Casey Studhalter

The Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee has proven that sustainable, supportive and healthy communities aren’t limited to the nation’s top zip codes or tony neighborhoods.  The Westlawn Gardens redevelopment project in Milwaukee, Wisconsin has earned the highest level of certification for any LEED 2009 for Neighborhood Development (LEED ND) built project for redeveloping a severely distressed public housing project into an award winning, mixed-income community.  The Housing Authority’s leadership has also won Westlawn Gardens a number of accolades.  Not only is it the highest rated LEED ND v2009 built project, it is also the first LEED ND certification in the state of Wisconsin of any stripe, includes the first LEED for Homes Platinum certification in Milwaukee, was awarded a 2012 Affordable Green Neighborhoods grant by USGBC, and received a Charles L Edson Tax Credit Award in 2013.  All of this in a section of Milwaukee with housing stock that was previously described as “severely distressed” and as having a “negative impact on the surrounding community”.

The Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee (HACM) has offered low and moderate income residents the opportunity to live in safe, clean and affordable housing since 1944.  One of their main goals is to inject a greater diversity of incomes into their sites while not sacrificing much needed, deeply subsidized rental units.  Just as a diversity of uses and transit options helps to support a neighborhood’s vibrancy, resiliency and sustainability, a diversity of incomes supports a more diverse and equitable community and can even be harnessed to help finance additional affordable units.  This project represents the first phase of redevelopment on this site and includes 250 units total with 25% reserved for families earning up to 60% AMI and the remainder reserved for those only earning up to 50% AMI.  The next phase will provide for market rate and mixed-income units in an effort to minimize displacement.

“This innovative project represents a new vision for sustainable and affordable housing projects.  Westlawn Gardens is a true example of how social, environmental and financial sustainability can be achieved within a public housing project’s limited budget.  It proves that even low- and moderate-income communities can vibrantly revitalize themselves through smart growth and appropriate design choices.” - Tom Barrett, Mayor of Milwaukee

Westlawn Gardens is a 24 acre redevelopment of the eastern portion of the former Westlawn public housing development in northwest Milwaukee.  It was awarded a LEED ND, Stage 3 Silver certification in October 2013.  The project includes a mixture of multifamily buildings, townhomes and single-family homes accommodating over 300 residents, all of which are already 100% leased.  The neighborhood includes a number of sustainable features, including a 30,000 square foot community garden and sustainable food production program run by a local non-profit, a geothermal heat exchange system for the apartment buildings, rain gardens and bioswales for onsite stormwater retention, weather-resistant low maintenance exterior finishes and a reconnected street grid that supports walkability.  Its location is entirely previously developed, an infill site and is well served by public transit.  The multiple transit lines serving the project ensure that all of the building entrances are within walking distance to 738 weekday and 488 weekend trips.  This service was enough to earn the project seven points under SLLc3, Reduced Automobile Dependence.  The townhouses are all individually metered to allow residents full control and responsibility for family energy costs.  All units have been constructed so as to allow for the potential future installation of photovoltaic panels and cool roofs have been deployed on the mid-rise multifamily buildings.  One entire block contains 14 homes designed and constructed as “Healthy Homes” with interior features and exterior landscaping designed to reduce exposure to indoor allergens for persons with asthma or allergies.  Within the project, one of the single family homes was awarded a LEED for Homes Platinum certification also in late 2013.  While only one of the homes pursued formal certification due to financial constraints, all of the other 155 homes within the project were built to the same specifications. 

Beyond the bricks and mortar, the Housing Authority has fully engaged the community in every planning process regarding the redevelopment and earned the full two points under NPDc12, Community Outreach and Involvement.  A series of nine public meetings were held to gain public input prior to the project’s commencement, each in a handicapped accessible location with bi-lingual signage and staff, sign-language interpreters, child care and transportation for those in need.  Once occupied, the Westlawn Garden Resident Council meets each month and provides guidance for development activities, procedures and is a conduit for community concerns.  The format is also used to build resident capacity and train those interested in the principles of governance.

We are tremendously proud of the positive recognition this neighborhood has received, not only locally, but from national experts in housing development.  This neighborhood is innovative, environmentally sustainable, and ready for more development by those interested in taking advantage of our many amenities.” – Tony Perez, Housing Authority Secretary-Executive Director

Westlawn Gardens’ redevelopment was made possible by a partnership with PNC Bank, tax credits delivered by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and awarded through the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, and financial support from the City of Milwaukee, Fund for Lake Michigan, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, and other sources.  As a recipient of a 2012 Affordable Green Neighborhoods grant award by USGBC, the project team received a modest financial award in addition to technical assistance and an educational award package to support their pursuit of LEED-ND certification.  Westlawn Gardens was the first of 10 projects awarded in 2012 to achieve a stage of certification and one of few overall who have achieved Stage 3 certification as a fully built project.

There is no question that Westlawn Gardens is an exemplary LEED ND project.  The location and features embody good design and planning but we can’t forget about the people who live there.  Westlawn Gardens shows that well located, healthy and sustainable communities can be built for everyone.  Congratulations to the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee and residents of the Westlawn neighborhood.