Planners help Milwaukee housing project fit in
By Jessica Stephen
When neighbors learned about an affordable housing project along historic Lincoln Avenue, the biggest concern wasn’t necessarily the mentally ill and formerly homeless people who would be moving into their south side Milwaukee neighborhood.
“I think that the biggest issue was: Would it block the view of The Basilica of St. Josaphat? Because the basilica is such an icon in the neighborhood,” said Gene Guszkowski, senior principal with AG Architecture Inc., Wauwatosa.
Guszkowski grew up on the south side of Milwaukee and knew well the historic feel of Lincoln Avenue, so he gladly joined the Empowerment Village-Lincoln project. The project includes 30 one-bedroom units and an activity center for people with special needs.
But the project faced neighborhood skepticism from the beginning.
“It was contentious at times,” Guszkowski said. “People were looking for a CVS or a Walgreens.”
Neighbors warmed to the housing project after planners promised to incorporate the historic archways, parapets and big bay windows that architecturally define Lincoln Avenue.
Planners also performed 3-D studies to make sure views of the basilica would not be blocked. And they worked with the adjacent building owner to make sure no harm came to the Cream City Brick structure immediately next door.
That didn’t mean an end to problems, however.
Demolishing the funeral home next door exposed some failing bricks, which were fixed. The new building design, a three-story façade with a complete fourth floor, also increased the snowdrift load and blocked ventilation on the neighbor’s property.
“We had to actually build a new structural roof system and, of course, put a new roof on top of that while the building was occupied,” said John Thode, director of development with Horizon Construction LLC, the general contractor on the project.
The new building’s basement also was lower than the adjacent building, which was a special challenge because the site was so tight.
“It was almost like we were cutting under the footings on that building, so we had to stabilize the footings and we had zero lot line on three sides,” Thode said. “We were right up to the sidewalk on two sides and right up to the alley on one side.”
Still, the challenges were well worth it.
“It’s a great project for the community,” Thode said. “It was done with a nonprofit organization that provides services to the mentally ill. The developer stuck his neck out to do this. These projects are not popular and they’re hard to fund.
They should be given credit for doing that for the community.”
— Jessica Stephen