Award Winner - July/August 2003
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From Blight to Bright

YMCA Northside Branch/Young Leaders Academy Charter School
Milwaukee, Wis.


Talk about a Cinderella story. In one of Milwaukee's poorest neighborhoods, who would have thought that an empty, dirty lot, vacant for decades, would become the spark for community revitalization?

Well, this is a true fairy tale.

A 4.3-acre brownfield site has been transformed into the sparkling new 119,000-square-foot Northside YMCA complex, which houses a full-service YMCA branch with 6,000 members, the Young Leaders Academy Charter School, the Youth Leadership Academy, a childcare center for 100 children and the YMCA Community Development Corporation. As a brownfield site, some significant environmental contamination needed to be cleaned up before construction began. In addition to its obvious physical change to the neighborhood, this project also marks an important first.

"This is the nation's first charter school programmed in a full-service YMCA," says YMCA Branch Executive Mesha Davis. "It's a public school with a private emphasis."

The Young Leaders Academy Charter School offers a first-class education to more than 500 boys and girls in K4 to 8th grade. Students pay no tuition and are also served breakfast and lunch daily.

The facility is also home to the Youth Leadership Academy, which is a weekend program for young males, serving up to 400 per school year. When the Youth Leadership Academy merged with the YMCA in 1999, a strategic plan was made to open an Academy-run school by fall 2002, prompting a need for the new building.

Besides creating top-notch facilities for both the education programs and the YMCA complex, another extended goal was to spur further redevelopment in the disadvantaged and blight-stricken neighborhood. Average household incomes within a mile radius of the Northside YMCA are between $10,000 and $20,000 per year. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 46.7 percent of the individuals in the area are living below the poverty level, and 72.3 percent of these are children ages 5 to 17.

"For this type of investment to be in a low-income area, that was a big statement," says Davis of the significance of the new Y. "It was very much needed in this community."

The city of Milwaukee, Milwaukee County, private foundations, companies and individuals all have lent their support. The city, for example, donated the land in exchange for the YMCA's agreement to work with them to develop housing at the old North Central site.

"Everybody had to buy in," Davis says of the ambitious vision. Planners are hoping that housing rehabilitation will continue, property values will increase, and more people and businesses will be attracted to the neighborhood.

In the meantime, a happy ending seems already in the works.

"We built this for a family focus," Davis says. "To see moms and dads with kids is wonderful. We really didn't see this before. At the old location, kids just got dropped off. Now it's very inviting for families."

"A grand vision! There is a message in the way the building is designed and furnished. An icon of opportunity and purposeful community investment and vision. It's the right fit/right statement. Recreation is more than fun and games, it's important community infrastructure. This is the most impactful project in the competition. This project will change lives and change the community."

—Paul Brailsford

Submitted by: Uihlein-Wilson Architects in Milwaukee

Size: 115,000 square feet

Project cost: $16.5 million

Quick tour:

  • 45,000-square-foot Young Leaders Academy Charter School with an enrollment of more than 500 students
  • An African-village-themed family adventure pool with water slides and four lap lanes as well as a zero-depth-entry activity pool with three basketball hoops, water sprinklers and a waterfall
  • Full-day childcare center for 100 children ages 6 weeks to 4 years
  • Family Prime Time Center, a place for families to play, use computers, and study together, includes a snack bar
  • Teen Center, a separate area for teens to socialize
  • 12,000-square-foot field house/double gymnasium
  • 3,000-square-foot fitness center
  • 3,000-square-foot dance studio
  • Traditional locker rooms and family locker rooms
  • Kid Care, a drop off for youngsters while adults use the facility
  • Community Development Corporation offices

Associated Firms

General contractor: CG Schmidt, Inc.

Civil engineer: Norris & Associates

Structural engineer: J. Robbins & Associates

Mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection: PSJ Engineering, Inc.

Kitchen design: The Boelter Companies

Pool: Ramaker & Associates

Carpet: Interface Flooring

Linoleum: Armstrong and Azrock

Sport flooring fitness and weights: Dodge-Regopol Inc.

Aerobics flooring: Gerflor Sports Flooring

Wood flooring: Robbins Sports Surfaces

Rubber flooring: Nora Rubber Flooring

Ceramic mosaic: Dal Tile

Vinyl wall covering: Lanark

Plastic laminate: Nevamar

Lounge furniture: Nemschoff

Tables: Bretford

Lockers: Lyon Workspace Products

Signs: Poblocki & Sons

Bleachers: Irwin Bleachers

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