Developer Josh Jeffers plans 103 apartments and 220 beds of student housing in the current Journal Sentinel buildings he just acquired, and wants to offer them at lower rents to help make downtown affordable to more people.
Jeffers recently acquired the entire block at 333 W. State St., and is mapping out a multi-year redevelopment plan. Construction could start as early as 2020 to convert an early 1960s office building on the east end of the block into 220 beds of housing for college students, said Jeffers, president and CEO of J. Jeffers & Co., Milwaukee. In 2021, the 1924 office building next to it could be rehabbed into affordable apartments for families, he said.
“When you think about workforce housing, this is the epicenter for a need,” Jeffers said. “There’s a lot of hospitality jobs, Fiserv Forum, all the restaurants and food and beverage options. There’s a huge workforce contingent working downtown, but there is not a lot of housing that’s available to that group.”
Jeffers currently has plans only for the two buildings lining State Street. The long-term future of other buildings on the block, including Major Goolsby’s Sports Bar, will be decided over time, and partially hinge on whether they are eligible for public historic restoration tax credits.
Jeffers said the project could create a link between the entertainment district at Fiserv Forum, and projects such as the Shops of Grand Avenue redevelopment to the south on West Wisconsin Avenue. The first two phases would bring more people to the under-used buildings, and activate their sidewalk levels with amenities such as a cafe or indoor playground for children.
Converting the connected office buildings is an extremely complicated endeavor, Jeffers said. His firm specializes in restoring and adapting buildings, but he said the 1960s Journal building may offer the toughest challenge he has faced. Both will be restored according to federal preservation requirements, and would qualify for historic tax credits.
They both have multi-floor, empty industrial spaces in their lower levels where newspaper printers were located. Each building has large floor plates, so to offer sun to all of the upper-level housing, Jeffers must punch openings into the centers of each building to create light wells lined with windows.
“So far we have looked at least at a dozen redevelopment plans,” Jeffers said. “There are so many ways of carving it up. We even looked at a plan that combined both buildings and had one larger light well.”
Instead, Jeffers could cut at least one light well into the 1960s office building at State and Old World Third streets. Its upper floors would become 220 beds of privately owned housing for students at nearby universities, including Marquette University, the Milwaukee School of Engineering and Milwaukee Area Technical College.
Jeffers said the student apartments will be priced lower than some of the surrounding university-owned housing, both as a way to attract tenants and to further the company’s overarching social goal of community development.
The base of the building is a four-story tall industrial space where newspaper printers formerly functioned. Jeffers said he intends to convert that into a student union type of setting. That could include a cafe and, because of the ceiling height, even a small basketball court.
Eppstein Uhen Architects of Milwaukee is working with Jeffers on the project.
Gannett, whose company sale to New Media Investment Group was completed Nov. 19, leases space in the office buildings for Journal Sentinel operations through the end of 2020. Jeffers said most of those operations are in the older 1924 building, so the student housing restoration could potentially start next year.
“Of all the buildings on this block, I would think the student housing would be the first one to go,” Jeffers said.
That would be followed by the affordable apartments in the 1924 building at State Street and Vel R. Phillips Avenue. Jeffers on Dec. 6 will submit an application for low-income housing tax credits for the apartments. Those public tax credits would combine with historic tax credits to finance the complicated restoration project. Jeffers expects to know in March whether the project is awarded the housing tax credits.
“It is a very competitive submittal, which makes sense because a lot of stakeholders and constituent groups have noted the shortfall of affordable housing downtown,” Jeffers said.
Jeffers said 15% of the 103 apartments would be market rate, and the remainder would be rented only to people making between 60% and 30% of the area’s median income levels.
Jeffers also is considering ways to activate the tall former printing room in the base of the 1924 building, including with apartment amenities such as a fitness center. Another option is an interior children’s playground, he said.
The student housing and affordable apartments are enough to financially justify the development and the $8 million purchase price of the block, Jeffers said. Jeffers financed the land purchase with lending from Tri City National Bank and Impact Seven, a community development financial institution based in Rice Lake.
More phases of development would follow the two office restorations. The southern half of the building has a smaller brick office building and Major Goolsby’s Sports Bar. Major Goolsby’s won’t be impacted in the short term, Jeffers said, because it has a standing lease for its building.
Jeffers said federal officials have not decided whether those buildings, especially the brick offices, would qualify for historic restoration tax credits. He visited Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to meet with officials at the National Parks Service who will decide which buildings are significant historic structures that can qualify for public restoration tax credits.
That decision will help determine their future, Jeffers said. If they are demolished, Jeffers would have about half of a city block of land to work with.
Milwaukee Business Journal