Low-income residents help shape what could be one of the coolest places to live in Madison

MADISON, WI (Dean Mosiman) - After 50 years, the nonprofit Bayview Foundation is poised to launch a $50 million redevelopment of its diverse, international, low-income Downtown community, where residents played a central role in shaping what may become one of the coolest places to live in Madison.

Bayview, now 102 obsolete townhouses built in 1971 and a community center constructed in 1985 on 4.6 acres, is a rare oasis of low-cost housing in Madison. But the units are cramped, worn and inaccessible to seniors or those with disabilities, while the community center is bursting at the seams and unable to provide many of the services residents want.

The redevelopment, already approved by the city with fundraising nearly complete and construction to begin this spring, is part of the third incarnation of the much larger “Triangle” area bounded by South Park and Regent streets and West Washington Avenue, once the core of the low-income, multi-ethnic Greenbush neighborhood razed amid national urban renewal efforts in the 1960s.

The new development, a joint project by Bayview and Horizon Development Group, is bursting with color and public art and emphasizes environmental sustainability. It includes a four-story, 48-unit apartment building, a three-story, 25-unit apartment building and eight, two-story townhouses with a total 57 units.

One-bedroom units will allow more seniors to stay in the neighborhood, and the population density will increase 80% from 277 to 500 residents. The new community center will be expanded from 5,000 square feet now to 11,000 square feet, enabling it to serve 8,000 people annually, up from 5,000 today.

The grounds will offer a full-sized basketball court, playground, community gardens, a grassy common area, pavilion and other gathering spaces.

“I love the way they designed it,” said resident Pao Soua Xiong. “A lot of residents, I do think, are excited.”

Bayview executive director Alexis London said the site plan was devised through “extensive resident engagement” starting in 2018.

Ald. Tag Evers, 13th District, who represents the area, said he’s “thrilled” by what he’s seen in the plans.

“At first glance, it’s clear this is going to be flat-out beautiful, a far cry from the Lego-block architecture style we see so much of today,” he said. “Plus, the intentional choice to include multiple sustainable features is a signpost that calls attention to the essential steps we must take as a city to reach our climate goals.”

An international community

In the 1960s, many reluctant Triangle residents sold houses for just thousands of dollars only to witness the destruction of a place once known for its camaraderie and diversity. A grid of densely packed streets was replaced with low- and high-rise public housing in a park setting amid parking lots.

Today, the Triangle includes 321 housing units owned by the city’s Community Development Authority; the housing and community center owned by the Bayview Foundation, formed in 1966 to support culturally diverse, low-income families, many of them immigrant refugees from Southeast Asia; a small Asian grocery store; a UW Health clinic; and Select Specialty Hospital.

More than half of Bayview’s 277 residents are of Southeast Asian heritage, many of whom arrived directly from refugee camps after the Vietnam War or are direct descendants of those refugees. Just over a quarter are Latino, including many immigrants. About 14% are Black, including African Americans and African immigrants. The remaining 2% are of European and Native American ancestry.

“Bayview’s always been kind of a melting pot,” said Nanceny Fanny, an Edgewood College student who grew up there and returned to be an after-school elementary school program leader. “Your neighbor is like family.”

Nearly 80% of households qualify as extremely low income under federal guidelines, and another 15% are very low income. The average annual income of subsidized households is $15,277. Eligible residents pay 30% of their income on rent and utilities, with the rest of their rent federally subsidized. Currently, 93% of Bayview residents qualify for rent assistance.

“Bayview is a place where you can bring up kids,” said Nina Okwali, one of a dozen participants in Bayview Leaders, a leadership and community development program in the neighborhood. “Bayview has a lot of families from a lot of cultures, and we get along together very well.”

Resident aspirations

To bring change to such a place demanded a special process.

Bayview initially envisioned a $4 million investment to rehab the residences, plus more to improve its community center and build new housing units. But further study revealed rehabilitation of the buildings would be difficult, and the nonprofit proposed a broader redevelopment involving demolition and new construction.

To shape it, Bayview used a “design justice” process that engaged residents who are normally not consulted in such projects to better understand what the community needed and incorporate their wishes into the plans.

Meetings were conducted in English with simultaneous translation to Hmong and Spanish. On-site child care, snacks and beverages were provided. Resident leaders were paid with grant funds to participate in the design and sat through two rounds of interviews conducted in their preferred language. An advocacy group helped finalize plans for housing, the community center and the grounds.

“Bayview’s model is grounded in community building, not building buildings,” foundation president Mary Berryman Agard said. “That difference puts residents’ voices at the center of the design process. Unlike conventional affordable housing developments, we have started with our residents’ aspirations and built our plans on that foundation.

“We have accomplished this work using the same financing tools and methods nearly all affordable housing projects use, but we have applied those resources differently,” she said.

“It’s all about family,” Okwali said.

More than affordable housing

Residents voiced concerns about air conditioning, accessibility, parking, pest control and wet basements, a desire for better maintenance, programming for seniors and cross-cultural communication. They were consulted on floor plans, the layout of the outdoor areas, sidewalks, parking and community spaces.

Before the foundation board adopted a plan, it promised residents no subsidized household would see a rent increase and that no one would be asked to leave, including during construction, as a result of the project. With the new Bayview, 120 of 130 units will be subsidized and 10 will be market rate.

“The uniqueness, diversity, and history of the Bayview project gave us all an opportunity to think much more expansively, well beyond the bricks and mortar of new apartments and community center,” said Scott Kwiecinski, Horizon’s development manager. “Careful listening and creative thinking helped everyone involved create a plan that respects how residents and neighbors inhabit, use and experience the site.”

One of the goals, London said, is to prevent gentrification of the area.

“What’s most important in my mind has been the process that led to the aesthetic beauty and notable sustainable elements included in the final plans,” Evers said. “Good ideas percolated from the ground up, rather than the top-down expert-driven process so common in much of development today. The Triangle plays out in real time a restorative justice approach to development.”

“To me, it’s like a no-brainer for all housing projects,” said Diane Eddings, Bayview’s housing manager.

The new buildings will be a mix of rich exterior hues that are energy efficient and cheaper to run. A shared “community lawn” will be accessible to all residents. The larger community center will have more space for programming and services. There are play spaces for all ages and green space for residents to grow their own food.

Expanded community center

The heart of the redevelopment, the community center, will include four classrooms devoted to youth programming; a classroom for early childhood, adult and senior programing; a “maker space” for science, technology and engineering education; a fine arts classroom; commercial kitchen, food pantry, recreation and adult meeting rooms; an artist-in-residence studio and senior lounge; and a rooftop terrace with outdoor seating and gardens, London said.

The community center and one of the seven-unit townhouse buildings will be “passive certified,” meaning they have a “super envelope” of insulation and energy-efficient windows, she said.

The grounds will feature the basketball court, playgrounds and other amenities. Public art, made in collaboration with residents and commissioned artists, will be installed throughout the campus, London said.

“The coupling of affordable housing and supportive services is important but not unique,” said Natalie Erdman, a former director of city Planning, Community and Economic Development who is chairing the foundation’s fundraising campaign. “The uniqueness of Bayview’s approach is the addition of public art, well-designed play and gathering space, and gardens where residents can grow their own food.”

The $50 million project is being financed with $22.6 million in low-income housing tax credits and $15.73 million in financing through the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority; $2.9 million from the city; $1.3 million from Dane County; and $3.94 million in developer/owner financing.

Bayview still needs to privately raise another $4 million to finish the community center, and for public art, gathering spaces, sustainability upgrades and an operating endowment.

The CDA intends to involve residents throughout the building phase, with redevelopment starting no sooner than late 2023.

“Our community has long discussed the need for more affordable housing,” Erdman said. “But if we want to address poverty, racism and social injustice, we need to do more than build affordable housing. We need to build community for those that are often marginalized. We need to create places where lower-income people and people of color are valued and empowered.”

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