With the creation of its newest housing project, the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee has literally demolished the idea of cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all public housing.
The 60-year-old bunker-style houses of Westlawn have been ousted by the townhouses and mid-rises of the LEED-ND Silver-certified Westlawn Gardens. The development provides mixed-income housing that combines green technology with social equality.
LOCATION Milwaukee, WI Program Mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood development
Size 37 acres
Certification LEED for Homes Platinum, LEED-ND Silver (phase 3)
Selected Awards 2014 Congress for New Urbanism Charter Award, Best Suburban Retrofit; 2014 American Planning Association WI Chapter Implementation Award; Milwaukee Mayor’s Design Award 2013
Cost $82 million
DEVELOPER Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee
Owner Westlawn Renaissance
Architect Torti Gallas and Partners, Kindness Architecture + Planning Construction Manager Hunzinger Construction Company
Civil Engineer Norris & Associates; R.A. Smith National
Structural Engineer Arnold and O’Sheridan
MEP Engineer IBC Engineering Services
Landscape Architect Schreiber Anderson Associates
Contractors Vanguard Construction, Horizon Design Build Manage, Rawson Contractors, Stark Asphalt, Rams Contracting, Altius Building Company
Glass Systems B&D Contractors
Cast Stone Rockridge Cast Stone
Roofing Watry Homes Waterproofing Zander Solutions, Hillside Damproofing
Acoustical Ceilings Badger Acoustic
Lighting Dairyland Electric Co.
HVAC Butters-Fetting, HVA Products, MRW-Action Heating & Cooling (joint venture)
Phase 1 of Westlawn Gardens was completed in 2012 with 250 public housing units. Phase 2 will begin this year with six additional blocks of market-rate housing. “We’ve found the most stable neighborhoods are mixed-income neighborhoods,” says Paul Williams, the communications coordinator for the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee (HACM). “You have a variety of households that bring increased diversity to the neighborhood. You’re not creating an island of poverty.”
Mixed-income neighborhoods, so the current thinking goes, encourage economic growth and development. “That income diversity helps to stabilize the community,” Williams says. “We see additional retailers come into the neighborhood: grocery stores and restaurants that are providing healthier foods because people can afford them.” Those retailers bring employment opportunities with them as well.
Convincing middle-income families to move into a neighborhood primarily made up of public housing would be a hard sell in most parts of the country. “Public housing traditionally looks like several blocks of buildings that are exactly the same,” Williams says. “We wanted to change that and create the appearance of a community that has developed over time and that mimics the surrounding neighborhood.”
The ideals of New Urbanism and the LEED-ND guidelines were major design influences for the new development. Twelve different building designs were used, each employing up to three styles and sixteen color and material schemes. Altogether, 156 single-family homes were constructed. The main entrance to the development passes between two mid-rise buildings designed to house 94 senior citizens and disabled adults.
Tony Pérez, secretary executive director of HACM, likens the community to a bowerbird. “The bowerbird is all about trinkets, and the more trinkets the male has, the more the female is attracted [to him],” he says. “So we’re trying to be the bowerbird with our trinkets and attract [residents].” Yet “trinkets” may be a misnomer; what Pérez is talking about is world-class, sustainable amenities. Westlawn Gardens is designed for walkability. Public transit is easily accessible on three sides, and a retail corridor lines the neighborhood to the north. Bioswales and rain gardens divert runoff and also beautify the neighborhood’s roadways. The development is the first neighborhood in Milwaukee to employ LED street lights, and the Milwaukee Public Library has installed the first vending library in the entire Midwest.
To the south, Lincoln Creek runs along a new park and community garden where 84 raised beds, including six that are handicap accessible, provide an opportunity for residents to grow their own produce and socialize with neighbors. A stone amphitheater installed in the park hosts classes on topics such as healthy eating and food preparation. “Some folks are going to be interested in moving here because of what it represents,” Pérez says. “And others may just want a healthy home with clean air for their families.”
The efforts of HACM don’t stop when construction ends. “Our core mission involves providing safe, affordable housing, but we also provide a range of programs and services that help increase quality of life and help individuals move toward self-sufficiency,” Williams says. Past accomplishments include the Central City Cyberschool; developed by HACM to serve the residents of its Parklawn development, it is one of the top-performing charter elementary schools in the city today. At Westlawn Gardens, a longstanding partnership exists with the Silver Spring Neighborhood Center. Centrally located in the development, the neighborhood center provides youth services, teen programming, adult education classes, and recreation facilities. Two public schools and a nursing center run by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee also operate out of the building.
“It has always been our goal to have 20 percent of construction contracts go towards emerging businesses,” Williams says, referencing HACM’s Emerging Business Enterprise Program, which supports the growth of women- and minority-owned companies. “We’ve been able to exceed that goal dramatically at Westlawn Gardens.”
While tension between socioeconomic groups has plagued mixed-income developments in Chicago and New York City, Milwaukee has been able to successfully integrate diverse groups of people. “We create housing where you can’t tell whether a resident is low, middle, or high income,” Williams says. “We strive to build neighborhoods that anyone would want to live in.”
That standard of quality, combined with easily accessible community spaces, is what generates Milwaukee’s stable mixed-income developments. “You have to be deliberate in creating spaces and common areas so folks have a better chance of actually saying ‘good morning’ to their neighbor,” Pérez says. “Or, ‘Hey, I didn’t see your kid yesterday in school.’ And once in a while, maybe a child doesn’t really understand that his buddy on the playground is economically in a divergent world. So now, guess who’s coming to dinner? I think it’s a beautiful thing.”