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Neighbors fear what follows Blockbuster

Auto-parts store conflicts with hopes for East Tosa

Jan. 18, 2012

East Tosa residents assumed it was a matter of time before Blockbuster closed up shop in their neighborhood.

But the speed of the movie-rental store's departure at 6102 W. North Ave. last month, and the reports that an auto-parts store might fill the space, have neighbors concerned.

Blockbuster has fallen on hard times, shuttering most of its stores in the Milwaukee area and across the country. Still, an employee assured Alderman Bobby Pantuso last spring that the local store would likely remain open for some time. Then in mid-December, business-closing signs went up and the building was quickly emptied.

"I was a little thrown off because it always seemed busy to me," Pantuso said. "We always thought there was going to be more time."

The site has been identified as a key redevelopment hotspot in the East Tosa master plan that was adopted by the city last summer. Pantuso said that while the plan sounded a bit "pie in the sky" - it calls for a neighborhood commons feel with two-story mixed residential/office and commercial use as well and even a splash pad for urban recreation/open space - it makes full use of the site.

"That's such a beautiful spot and there's not a lot of mixed use on North Avenue," he said.

The 32,400-square-foot property, which takes up nearly an entire commercial block, is mostly asphalt parking lot surrounding a 6,800 square-foot building.

Blockbuster's closing left members of the East Tosa Alliance, a group of residents, business and property owners, scrambling to find out if they could influence what was next for site.

"It's an anchor in that area," said Meg Miller, alliance board chairwoman. "We want to work with anyone that comes in. We want this to be collaborative."

Initial talks with a broker from Mid-America Real Estate Group led Miller to believe a new tenant had been lined up for the building. After some digging, she learned the real-estate firm had secured a long-term lease from O'Reilly Auto Parts.

The broker couldn't be immediately reached for comment but he did send Miller an e-mail Tuesday, saying he's willing to talk.

Neighbors haven't welcomed news of a national auto parts retailer.

"Bringing this type of business into this space does not add to the neighborhood feel the North Avenue East Tosa Plan is attempting to accomplish," said Angela Quigley, a resident who joined the alliance. "My husband and I moved to East Tosa a few years ago from Downtown Milwaukee because of all the locally owned, unique businesses that were within walking distance of our house. There is a lot of momentum going on in this neighborhood of bringing in new, fresh businesses and I just don't feel that O'Reilly Auto Parts will add to this momentum."

Alliance members cite an auto parts dealer at 58th Street and North Avenue, albeit in Milwaukee, that serves the area. A market study included in the master plan cites a need for locally provided auto-related retail. However, that shouldn't be misconstrued as a need for additional stores, but rather a desire to protect the existing businesses like Voline and O'Gorman's that the alliance doesn't want to see pushed out, Miller said.

National auto parts franchises tend to locate in strip malls on busy main streets, not next to a happening restaurant and gathering place like Juniper 61, she said. Imagine sitting on the patio enjoying a meal overlooking a person changing their oil in the neighboring parking lot, she said.

The residents don't want to see an empty building and understand that a property owner needs to collect rent, Miller said. A look at the companies that Mid-America represents shows some more fitting options - such as a Chipotle, which would be consistent with a survey that showed neighbors want a Mexican restaurant in the district.

East Tosa resident Maureen Badding sent a letter to the broker pointing out a desire by residents for garden center, Mexican restaurant, Hallmark-type store, specialty food store or retail boutiques of any type.

"With a relatively new building and ample parking, your property is a goldmine," she said.

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