All of a sudden, West Bend has a very visible skyline. Except for church steeples, the Old Courthouse, and the long-gone grain elevator, there have not been many structures with more than three stories.
Now, we have “The District,” a dominating four-story apartment complex right in the middle of downtown West Bend. In historical terms, it’s a little shocking. This new 177-unit development sets the first impression of the center of our city because it’s located on the busiest intersection of Hwy. 33 and Main Street. The complex jumps out at you as you navigate east-west or north-south through the city.There are some historical ironies to the new complex. First, the downtown has recently been designated an Historic District, yet this project is thoroughly modern. It has a clean black and white exterior and efficient stainless and smooth composite interior surfaces.
The views from the apartment units overlook the Milwaukee River, the renovated Riverwalk, its historic dam and parts of the downtown like the Museum of Wisconsin Art. There are no better views in the city.
One of the other ironies is that The District replaces the historic Lithia Brewing Company, which dates to 1848, the same year Wisconsin became a state. That huge cream city building had served the community well for many years, but had become a mostly vacant eyesore.
According to Gunter Woog, who spent a decade trying the resurrect the Lithia brand, the old brewery had an eight-inch pipe that reached down to an aquifer and tapped water that contained a touch of lithiuim. Lithium is an alkali metal element that reacts vigorously with water and reputedly has some positive health effects.
There was some sentiment among the old-timers in the community that the defunct brewery should be preserved and redeveloped. Unfortunately, for more than five decades no developer ever got serious about new uses. It was a tough decision to tear it down, but it was the right one. The District is a $45 million addition to the city’s property tax base.
The new property taxes have enabled the funding of a completely renovated Main Street at $7 million. The tax increment also enabled the construction of a long-sought underpass of Hwy. 33 for pedestrians and cyclists.
All these improvements are having a cumulative positive effect on the attractiveness of our downtown. The boom of new apartments there is just one outcome. The better our downtown gets, the better it gets.
The most profound conceptual impact of The District is that it updates historic thinking on how an urban river should be used. In its early history, the river was mainly utilitarian. It was used for generating power, for industrial and residential water supplies, as a sewer and even a dump site. Now it is used as a visual attraction and recreational asset.
The District apartments will have an outdoor patio with grilling stations, decks and many windows that view the river. Residents, along with their dogs (they are allowed), will be able to step outside and use the renovated Riverwalk to hike and bike and connect to the city’s elaborate trail network. The tenants will be able to catch fish right downtown and go canoeing or kayaking in the gentle rapids below the dam. A new launch and fishing pier will be just south of the underpass.
In a very positive development, some owners of older buildings are recreating their river facades to allure customers. Others are sure to follow. Values of existing buildings are on the rise. And there are almost no shop spaces available for rent on Main Street, which is scheduled to be completed by October. The District will have a new retail section, and it includes an element of history. The 1848 Brewing Company out of Bay View has committed to a second brewery on there. (Will the new owners buy the recipe and brand for West Bend Lithia Beer? That would be a nice touch.)
The major investors in The District, including the Lubar, Klein and Shiely families, are bullish about the project, partly because of the positive downtown dynamics. They believe they have a winner property. Thirty-one leases have already been signed of a total of 170 apartments and seven town houses.