Hungry for space: Milwaukee County Research Park remains desirable
Tosa complex to have estimated $230 million in value, when complete
Milwaukee Business Journal | Sean Ryan
WAUWATOSA, WI – Irgens is spending money rehabbing an empty four-story building it owns in the Milwaukee County Research Park and is talking to companies that may refill it. Meanwhile, the Milwaukee developer has more available space in an office building it completed in June in the business park, located on Watertown Plank Road at Interstate 41 in Wauwatosa.
But even with nearly 115,000 square feet of empty space to fill, Vice President Thomas Irgens said the company is drawing plans to build two more Research Park office buildings from the ground up. The first could break ground next year if Irgens secures a tenant, he said.
“We want to have it ready when the right tenant opportunity comes,” Irgens said.
In the real estate world, prepping more office buildings while large spaces remain empty is akin to ordering a second steak at an expensive restaurant after taking a few bites of the first. But it is a reaction to the demand Irgens sees from companies that want to be in the Milwaukee County Research Park, which is located near the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center. That hunger remains strong even as the park approaches the end of its development.
“It is a really great location,” Irgens said. “You’ve got a bunch of really great tenants in there. There’s a desire and there’s a demand.”
While downtown Milwaukee office buildings get the buzz for attracting businesses, the park has held its own allure. The last office buildings on Irgens’ docket will mark the final two for the Milwaukee County Research Park, which was created in 1987. The park sputtered for its first 10 years, but since then has attracted projects bringing 1.9 million square feet of building space that house about 110 companies with roughly 4,500 jobs, and counting.
Although the park is running out of open land, the demand by companies to locate there remains strong. Now that MCRP’s completion is on the horizon, there is speculation over where the demand for office space will migrate next.
Guy Mascari, executive director of the organization that oversees the park, estimated it will have about $230 million in property value once its last projects are completed.
“We’re going to plateau here probably at about 5,500 employees,” Mascari predicted. “It’s got a density higher than a typical suburban office park. It’s not downtown, but it is just a nice environment here. I get so many comments from people who work here that it’s just pleasant to be here. You go out around the lunch hour and there are a lot of people walking. We have food trucks that are coming in.”
Mascari said the park also is attractive because of its central location in the metropolitan area, and proximity to institutions in the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center.
The mix of businesses in the park has historically been about half information technology and software businesses, Mascari said. About a quarter are biomedical, another 20 percent are in mechanical engineering or automation, and there’s also a strong component of service companies from insurance, accounting and other fields, he said.
Likely the largest economic development win for MCRP was the corporate offices for GE Healthcare, a project announced in 2004. That is among nine buildings Irgens has already built in the park.
In addition to Irgens’ future office developments, the final project in the park will be at Watertown Plank Road and Innovation Drive. Project plans by Milwaukee-based Mandel Group Inc. include a new hotel, an apartment building with about 90 units, and renovation of an existing historic building into cafe and restaurant space.
Those kinds of amenities, like the food trucks that are driving in to stop at office buildings, give the park some of the elements that make downtown Milwaukee attractive.
“You are seeing a shift in suburban office parks in general where it used to be all office buildings, but there’s a push to bring amenities into these office parks,” Irgens said. “I think that is making them more attractive.”
Irgens has more such amenities in the Meadowland Research & Technology Center it completed in the park this June. The anchor tenant in the building is insurance technology firm Zywave Inc., a longtime occupant of the park.
The average employee age for Zywave’s 300 research park workers is 27, said CEO David O’Brien. The company could grow to 400 employees in its current space within two years, he said. From there, it could grow to fill out more empty space in the building, he said.
“It has shown extremely well,” O’Brien said of job interviews in the new space. “It is that work-hard, play-hard atmosphere. They can play ping-pong at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, but we know they are getting the job done and getting results.”
Zywave briefly considered moving to downtown Milwaukee, before deciding to remain in the Milwaukee County Research Park, O’Brien said. That’s partially based on the park’s location in the center of the metro area, he said. The company’s employees have access to Meadowland’s large outdoor terrace, with tables and grills, along with a large lawn, he said.
Irgens is adding more outdoor patio space to MCRP’s Oakwood Center as it renovates the building to attract new tenants, Irgens said. Oakwood Center formerly was occupied by Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, which relocated one of its operations to West Allis.
“The office market is strong right now,” Irgens said. “We have to lease up at Meadowland. I think it is positive. There’s some existing vacancy in the park, but our view is we’ve got to lease up the Oakwood building.”
Next on Irgens’ agenda is the planned Muir Woods office development in the park. That building, standing three stories tall with 83,000 square feet of office space, will be ready to break ground next year if businesses commit to leasing space there, Irgens said.
After Muir Woods, Irgens may also build a 50,000- to 60,000-square-foot, two-story office building to replace a portion of the parking lot east of the Meadowland building Zywave occupies, Irgens said.
UnitedHealthcare and GE have land adjacent to their buildings where they could build additions, but there is nothing currently in the works, Mascari said.
That will be it for new development in the park. Some of the activity may next spill over into the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Innovation Campus development, which is overseen by the UWM Foundation Inc.
Innovation Campus has land for private office development, but it is intended specifically to encourage partnerships between the private sector and university researchers, said David Gilbert, president of the UWM Foundation. ABB Ltd. occupies the first office building there and is coordinating with university researchers.
That strategy makes the Innovation Campus land a bit different from MCRP land that hosts for-profit office buildings intended primarily for technology companies.
However, success in the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center, and the Milwaukee County Research Park, is creating more interest in Innovation Campus, Gilbert said.
“We’ve had some inquiries from national companies that are not in the state at the moment, but are considering it,” Gilbert said. “All of the trends are positive. I think we have to carefully manage the land we have left here in the quadrant to make sure we maximize the value to the region.”