing it,” Flores said.
Hood said she prefers this plan to earlier proposals of getting rid of all the housing. But she was taken aback when officials said some of these new homes could cost $200K, a price she said is too high for many current residents. Casey said they will keep pushing prospective developers to lower the costs, and that the city will make sure speculators are kept out.
“We’re not looking for flippers, someone who will buy it for $200[K] and sell it for $250[K] a year later, that would not accomplish our goal,” he said.
The city is putting together a 501(c)(3) organization to run the KIN development, and St. Peter said he anticipates four or five more months of community outreach before it finishes a draft master plan later this year.
Owens praised St. Peter and others for the outreach efforts, but said they may need to do more. There is some distrust of city government in Black and Latino neighborhoods, further soured by the Blake shooting and its aftermath, and many residents avoid contact with officials, so going beyond neighborhood community meetings, perhaps by directly visiting churches, may be necessary to fully gauge public opinion on development efforts. St. Peter said he will do whatever it takes to inform affected communities about the KIN.
Other neighborhood activists said they will hold city officials to that promise.
“The development plan is a good thing, and it will do a lot of good,” Porche Bennett-Bey said shortly after helping moderate the Juneteenth town hall. The Uptown resident leads United as One, a Kenosha social justice organization, and was chosen as one of Time magazine’s Guardians of the Year for 2020. “But I also want them to go out, knock on doors, and talk to people in the community.”
Kennedy said people in Kenosha were right to worry about gentrification. He wants to use even more city-owned lots to create affordable homes, but some of the land between KIN and the new downtown amenities to the east will be especially attractive to residential developers, possibly putting pressure on low-to-moderate-income residents.
“Market forces will be coming in the wake of this massive amount of new development,” he said. “The opportunities could be very profitable for some people, and that could be detrimental for affordable housing.”
But as Kenosha seeks a balanced way to both rebuild from last summer and set the city on a new, more equitable course, he said the city should be able to hold off the threat of gentrification as long as the affected communities remain active and engaged.
“It will be up to us to hold the line,” Kennedy said.