Built in the early ‘50s on former farmland on the outer edges of Milwaukee, the Westlawn public housing project was a product of its era. A 75-acre array of humble brick-and-frame structures made with Chicago pink brick, the development was simple and straightforward.
“I’ve heard them called barrack-style,” says Warren Jones, the vice president of construction for the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee (HACM). “That’s really how they were.”
Lined with multicolored town homes and new streetscaping, the area looks radically different today. After deferred maintenance and occasional flooding made it clear the old postwar structures required more than an upgrade, Milwaukee decided simple renovations wouldn’t be enough. The ongoing demolition, redesign, and rebuilding of Wisconsin’s largest public housing community hasn’t just created a new place to live. Though innovative, community-oriented planning and design, Westlawn has, supporters hope, become a model for rebuilding neighborhoods.
“One of the things we really want to emphasize here is that this isn’t your father or mother’s public housing,” says Jones. “This is now a place that anybody would like to live.”
The redevelopment of Westlawn, which just won the American Planning Association’s Opportunity and Empowerment Award, showcases how public housing, and the public’s perception of such housing, can be reimagined and reoriented.
The first phase, which rebuilt the eastern section of Westlawn, re-opened in 2012. Home to an array of mixed-income housing, the new development was deliberately designed with varying styles and facades to avoid a depressing sense of sameness, as well as community gardens, walking paths, gazebos, and even narrowed streets to promote better pedestrian accessibility, healthy living, and community engagement.
Even more important, the project applied hard-earned lessons from past public housing projects, and started from a holistic blueprint. Sustainable construction and site planning will reduce long-term maintenance costs and save the HACM money over the long-term. A 2015 Choice Neighborhood Grant from the Department of Housing and Urban development, which funds neighborhood programs as well as social support initiatives for residents, will, over time, contribute $30 million towards a number of community programs.
“We moved from a place very identifiable as a neighborhood that was outdated and under-resourced, that had the stigma of poverty, to a great neighborhood,” says Paul Williams, the Choice Neighborhood Initiative Coordinator. “It’s about stronger connections and social cohesion, and building relationships to address important issues.”
Using the lessons of the past on the housing of the future
Like many mid-century public housing developments, Westlawn was initially condsidered a solid place to live. The decent but small units didn’t have all the creature comforts, but with basements and hardwood floors, they were more than livable.
Over time, the shortfalls in the initial design and construction became clear, and poor management and disinvestment created a story line of decline all too common in similar projects across the U.S. Westlawn’s original layout, superblocks isolated from surrounding streets, cut off the community and contributed to isolation. Repeated flooding led to cracks and defects in basements and building foundations. Without significant maintenance, the first iteration of Westlawn aged poorly.
When HACM started discussing what to do with the buildings in the early 2000s, demolition and rebuilding seemed like the smart option. Jones says the authority’s approach was to incorporate the lessons of the past into the neighborhood of the future. Along with architects Torti Gallas + Partners, and community input from a week-long design charrette in 2009, the HACM pushed for plans that prioritized accessibility and sustainability.
The new plan ended up being a better fit on multiple levels. Bioswales helped properly treat and divert stormwater, and reduce flooding. The entire 75-acre site, which includes a pharmacy, retail incubator space, neighborhood center and community gardens, was made to be more connected. Built with LED lighting, better materials, the new homes achieved a higher level of efficiency and lower energy costs. One of the early buildings was even certified LEED Platinum.
“We want to make these the most energy-efficient buildings that we can,” says Jones. “We don’t want to give tenants with lower incomes an energy bill that makes it unaffordable for them to stay.”
Making a long-lasting community connection
Westlawn’s second phase, which includes Victory Manor, a 60-unit apartment complex, and a series of 30 separate townhouse units, broke ground last year, and should reopen in early 2019. When the entire 958-unit project is complete at an expected cost of $260 million, Westlawn will represent a reimagining of a significant swath of northwestern Milwaukee.
But the overall neighborhood redevelopment won’t stop when the constructions crews go home. The Choice Neighborhoods Grant will fund numerous initiatives with local schools, community groups, and even businesses to help residents access new opportunities.
“Using the redevelopment of public housing as a foundation is a key element,” says Williams. “It allows us to have an impact on the quality of life in so many ways.“
Additional community programing began a few years ago with case managers, who helped guide and assist long-time residents who had temporary moved away during demolition and construction. It will continue with engagement with the surrounding school system as well as a retail analysis and expanded efforts to bring new businesses to Westlawn.
It’s already paid off. The Milwaukee Bucks, the city’s NBA team, and Johnson Controls, an international industrial firm with headquarters a mile away from Westlawn, partnered to invest in a multi-sport complex for the neighborhood, and a new training center for students and adults seeking careers in the health industry is taking shape in the area. Milwaukee’s Redevelopment Authority committed to making $1 million in small business loans, while HACM donated bicycles so local police could increase beat patrols.
Williams believes the synthesis—an investment in better buildings and projects meant to kick-start economic and social connections in the neighborhood—can have a ripple effect. Better integrated into nearby neighborhoods, Westlawn can hopefully become a case study for community development, and show that improving housing is about more than just the homes.