Banners mark the old Wisconsin Route 41.

Street cred

UWM students in the Community Design Solutions program develop plan to refresh Milwaukee’s 27th Street.

Cars zoom through the stretch of South 27th Street that overlaps Milwaukee and Greenfield, an aging commercial corridor with big-box retailers, small businesses, auto dealerships, restaurants and strip malls. Behind the businesses, their bordering neighborhoods are often separated from the bustle by Wilson Creek, a veritable trickle that flows within a wide, concrete-lined ditch.

But locals and UWM students are envisioning a different future for the area. It includes restoring Wilson Creek to a natural waterway, one with pedestrian bridges linking residents to 27th Street and its mainstays like Mazos Hamburgers and the Marcus Southgate Cinema. Parts of the byway would be revamped to become more pedestrian-friendly and attractive to visitors.

It’s one of the Community Design Solutions program’s latest projects. Based in the School of Architecture and Urban Planning, the program has completed more than 250 similar endeavors since SARUP dean Bob Greenstreet started it in 2000.

The program brings architecture students and staff together with nonprofit agencies, cities, neighborhood associations and other clientele. It’s a collaborative partnership that develops design solutions to promote change and encourage investment, says Carolyn Esswein, the program’s director.

For this project, CDS worked with the South 27th Street Business Association, which is supported by the departments of development in Milwaukee and Greenfield. They want to refresh this historic commercial corridor, which had sprung up in the 1950s along Route 41, a main transportation link to Chicago.

The architecture students, led by December 2016 graduate Anna Doran, researched traffic counts, demographics and employment near 27th Street between Oklahoma and Layton avenues. They also conducted focus groups with residents, business owners and others.

Then they held an all-day planning and brainstorming session, called a charrette by architects, to develop a vision for the area. Professional architects from six local firms offered plans for segments of the corridor, revising them with feedback from residents, developers, investors, city officials and other interested groups.

“It’s interesting see how professional architects handle it when they’re faced with four or five interested parties, all wanting something else from a project,” says Bill Noelck, a CDS team manager who’s seeking his master’s degree in architecture.

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District also was involved, and it already had long-term plans to return Wilson Creek to its natural state, removing the concrete channel it now flows through. The designers suggested adding more vegetation, pedestrian bridges and terraced plazas for public gatherings.

As for 27th Street itself, suggestions included developing mixed-use complexes containing apartments and retail businesses, as well as unifying signage and building fronts within existing strip malls.

CDS also noted that moving parking lots behind some businesses would enhance pedestrian access to them. How everything comes together depends on investment and financing.

But Esswein and the project’s constituents say having a master plan will make it easier.

“The ideas that came out of the charrette for that site are incredible,” says Julio Maldonado, executive director of the South 27th Street Business Association during the project. “This has laid a foundation and given us an overview of what can be done.”