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Developer Barry Mandel says building Milwaukee takes more than concrete

Donald Trump fancies himself the archetype of a successful real estate mogul, but fortunately Milwaukee’s Barry Mandel, president of Mandel Group, possesses nothing like the bombastic, attention-seeking missile of an ego that defines Trump. Quietly reflective and a “political agnostic,” in his words, Mandel has a vision of development that includes building a stronger and more prosperous community. His company has core values that include focusing on environmental impact and historic preservation, whenever possible.

But Mandel can be competitive, too. Consider the way in which he settled a $25,000 dispute with a construction contractor.

Mandel was 54 when he and Rich Lynch, president of the company that built University Club Tower — perhaps Mandel’s signature project — became bogged down in negotiations over $1.7 million in contested costs. The two men hammered their differences down to $25,000, but then their talks stalled. Rather than go to court, they agreed to settle the matter by swimming a 100-meter race, with the loser paying $25,000 to the winner.

Mandel, who hadn’t swum competitively since high school, didn’t realize at the time that the physically more imposing Lynch was a former co-captain of the UW-Madison swim team. When he found out, however, Mandel didn’t back out. Instead, he became determined to win. He trained vigorously for three months with Olympic swimmer Adam Mania and received what proved to be some very helpful advice from one of Mania’s acquaintances, Olympic gold-medalist Mark Spitz. 

Mandel won the race by 12-hundredths of a second.

Bringing people into the city

In many ways, Mandel’s success has been built on defying the odds. In 1988, when white flight from the city was still in full swing, Mandel developed East Pointe Commons on the Lower East Side, on land that had been cleared to make way for a freeway extension that was never built. To succeed, the $85-million project had to draw the kind of people who lived in the suburbs back into the city. Everyone thought he was crazy.

The project not only succeeded but also paved the way for Third Ward development and for the downtown residential renaissance that has made Milwaukee the city it is today, according to Mayor Tom Barrett.

“Barry’s not just moving people around the city, he’s bringing people into the city,” Barrett says. “He’s added to the city’s tax base, its livability and its sense of vibrancy.”

“He’s not someone who just parachutes in — he’s very involved in the community,” Barrett adds. “He’s very engaged. He’s very much an advocate of attracting business into the city, and he’s pushed the city on aggressively marketing itself.”

Mandel says a lot of responsibility comes with real-estate development, because it shapes not only the city’s skyline but also contributes to its culture and quality of life.

“I am particularly proud of the parks we’ve built and how those have made connections with the public to our developments,” Mandel says. “Our developments become broader than just the development itself — they become amenities to the general public.”

Changing the non-building environment

While he continues to enjoy building, Mandel says his focus is turning increasingly to the major underlying issues affecting Milwaukee, including segregation, education and economic development. He says a number of organizations and individuals are working on these and other local problems, but their efforts need to be more coordinated and less politicized. Mandel’s frustrated by the state’s politically supercharged environment, which prompts leaders to treat serious issues as ideological talking points rather than real problems affecting real people. 

“When I turned 60, it was a time of reflection, and I recognized that our company had built a great deal and has in part changed the landscape of metropolitan Milwaukee,” Mandel says. “At the same time I realized that unless I can help change the non-building environment in a very substantial way, all the buildings and communities we create will not be sustainable over time.

“The next chapter of my career will certainly be to continue to build, but also to focus on making significant impact on the unbuilt environment. What I mean by that is to focus on the major issues that confront the city of Milwaukee — economic development, jobs and education.

“In order to work on any of those issues broadly, you need to bridge gaps between diverse constituencies and bubble up shared values that are so compelling that one becomes agnostic to whether or not they’re of a political persuasion, but passionate about good ideas that move the city in a direction that’s consistent with making it a better place for all.”

Mandel thinks that Milwaukee still has “enough hope to create a 21st-century city, a city that provides opportunity for a diverse group of people.”

A number of strong proposals are on the table to move Milwaukee forward, Mandel says. Among them, he cites creating a renewable energy infrastructure (many of his buildings have green rooftops), developing a downtown streetcar system, expanding the convention center, building a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks, undertaking new lakefront development and ratcheting up a program that converts foreclosed houses into owner-occupied homes. 

Mandel is also an advocate for “creative place making,” which means designating places to bring together people from different backgrounds and areas of expertise to generate spontaneous interactions that spark innovation. As an example, he points to a successful collaboration between General Electric and the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design to create a more welcoming hospital environment for women with breast cancer. 

Mandel believes Milwaukee leaders need to nurture these kinds of creative relationships. 

Despite his achievements — Barrett says Mandel is one of two or three developers who have had the most impact on the city— Mandel acknowledges, “I wake up every day thinking I could have done more.”

“I don’t necessarily mean I could have built more or made more money,” he says. “I could have made more transformative changes by working with others to gain traction for initiatives that my efforts could have caused other people to build and make the city a better place.”

But he’s proud of the way his developments blend seamlessly into the city and add to its amenities.

“When I drive through the city, I feel that the developments we’ve done are so neatly knitted into the urban fabric that they provide a foundation and a substance for the city,” he says. “And that perhaps in some cases the architectural effort that we made enhances the city.” 

University Club Tower, where Mandel — along with some of the state’s wealthiest residents — also lives, is probably the development that gives him the most satisfaction, he says. 

“I get a sparkle in my eye with respect to something that’s very odd,” he explains. “One of the things we tried to enhance the (building) was to crush quartz into the pre-cast stone. As I drive east toward the building, I can see the sunlight shimmering on the west façade and the sparkling of the crushed quartz, which illuminates our building. And it does make me smile.”

Building history

Since East Pointe Commons, Barry Mandel’s first downtown residential development in 1988, he expanded the city’s higher-end residences with buildings that fit so well into the urban environment around them that it’s hard to imagine their absence. Unconvinced? Consider these iconic Mandel buildings:

Library Hill, 740 W. Wisconsin Ave. The 1990 renovation of this complex next to Central Library helped revitalize Westown, providing momentum for future developments by both Mandel and other companies.

Trostel Square, 1818 N. Commerce St. This mix of apartments and townhouses is just one of many developments on the Beerline, but it’s one of the most eye-catching, with an expanded riverwalk and open courtyard. The project was completed in 2004.

University Club Tower, 825 N. Prospect Ave. At 36 stories, University Club is Mandel’s tallest building yet — and the third-tallest in Wisconsin. The 2007 building is by far Mandel’s most luxurious, with dozens of high-profile residents including Mandel himself. 

LightHorse, 4041 N. Oakland Ave. Named to honor the site’s original use — a barracks and stable for the Wisconsin National Guard — LightHorse has already become an anchor in the heart of Shorewood, and an important expansion for Mandel. The first units were completed in September 2013, and the rest of the building was finished in February.

The North End, 1551 N. Water St. The Park East neighborhood itself is still a work-in-progress, but The North End has gone a long way toward revitalizing the area. The former tannery features eco-friendly apartments alongside the new performance venue Denim Park, a massive green roof space and, soon, a farmers market. Some units are open while others are still under construction.

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