by Sean Ryan, Milwaukee Business Journal

Graef in late 2019 will move its headquarters and 170 jobs to new office space in The Shops of Grand Avenue in a move the president said will provide the urban environment his employees want.

The engineering and design firm is the first company to lease offices that will be built in the former downtown Milwaukee mall. Its 10-year lease commitment is a significant reason the Grand Avenue’s owners are now moving ahead with major renovations of West Wisconsin Avenue property.

“I think that neighborhood is just beginning, and I think in five years there will be more there,” said John Kissinger, Graef’s president and chief executive officer.

Graef will fill 35,000 square feet in the area of the mall that formerly was its third-floor food court. Construction is underway to convert those two upper floors into office space, a project that includes building out additional floor space and adding interior and exterior windows.

The office will have interior windows looking down on the Grand Avenue’s new first-floor food hall. It is a short walk from Fiserv Forum and, in fall 2020, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will open its new performance hall across the street on Wisconsin Avenue.

It’s a much different environment than the more suburban Honey Creek Corporate Park that Graef has called home for 20 years, Kissinger said. Grand Avenue also offered no-cost parking for employees in its attached parking structure, and lower rent than the company pays in Honey Creek, he said.

“We liked Honey Creek; we saw some attraction to a different environment, and this clearly is,” Kissinger said. “We had a feeling that being downtown would help us with employee attraction more than being in this quasi-suburban environment. In bigger cities, that’s definitely the case.”

Graef becomes an early adopter to West Wisconsin Avenue’s growing office market. Office space west of the Milwaukee River historically was seen as second-rate to the central business district to the east. Landlords, including Grand Avenue’s owners, are hoping to change that perception as they invest millions of dollars modernizing West Wisconsin office buildings in the hope of attracting new tenants.

Graef marks the first large lease commitment since those projects were announced. The company’s lease at Honey Creek expires at the end of 2019, Kissinger said, so it plans to move to Grand Avenue late next year.

The decision to move to Grand Avenue follows an extensive search at properties in the downtown area. More than a dozen buildings were vetted before Graef’s options were narrowed to the Grand Avenue, Honey Creek or the Phoenix Building in the heart of Milwaukee’s 3rd Ward.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Kissinger said. “It turned out we were a desirable tenant hitting the market at the right time. We had a lot of interest from a lot of people. We had some really cool options that didn’t meet that parameter of costing less.”

Graef also has history with the Grand Avenue, Kissinger said. The company in the late 1970s was on the team that designed and originally created the Grand Avenue mall. It was a major revitalization project for that section of downtown, and helped grow Graef as a firm, he said.

“We worked on additions to it over the years but, like everything, it ran its course,” Kissinger said. “Then everyone was hand-wringing again over what we are going to do about it. I would never have guessed 40 years later we’d be back in Grand Avenue, only this time we’re the anchor tenant of the new revitalization. We think that’s kind of kismet.”