By Tom Daykin
Three years ago, Gaulien “Gee” Smith closed his King Drive barber shop because of a lack of parking — despite being next to a large, city-owned vacant lot.
Now, Smith is planning to reopen his shop, Gee’s Clippers, after the Department of City Development changed its position and agreed to convert the vacant lot from a proposed development site into a metered parking lot.
The department’s more flexible approach could bring other parking lots to Milwaukee neighborhoods where there’s a need for more off-street parking to serve businesses.
Meanwhile, Smith is looking forward to a return this fall to King Drive, where the shop will supplement his Gee’s Clippers location at 4327 W. Fond du Lac Ave. His building at 2215 N. King Drive has been empty since the barber shop closed in October 2010, with Smith unable to find a buyer or a tenant for the space.
“It’s just been draining me,” Smith said Wednesday.
Smith opened his Fond du Lac Ave. shop in 1995. He added the King Drive location in December 2006, part of an increase in commercial activity in the Bronzeville area. Smith said he spent around $400,000 to buy and renovate the 3,750-square-foot building.
While there was limited street parking, Smith figured the empty lot just north of his shop could be used for parking. But the city, which acquired the lot in 2007, wanted to attract development to the property, and refused to use it for parking.
Smith understood the Department of City Development’s approach. But 80% of his clients were driving to the shop from beyond the nearby neighborhoods, and Gee’s Clippers was losing business because of the lack of parking.
So, Smith expanded his Fond du Lac Ave. shop, and closed the King Drive shop.
“It just wasn’t working,” Smith said.
Meanwhile, the city failed in its repeated attempts to attract developers to the vacant lot.
With requests from Ald. Milele Coggs and the King Drive business operators for more parking, Mayor Tom Barrett “told me to be more flexible,” said Development Commissioner Rocky Marcoux.
That’s resulted in the city Redevelopment Authority proposing a 51-space parking lot on its property. The city Board of Zoning Appeals will review that request at its Thursday meeting.
Smith said he plans to lease 16 to 18 spaces for his customers, with the remaining metered spaces available for the general public. Those lease terms haven’t yet been negotiated. Smith also said he recently paid off overdue property tax bills to the city, which accumulated mainly after he closed the King Drive shop.
Good urban design practices call for encouraging development on vacant lots, Marcoux said.
But, in this case, the parking lot is needed not just to help Gee’s Clippers, but other nearby properties, said Marcoux and Coggs.
That includes Paje Restaurant and Lounge, just south of the barber shop, as well as vacant storefronts on the block, Coggs said.
“All of the research shows there needs to be more parking over there,” she said.
There may be other parking lots created as needed on a case-by-case basis, Marcoux said. But, he added, “I’m not saying every vacant lot is going to be turned into a parking lot.”
Smith is eager to reopen, and bring activity back to his King Drive shop, which has 20 barber chairs. He’s looking to hire some barbers.
“I’m not used to having empty chairs,” he said.
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