Without a redesign, Milwaukee’s Westlawn housing project will do little to encourage growth and development of its surrounding neighborhood.
The 75-acre campus stretches between 68th and 60th streets on the southern border of Silver Spring Drive. With 726 housing units, 709 of which are occupied, Westlawn is Wisconsin’s largest public housing project.
Built in 1952, its repetitive brick buildings and lack of connection to the street grid make it difficult to attract new businesses to the area and to integrate its residents into the surrounding neighborhoods, such as Havenwoods to the north, said Stephanie Harling, executive director of the Havenwoods Economic Development Corp., an area nonprofit.
“The physical design of Westlawn (as it is), is an island in and of itself,” Harling said. “It is shut off from the surrounding area. There is no integration.
“New development takes all of that into consideration. You don’t isolate low-income. You integrate.”
The first challenge of the city’s long-term plan to redevelop all of Westlawn is replacing the old design with one with 21st century appeal. The Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee, which owns Westlawn, is meeting with area residents to devise a redevelopment plan.
A first consideration is reconnecting Westlawn to the city street grid, said Bobbi Marsells, assistant secretary of the housing authority. The street grid unravels around the development. Only five streets run into the campus.
“It tells people that this is part of the community,” Marsells said about reconnecting the streets. “Otherwise, when you hit these cul de sacs, it tells people ‘don’t come through here unless you have business here.’”
And business – commercial business – is precisely what Havenwoods wants to attract to Silver Spring Drive.
Modern urban design emphasizes connecting people through the use of elements such as front porches, Harling said. Westlawn has none of that.
“There’s more consideration in modern development, I think, to how people are engaging each other,” she said. “How they are engaging the street. More attention to safety.”
Marsells said she sees an opportunity to replace the old brick residences along the busy commercial strip of Silver Spring Drive with businesses. She said there are ample opportunities to partner with private developers for the redevelopment, but at this point there are no details about how the project will be done.
The plan is to rebuild Westlawn with more housing units, Marsells said. The housing authority will help residents find other homes during reconstruction by offering rental assistance, shifting them to parts of Westlawn that are not under construction, or possibly moving them into renovated foreclosed houses in the surrounding area, she said. Residents will have the option to move back into Westlawn after construction is complete, she said.
In an effort to better integrate public housing residents, the city also wants to develop single-family houses that fit with the area, Marsells said.
The city applied for a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant this year to tear down 56 housing units in Westlawn’s southeastern corner for a demonstration project. The city would build environmentally friendly single-family homes, then solicit feedback on the design from residents, Marsells said. Giving residents a building to tour results in better planning than giving them plans to review, Marsells said. The housing authority used the same approach with success when it redeveloped the Hillside Terrace public housing project into a more modern neighborhood with single-family homes, she said.
Redeveloping all of Westlawn will be a bigger challenge. The city hired Maryland-based Torti Gallas and Partners Inc. to develop a new design for Westlawn. But the scale of the reconstruction project has prompted the city to seek federal help. The housing authority on Sept. 9 will hold a public meeting to discuss plans to apply for a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development HOPE VI grant to pay for the project.