Visioning urban revitalization

In spring 2007, a team of AG Architecture employees gathered to participate in a weekend charrette called “Aging in Community—A Senior Housing Ideas Competition.” This event was sponsored by the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee Community Design Solutions project and several local foundations and supported by city and state agencies, all of which focus on providing services for the city’s senior living population. The goal of the competition was to generate ideas—ideas that go beyond addressing the “supply and demands” of our ever-growing senior population. It aimed to generate innovative visions—visions offering unique solutions for combining housing with support services to create a better sense of community for the city’s senior population.

Teams representing eight local architectural firms were directed to focus their planning on four actual sites in Milwaukee. The objectives were to create opportunities to age in place, strengthen links to the larger community, nurture informal social supports, foster energy-conscious and sustainable design, and provide barrier-free settings.

Program guidelines were kept to a minimum in an effort to promote innovative and creative thinking, but teams were encouraged to provide solutions that represent “housing plus services.” The sponsors requested plans for 83- to 124-dwelling units and 17,969 to 29,948 square feet of community space across the various sites, and wanted the housing components to accommodate a range of residents—from those who live independently, to those needing some form of assistance. In addition, they wanted the units to be designed flexibly to accommodate changing needs. A range of unit density was provided for each site, along with a minimum parking standard of one car per unit of housing. The “services” portion of the guidelines was left open to the team’s interpretation, based on the needs of the site and surrounding community.

AG Architecture was assigned the Layton Boulevard Neighborhood at 27th Street and West National Avenue. Located in the heart of Milwaukee’s south side, it has served the city’s Polish population for more than 100 years. Recent decades, however, have seen a shift to serving other ethnicities, which has caused tensions that the plan attempted to address.

The following is adapted from AG’s submission to address the unique conditions of the Layton Boulevard site:

Welcome to Layton Station

Simply stated, our goal is to provide for those with lesser means the opportunity to age with grace and dignity. The provision for a variety of housing types that reflect a mix of income levels and physical capabilities is one part of the solution. The other part is the creation of spaces that encourage relationships to flourish through a diversity of services and activities that promote both community and security for those living on the site, as well as for those who live in the neighborhood.

As the team addressed the community-building portion of the project, the following details were considered non-negotiable and served as guidelines for the design process:

  • Achieve critical mass

  • Maintain generational, economic, and cultural diversity

  • Offer a variety of services

  • Create merchandising opportunities

  • Promote security

  • Articulate private zones vs. public zones

  • Facilitate aging in place

  • Encourage intergenerational and intercultural interaction

  • Provide linkages to the surrounding neighborhoods

In addition, the team identified key physical attributes they wanted to achieve within the community, including:

  • Diverse housing types

  • No back doors

  • Usable open space

  • Secure pedestrian circulation

  • Easy access to all services

  • Acknowledged vehicular use

With these guidelines and attributes under consideration, the following key elements shaped the solution:

Transportation center. The historical use of the site as a streetcar station and the concerns by the local residents for security led us to integrate public transportation into our solution. The design allowed for city buses to enter the site at a convenient location and also suggested “round-the-block” coverage along a new internal street that would be created for this project.

Housing. The first step was the inclusion of affordable, independent housing on the southeast corner of the site. A 12-story, urban renewal public housing tower would be replaced by a mid-rise structure serving the same population with more modern design. Meanwhile, the structure on the northeast corner would provide market-rate independent living in one- and two-bedroom apartments for residents 55 or older. The center building was designed to include an assisted living component, which would be affordable and would serve the two structures on both sides. The three buildings would be tied together on the first floor by a mix of community services and retail establishments—the classic “homes over stores” model. These would include possibly a police substation (for safety), an appropriately priced restaurant, and stores that would appeal not only to residents within the community, but in neighborhoods nearby. Finally, the west side of the property would be developed as cohousing for families—a new, more communal model being experimented with in various areas of the country, and reflecting the architectural scale and character of the surrounding neighborhood. Altogether, the end product has the potential to house a community of more than 180 residents.

Community services: Community services, including a wellness clinic, municipal offices, the police substation, and dining/kitchen spaces for a senior meal site, would be located off the main entry. Other community activity spaces included in the solution are a Head Start center and the spaces allotted for retail and resident-centered entrepreneurial uses.

Pedestrian street. An internal “pedestrian” street was incorporated to promote security, service delivery, and possible public transit use. The street promotes “no back doors” to keep the interior of the development safe and readily observable by other residents.

At the end of the weekend, among awards to various participating design firms, AG’s solution received a “WOW” award from the Milwaukee charrette judges for meeting multiple goals simultaneously.

Comments and Lessons Learned

Gene Guszkowski, AIA: “This charrette was asking the question, can something be developed that would appeal to and serve seniors at multiple levels of society in a revitalized urban development? We enjoyed the opportunity to demonstrate to our own community the skills we have developed working in the larger senior living community throughout the United States. Although the team had the opportunity to lay some groundwork ahead of the actual weekend of the charrette, 90% of what was produced was generated during a 48-hour period. During those two intense days, it was a joy to see our team members working closely while they quickly translated ideas and concepts that we use in our national practice and applied them in a viable fashion to a very localized challenge. The ultimate answers will take a public/private partnership and some time to achieve. But most developers know there is a need for this sort of program, it’s just a question of how to put it together. The answers will surely come as the issues grow larger in public consciousness.”

Russell McLaughlin, AIA, is on the staff of AG Architecture, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For further information, visit

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