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Home / Construction / ON THE LEVEL: Over course of long career, Witzling helped transform Milwaukee

ON THE LEVEL: Over course of long career, Witzling helped transform Milwaukee

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Want a telltale sign of whether a neighborhood is reviving?

“When you go into urban coffee shops, one of the things I look for are how many strollers are in the coffee shop,” said Larry Witzling, who taught architecture and urban design at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for nearly 40 years.

“If you see strollers, it means young families are showing up,” Witzling said. “That’s always a sign that things are moving forward.”

It’s an insight Witzling began developing as a child, when he started his own informal education about architecture and urban planning on the subways around New York City.

“I was 10 riding the subway,” Witzling said. “My father would tell me he was riding the subway when he was 6. Now, nobody does that. … But when you live in a suburb and there are no bike trails and no walking trails and you can’t drive, what do you learn? If you live in the city and you can take the bus or the subway or the L, you get to learn things.”

From his seat out of Stuyvesant, a post-World War II housing development with nearly 10,000 apartments, Witzling learned how very different places can be from each other.

“Stuyvesant was like a white middle class suburb in the middle of Manhattan,” Witzling explained. “And we lived on the edge of this major housing development. So, part of the day, I would be in the playgrounds inside this enclave and, part of the day, I would be outside in Manhattan. I think as I grew older, the dichotomy, even though I didn’t realize it, was kind of disturbing.”

In fact, Witzling said, it most likely helped make him the architect he is today.

“I think people are profoundly impacted, if not shaped, by the communities in which they live,” Witzling said. “And if those communities are designed in a way that allows them to perceive more opportunity, more diversity, it can improve their lives. I try to help communities to create more opportunities to understand, appreciate and live in their communities.”

It’s a philosophy he put into practice shortly after arriving in Milwaukee in 1973, when he first learned of plans to widen Locust Avenue.

Residents were concerned a boulevard-like thoroughfare would split the neighborhood, known today as Riverwest. Witzling helped develop a plan to prevent that.

“That was the first time I realized, when you do urban planning, it isn’t just abstract,” he said. “It isn’t just removed from people’s lives. It has a very direct power, impact on people. And that’s when I realized you could really do things that changed people’s lives.”

Before retiring from UW-Milwaukee in 2015, Witzling made it a point to foster that same sense of possibility in his students. He has also spent decades putting his ideas into practice, first as the founder of the Planning and Design Institute in 1989 and, more recently, as a principal at Graef, which took over PDI in 2008.

Throughout his career, Witzling has helped take down the Park East freeway, worked on the O’Donnell Park parking structure and witnessed the unprecedented transformation of the city’s all-but abandoned Third Ward – a student project Witzling doubted would ever take off.

“When my student said, ‘I’m going to show how to revitalize the Third Ward,’ I said, ‘I don’t think that’s going to happen. The Third Ward is over and done.’ I had an office in the Third Ward, and I would watch them squash tomatoes. And, when I moved out, it was valet parking.”

These days, Witzling is working on plans for flood mitigation in the Kinnickinnic watershed, revitalization along National Avenue in West Allis and the development of the medical center in Wauwatosa – all projects he hopes will fuel a resurgence of urban redevelopment in and around Milwaukee County.

“When you make these changes, they reverberate for years,” Witzling said. “…For a kid who grew up in the middle of Manhattan, this is all second nature to me. That rediscovery of the values of urban life isn’t going away. It’s really all about the kind of reinvention, and how we do it.”

The Daily Reporter: When you have a bad day, what keeps you coming back to work?

Larry Witzling: When we don’t get a job, I always feel bad, and what gets me coming back is waiting two days. I’ve learned that when we do a project and I’m unsatisfied, I usually get over it in two days. It just takes a little time.

TDR: What is the most useful thing you’ve learned since starting your job?

Witzling: Two things. First, my wife is usually right when I ask her about these things. And the other answer is: I’ve learned, as a planner, when you try to think about the future, you have to be a bit audacious; you have to stretch. But you have to be humble, and that balance is very difficult.

TDR: What is the one luxury item you cannot live without?

Witzling: I have two. One is the electric pencil sharpener; I always draw with a number two pencil and, boy, is that wonderful! And the second is not an item, it’s travel; I’ve been to Europe two or three times. I’ve been to half the states.

TDR: What do you miss most about your childhood?

Witzling: Walking through Central Park.

TDR: How would your mother describe you in one word?

Witzling: I think it’s curious.

TDR: What was your first concert?

Witzling: I have two answers. One is when I think I just turned 13 my parents took me to a couple of Broadway shows. I saw ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ with Dick van Dyke. Then, when I was 18, I went to hear ‘The Magic Flute’ in Austria.

TDR: What song or podcast is in heavy rotation for you right now?

Witzling: I don’t have any.

TDR: What do you consider your biggest achievement? Why?

Witzling: It was Locust Street. What the transportation engineers of the day wanted to do was widen Locust Street, so you drive on a widened boulevard, four lanes all the way from Holton to the lakefront where you would then get on Lincoln Memorial Drive and drive south and get on the freeway. That became the Hoan Bridge. The people I was working with realized the best people who could stop widening Locust west of the river were the people who lived east of the river. They explained that if the street got widened to the west, it would probably be expanded to the east. That was one neighborhood, and it needed to stay intact. And of course taking down the Park East freeway was very big.

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