When Ed Haydin, as a young architect, bought his home in Tosa's East Town, he imagined it as a stopover, just as many others have. He planned to stay about four years in the neighborhood of mostly modest properties, building his professional credentials and salary, and then move up and possibly out – to one of Tosa's tonier areas, or maybe Brookfield.
That was 15 years ago. Not only has Haydin stayed put in the East Tosa/North Avenue corridor, he has become one of its most impassioned promoters.
Haydin, fellow East Tosan Meg Miller and a handful of other concerned residents orchestrated a volunteer, grass-roots movement, now known as the East Tosa Alliance, to revitalize the stretch of North Avenue from 60th to 76th streets.
On Tuesday, they won a significant victory when the Wauwatosa Common Council adopted a $5.4 million, 15-year redevelopment plan for the business corridor into the city's master plan.
The plan calls for gradual changes to the streetscape beginning with realignment of North Avenue traffic lanes to remove the winding "chicanes" that distract drivers.
In the future, the plan envisions four pedestrian friendly corner plazas along the corridor.
But the plan is largely unfunded at the moment. Getting the city to buy into it was in part an act of faith, in part an outgrowth of fear.
"What galvanized us was when a payday loan shop wanted to come in right in the middle of things," Haydin said. "That was an alarm going off."
Haydin's work as an architect has put him in contact with many an urban planner over the years, and he has developed a fascination with urbanism. He consulted with friends and colleagues in the profession when the loan shop loomed over his neighborhood in 2006 and 2007.
"There are certain types of businesses that signal a loss of value," Haydin said. "Once you start down that road, you're looking eventually at just handing it back over to the city and saying, 'Here, we're done, you own this problem now.'"
The city was sufficiently alarmed to pass first a one-year moratorium on easy loan businesses and then a strict ordinance limiting where they could be sited. But for residents, the real and lengthy battle would be turning around the perceptions and the economic realities that attracted it in the first place.
"The city was very cooperative," Haydin said, "They said, 'We've got access to these funds, but you'll have to apply for this grant.'"
"These funds" were Community Development Block Grant funds, federal money channeled through cities for just such purposes. Even with city support, though, the application process is tedious and by no means automatic.
"Neither Meg nor I had ever written a grant before," Haydin said. "We just had to sit down together and hash it out, learning as we went."
Between the city Department of Community Development's resources and the $40,000 the neighbors won, both a market study and the redevelopment plan emerged.
The market study shows a reinvigorated East Tosa could capitalize on millions of dollars that currently are spent outside the district. Residents in the North Avenue trade area spend nearly $75 million a year elsewhere, and the model for new and reoccupied retail space in the district could capture 7.6 percent of those dollars – or more than $5.7 million.
Although area residents indicated in surveys that a full-service grocery store for the area is highly desired, the market study shows East Tosa is better poised to deliver specialty retail, including specialty foods. The retail sales potential under the plan model for new and reoccupied retail space in the district includes:
Full-service restaurants: North Avenue trade area residents spend nearly $20 million a year dining outside the district. With only 18 eating and drinking establishments in East Tosa, the plan estimates growth of these businesses within the district have the potential to generate an additional $2.5 million in annual sales.
Specialty clothing: East Tosa boutiques, specialty apparel and children’s clothing shops could capture up to $1.25 million in additional annual sales.
Specialty foods; hobby, toys and games; automative parts; and home-related "arts" items: Growth in these areas combined hold the potential to generate another $1.8 million in annual sales.
Making those things happen, Haydin says, is a matter of building consensus in the neighborhood to support and show pride in North Avenue. It's "an organic progression," he said. "Tapping the neighborhood for the success of the street."
Haydin stayed in East Tosa and became a champion of it because he realized he loved the idea of living in and raising his family in a walkable neighborhood with unique businesses and attractions. He had grown up in remote suburban setting without sidewalks, and learned to dislike it.
These days, Haydin rides his bike to work in downtown Milwaukee most days of the year, and walks with his kids to get doughnuts or pizza at Cranky Al's, at the corner of North and 69th. He can no longer imagine why he ever wanted to live farther out, in the land where the automobile rules the planning process and dictates nearly all routines of daily life.
With that in mind, the East Tosa Alliance last year launched Chili'n on the Avenue, a combination street festival and chili cookoff that drew big crowds to stroll the street and sample spicy concoctions.
This year's Chili'n is scheduled for July 23. Patch will have much more as the date approaches.
Getting people onto the sidewalks of North Avenue, on foot, to see that it's safe, fun and potentially profitable, is the beginning of what the Alliance sees as a hopeful future. And Haydin says it is greatly in the interest of all of Wauwatosa, not just East Tosa neighbors.
"Destinations, higher rents, denser redevelopment, a more solid tax base – that pays for itself and starts paying back the whole community," Haydin said.
"Low rents, empty storefronts, businesses that contribute little or nothing to the local tax base, that's where we get to, like I said, giving it back to the city.
"It wouldn't be a loss just for those who live here. It would be a loss to all, and worse, it would threaten property values in the next neighborhood, and the next.
"There is always an area in transition, up or down."