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Helping spur growth through redevelopment

Former Green Bay Sears building is being torn down, new businesses set to take its place

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October 7, 2022

GREEN BAY – Closing its doors officially in early 2018 like many others throughout the country, the once-iconic Sears building on Military Avenue on Green Bay’s west side has since been used as a poll location for elections, a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site during the peak of the pandemic and its adjacent parking lot the home of the Thursday night farmers market.

However, the building and the sea of asphalt that surrounds it is on a redevelopment path set to bring new businesses to the Mason/Military corridor.

“Obviously, Sears is iconic for Green Bay, and it was unfortunate they all closed,” David Buck, principal planner for the City of Green Bay, said. “When they closed, the owners continued to maintain it, but could not get a tenant. They attempted to market it and marketed it for a while, but the maintenance costs on it are significant.”

Buck said some of that may be because of the natural tendency in the market now to go to smaller spaces.

“(The developers) got some interest on the corner property of Sixth and Military for a large-scale carwash, and that started to have them look at, ‘well, what can we do with the rest of that Green Bay Plaza site,’” he said.

Buck said there has been some angst about the Sears building demolition.

“People have great memories of the Sears building, and a lot of people will look at it and say, ‘Why do we take down a perfectly good building?’” he said. “But when you get some structural engineers in there, you realize it’s not as wonderful as you think, 40-50 years later. So, we haven’t gotten (many) complaints that it’s changing over. I think there’s a little loss based on nostalgia.”

Leah Weycher, executive director of Military Avenue Business District – which includes the area between Shawano and Lombardi avenues – said it would have been nice to find a reuse for the building, but it was in rough shape.

“It looked pretty good on the outside, but it was pretty dated,” she said. “Construction, back in the ’60s was not the same as what we can get today. Instead of looking at the old, remembering what we lost. I think it’s an opportunity to build something new and useful for today.”

Redevelopment plans
JJ Alaily, a partner with ICAP Development, the local firm working with owners, Green Bay Military Ave Partners LLC, said the proposed redevelopment plans – which is proposed to include space for multiple tenants – round out the Green Bay Plaza Shopping Center.

“This brings that component of drive-thru, quick accommodations for (customers) on their way out of, or to, the center,” he said. 
Alaily said similar projects have been popular in other communities throughout the country as well.

“This is what consumers are looking for,” he said. “So, we’re excited to see that come together.”

Alaily said at this point, the first aspect of the plan, and the only confirmed tenant, moving forward is the construction of Club Car Wash on the corner of Military Avenue and Sixth Street.

He said part of that closing agreement included the demolition of the Sears building.

“Obviously, so they can have their 1.3-acre site on the corner of Sixth and Military available to be developed,” he said. “So, we’re in the process of demolishing, which should be done by the middle of October.”

Alaily said he expects construction on the car wash to begin shortly after the demolition is complete.
He said the concept plan for the rest of the parcel shows five additional outlots.

“We feel the traditional drive-thru user, whether it’s financial or quick-serve restaurants – those kinds of users are attracted to that kind of location where you sit in front of a large shopping center and parallel to a busy corridor,” he said. “So that’s our vision.”

Alaily said there aren’t any signed leases for the outlots as of yet, but conversations are being had.

“We can’t share who we’re working with, but we are in active discussions with almost all five of them,” he said.

For now, Alaily said ICAP Development is working to get all its ducks in a row.

“We’re basically getting an idea of what we need to do for our civil work and site planning to make those five outlots work,” he said.

Alaily said those discussions are expected to take another month or so.

“We’re not going to start construction during the winter months, so we will continue to work through our civil plans, work through tenant interests, work with our lenders for the project, basically over the winter with hopefully a direction and commencement in spring or summer of 2023.”

Different times
Another benefit of the redevelopment, Buck said, is the addition of green space in the historically asphalt-filled area.

“What (the project) also does is it increases green space,” he said. “The new standards – and when I say new back, I mean back in the ’80s, probably before that – standards for stormwater management and grass landscaping, kind of beautifying sites are now in place that weren’t in place when the Sears Plaza was developed.”

For many years, the Military Avenue-Mason Street corridor on Green Bay’s west side was held together by the once-iconic Sears building, shown here in 1966. Photo courtesy of the Neville Public Museum of Brown County

Buck said as the redevelopment takes place, several more trees and green spaces will be visible.

“That parking lot is in rough shape,” he said. “So, I think from a physical standpoint, the city sees this as greening up the site, beautifying the corridor, giving a bit more environmental sensitivity as far as stormwater and that kind of thing goes.”

Follow suit
Weycher said redevelopment like what is proposed in Green Bay Plaza can also spark other development/redevelopment to follow suit.

“When people start improving their areas, I think it triggers others (to do so as well),” she said. “I think it’s going to spur more changes and improvements. We’re a great affordable district here – easy access to the highway, close to Lambeau (Field).”

Weycher said there are “pockets” she would love to see redeveloped and believes this will help “activate that.”

“I do think that adding to our availability, or our stock, is going to be a great thing for the district and Military Avenue,” she said.
Buck said many see the project as a “catalyst.”

“I think most people see it as a catalyst for further development along the corridor or redevelopment,” he said. “Military (Avenue) is a big commercial corridor for the city, and that site has sat empty for quite a while. Without reinvestment, it continued to deteriorate.”

Weycher said she hopes the redevelopment project will help further this district’s “all-day breakfast” status.

“We are known as the best all-day-breakfast place, and I think we got that, hands down,” she said. “I would love to see some more activity in the evening that will help energize our retail establishments here, too, just to keep people shopping over the period of the day, instead of just focusing on the morning.”

Traffic impact
Buck said another positive aspect of the redevelopment is improving the currently described “free-for-all” traffic pattern.

“That is one complaint the city has gotten on that property,” he said. “With this redevelopment, those lanes start to become well defined, and the traffic patterns internal to the site get cleaned up a lot. Shoppers who may have been hesitant to go to Green Bay Plaza, because of the traffic patterns, this whole redevelopment will define those traffic patterns, make things much safer inside the lot and much more comfortable with the islands and the trees – which is really modernizing the site.”

Farmers’ market
Weycher said the future of Military Avenue’s Thursday night farmers’ market is still unclear, as the location where it has been held in recent years is the space that has been earmarked for the outlot developments.

“There’s not a lot of public space in our district, like no park or anything like that,” she said. “So, there’s not a lot of places to hold public events.”

Weycher said she is working with Alaily and the property owner to potentially build in a place where events, like the farmers’ market, could be held.

“I’m working closely with them,” she said. “I would love to have them build something in, but I don’t know what it looks like.”

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