Low-income public housing projects used to be thought of as islands, often cut off from the rest of city life. They were densely populated, high-rise apartment complexes, often troubled by gangs, drugs and other criminal activities. But over the last decade or two, public housing design has shifted. High rises are giving way to a more neighborhood-based approach.
Case in point is the 65-year-old Westlawn Gardens, on Milwaukee's northwest side, where work is proceeding on a mixed-income development that features not only living space, but is being developed in partnership with area businesses and education leaders.
"This is the largest public housing site in the state of Wisconsin, and so transforming that makes a difference not just for the residents there, but in the larger neighborhood and the city at large," says Murphy Antoine, one of the people shaping the new direction of Westlawn. Antoine is an architect and planner with the Maryland-based firm, Torti Gallas and Partners.
And, Warren Jones is the vice president of construction for Milwaukee’s Travaux, Incorporated, one of companies involved in the redevelopment. He says it's important to get the key stakeholders in the neighborhood involved in the planning stages, so they feel like part of the revitalization effort.
"There was a four-day charette - or planning session - where all parties were invited to the table to discuss what was needed, what was wanted, how people felt about their neighborhood... As long as people know what's coming, they can prepare for it. If you spring something on them that they don't expect, that's really a precursor for failure," he says.
There are some obstacles to the redevelopment, many of which stem from the way Westlawn Gardens was originally designed. The superblocks, which separate public housing from other parts of the city, and lack of delineation between private and public spaces are just a couple. Beyond overcoming these existing issues, Antoine says the Housing Authority also wanted to ensure the redevelopment plans would make Westlawn Gardens "as green as possible."
Antoine says, "Westlawn Gardens, in a lot of ways leads, even market rate development in that aspect. It's highly energy efficient, from the insulation ratings of roofs and walls to the systems that go into them."