Downtown West Allis: From Street Car Suburb to Urban Innovator


West Allis, Wisconsin, will host a Learning Lab for Main Street Coordinators to delve deeper into the Four Point Refresh with National Main Street Center staff and the CLUE Group on Saturday, May 21. While in the city, they will have a chance to tour the district, interact with stakeholders, and assist Downtown West Allis, Inc. in developing district transformation strategies. For everyone else, here’s a taste of what makes West Allis such a successful Wisconsin Main Street program, including more about their innovative “pedlet” solution for outdoor dining, popular food festival and commitment to good design.

West Allis’s history is one of western settlement and the expansion of industrialization. Early settlers to the area west of the new town of Milwaukee found a landscape full of walnut, oak, and maple trees as well as a flowing Honey Creek and well-traveled Native American trails. But by 1891 things would begin to change for the area that had come to be known as North Greenfield. In this year, the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society purchased a dairy farm for a permanent home of its annual State Fair.

In 1894, the Milwaukee Street Car Company extended its lines to the fairgrounds, which not only provided transportation for the annual event, but also an economic development avenue for the area. Beginning in 1900 manufacturing leaders such as the Allis Company relocated to North Greenfield. With a growing population as a result of industrialization, the residents of North Greenfield voted to organize the Village of West Allis in 1902, which later became a city in 1906. While the last street car line in Milwaukee stopped service in 1958, West Allis is still home to the Wisconsin State Fair Park, which hosts the popular Wisconsin State Fair each August. 

West Allis is also home to the Pettit National Ice Center, an official US Olympic training site for speed skating, located adjacent to the State Fair grounds. It has been a practice facility for many Olympic speed skating notables since 1992.

View of West Allis A La Cart with a “pedlet” in the foreground

Downtown West Allis’ Main Street district, less than 6 miles from the Wisconsin Center (the location for the 2016 Main Street Now Conference) in downtown Milwaukee, is centered on West Greenfield Avenue from South 76th Street on the west and South 70th Street on the east. The district contains 20th century commercial buildings and a National Register of Historic Places-listed United States Post Office constructed in 1939. Of note, inside the post office, are two oil-on-canvas murals commissioned by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts and painted by Frances Foy in 1943. The district is home to over 100 businesses, including a wide range of shops, restaurants, and companies.

Click image below to enlarge

The organization, which has been a designated Wisconsin Main Street community since 2001, has worked to embrace its urban context and the challenges that come with it. A great example of this is how Downtown West Allis, Inc. was able to accommodate sidewalk cafes along a busy street in the district with a little creativity. Local businesses wanted to create outdoor dining, but were challenged by the high traffic volumes along West Greenfield Avenue. Their original solution was to install a “parklet” to expand dining space in lieu of on-street parking, but concerns were raised about the diners locating so close to the traffic. The solution, create a “pedlet” instead of a “parklet”. A wooden deck was built on parking spaces and pedestrian traffic would be routed onto the deck while restaurant guests would be seated near the building. Urban Joe Café was the first to pilot this concept in 2013. The response was overwhelmingly favorable and a testament to the community’s desire to find practical solutions to its environmental challenges. You can read more about the "pedlet" in this newsletter.

Downtown West Allis, Inc. also hosts multiple, annual events each year to highlight their unique assets. These include A La Carte, a Classic Car Show, Halloween Hunt, and Christmas on the Avenue. New this year is Shape Up Your Summer, a fitness event to encourage locals to move every day this summer.

In its 9th year, West Allis A La Carte stands as one of the most anticipated events in the community. Held each June, the event brings citizens together around food and music and provides other organizations in the city a chance to highlight their impact in the community. A recent, and wildly successful, addition to the day is “Animal Avenue”. A section of South 71st Street features only pet-related exhibitors, capitalizing on America’s growing love for their animals. One could say that this part has gone to the dogs.

The district has also benefitted from Wisconsin Main Street design services. When a new business planned a move into a vacant storefront, they enlisted the help of Wisconsin Main Street Design Specialist, Joe Lawniczak. He utilized historic photos of this former F.W. Woolworth & Co. store built in 1948 to design the Art Deco façade for the new tenants. The owner liked Joe’s design so much that they constructed it as he had sketched it.

Before and after

We’re excited to share one of Milwaukee’s street car suburbs with Coordinators from across the county during their Learning Lab at the 2016 Main Street Now Conference. Plan your own trip to West Allis, and explore other Wisconsin communities with one of over a dozen mobile workshops in Port Washington, Sheboygan Falls, Fond du Lac, Ripon, and Beloit to get a glimpse into what makes Wisconsin Main Street a success.