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Community-Driven Urban Design

Lawrence Witzling and the changing face of Milwaukee

Jun. 13, 2017
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Larry Witzling

In the late 1950s, freeways dominated the vision of what Downtown Milwaukee would look like 60 years into the future. A steel-and-concrete ring would surround the area and connect to major traffic arteries that pumped suburban workers into a city that had been largely divested of its residential population. The lake and rivers, of questionable value in the post-industrial era, would be disconnected from the city, with the great spaces of parkland along the waterfront accessible primarily by highway exit ramps. This separation would be offset by the creation of artificial greenspaces, some built atop underground parking structures that would fill lots vacated by the removal of unsightly former industrial buildings or underused and dated public halls like the Pabst Theater.

This frightful scenario might have come to fruition if not for the efforts of forward-thinking urban planners like Lawrence Witzling. Recently, Witzling was honored for his lifetime of work as the 2017 recipient of the American Planning Association’s prestigious National Planning Excellence Award for Planning Pioneers.

Although he has overseen major projects all across the nation, Witzling’s greatest impact has been in Milwaukee. He arrived in the city in 1972 as a graduate of Cornell University. He chose Milwaukee because he wanted to be in a “nitty-gritty working-class city” to contrast with his Manhattan upbringing and small-town college days.

 

Reimagining Milwaukee’s Lakefront

As a member of UW-Milwaukee’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning (SARUP), Witzling first got involved in civic matters with the East Side Housing Coalition (ESHAC) and their fight against the widening of Locust Street. The experience taught him how to sell community-driven ideas to the city and how to maneuver in local politics. Soon after, he became involved in the planning that led to the creation of O’Donnell Park on the lakefront. The park had an enormous impact on the public perception of the lakefront. “At the time,” Witlzing said, “it was transformational. Because it changed everybody’s attitude about the lakefront. They looked at the lakefront and all of a sudden realized, ‘This could be a really incredible place.’”

One of the most difficult aspects of planning, according to Witzling, is getting people to be able to “visualize change.” This was a major obstacle in redeveloping the Menomonee Valley, one of his most impactful projects. In the 1970s, the Valley was highly visible, but rarely visited. During the rebuilding of the 16th Street viaduct, the bridge was designed to ramp down into the Valley, greatly improving access to the area and helping passersby to engage with the land in a way they could not before.

“He is the consummate urban planner,” Said Michael W. Hatch, a partner at Foley & Lardner long-time board president of the Menomonee Valley Partners. “He has always been able to offer creative suggestions, effectively assimilate large volumes of information, and produce thoughtful, interesting, effective and successful plans. Milwaukee is a better place because of all that Larry has done here.”

Witzling’s mixed-use vision for the Valley was a part of his larger philosophy of connecting the areas in which people live, work and play to minimize the reliance on automobiles and parking. In explaining this, he cites a minor Milwaukee landmark that often goes unnoticed—the handsome stone bus stop bench built into the corner of the former Allen-Bradley factory at the corner of West Greenfield Avenue and South First Street. “[At one time], the factory, transit, housing, retail … were all integrated.” Witzling said. “The bars across the street were also part of the houses across the street. I think that’s a kind of reindustrialization process that Milwaukee could and should embrace.”

 

Removing the Park East Freeway

More recently, Witzling was a part of the team that secured the removal of the Park East Freeway, a move that opened up huge swaths of the north end of the Downtown for development. “We all knew that once that freeway came down, it would completely change not just the perceived opportunity for the land underneath it, but the neighborhoods around it,” Witzling said. The removal of the freeway also created a greater linkage between the Brady Street neighborhood and the nightlife of Water Street. Expansions and improvements to the Riverwalk have connected these areas to the rapidly developing Walker’s Point area. And, Witzling hopes, further development will link that to the vast possibilities of the city’s little-utilized Inner Harbor.

Witzling has hardly worked alone in these many projects. He was quick to cite the guidance and help of others and stressed that urban planning is very much a team endeavor. In the offices of the GRAEF architecture and planning firm, which merged with Witzling’s Planning and Design Institute in 2008, Witzling can point out several of his former students now among his colleagues and clients.

Witzling has also had an enormous impact on UWM’s SARUP, where he taught for 40 years. “As a young faculty member, I broadened my understanding of urban design tremendously by teaching undergraduate studios that Larry coordinated,” said SARUP professor James Wasley. “Larry’s contribution to both the School of Architecture and Urban Planning and to the City’s ongoing redevelopment have been invaluable.”

It was the optimism of planners like Witzling and their undying belief in the importance of the American city that helped to save Milwaukee from the future that the late 1950s projected. Looking forward, Witzling is confident that the rush of Millennials to urban areas is not a fad and that recent developments, like the city streetcar line, will drive Milwaukee’s development over the next half-century.

Continuing the push forward will not be easy, Witzling said, but he maintains his faith in Milwaukee. “I see the city as always having had enormous eternal conflict and still managing to do great things,” he said. “So when you hear people say that you can’t get anything done because of all the adversarial stuff, I don’t buy it. If you do good planning and good thinking you can find your way in and around all of that.”

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