Community champion Sanders draws award nomination for restoration of King Drive neighborhood
By Kaitlyn Farmer and Patrick Leary
Maps, models and awards cover the conference room of Welford Sanders’ office on Milwaukee’s Martin Luther King Drive. Every paper building, dog-eared blueprint and transparent glass plaque plays a part in the north side neighborhood’s revival.
“Our challenge today is to rebuild,” Sanders said. “Because that’s important for the long-term sustainability and revitalization of our neighborhood.”
Sanders arrived at the Martin Luther King Economic Development Corp. in 2001 as interim executive director. Since then, his four-phase restoration plan has improved the neighborhood by developing affordable housing and establishing stable living communities. In 2013, his work earned him a Milwaukee Awards for Neighborhood Development (MANDI) nomination for “demonstrating leadership and collaboration for change.”
“It’s recognition for some important work that’s being done in the neighborhoods of Milwaukee,” Sanders said of the MANDI, which is bestowed by Milwaukee’s Local Initiative Support Corp. “Given some of the past winners, it puts us in good company.”
Sanders, 63, was raised on Chicago’s west side. The classical architecture of King Drive reminds him of his roots in his old neighborhood.
“I grew up in a two-story walk-up … that was built somewhere in the late 1800s or early 1900s in Chicago,” Sanders said. “I have a great appreciation for the old buildings.”
Sanders’ father influenced his decision to pursue urban planning. A railroad worker in Chicago, his father was an urban pioneer and never owned a car in his life. Sanders said his father could travel in and out of Chicago using only mass transit.
A history major at Wisconsin-Madison, he didn’t study his eventual profession until graduate school. He earned his master’s degree in urban and regional planning at UW-Madison and later returned to Madison to pursue his doctorate in the late 1980s. He chose not to complete his dissertation and instead found work in Milwaukee as both a developer and a teacher at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Ten years passed, and an important opportunity arose for Sanders in 2001.
“It just so happens that on my way to a consulting project, my predecessor left the agency, and I was asked by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation if I would be able to take on the job as an interim executive director,” Sanders said. “I’ve been here since that time.”
Since then, Sanders launched his plan for the neighborhood rebuild, which he called King Drive Commons. His work not only fulfilled him professionally, but also drew notice from other developers.
“He has been extremely focused,” said Howard Snyder, the executive director of the Northwest Side Community Development Corp. “King Drive is a different place because of all that housing.”
Moreover, Sanders’ work on King Drive improved the neighborhood’s quality of life.
“I love my apartment,” resident Betty Speed said. “It’s modern, convenient and close to my job. I’ve seen the neighborhood change for the better.”
Sanders’ influence on the Milwaukee community extends well beyond King Drive. As an adjunct professor at UWM, he influences America’s future urban planners.
“I do not want our students to stumble upon King Drives or North Avenues or impoverished communities and try to learn on the job,” Sanders said.
He also serves as president of the board at Growing Power, a prominent urban farming organization in Milwaukee. In his spare time, Sanders loves to travel to architecture hubs like San Francisco, Portland and Seattle.
“It’s both work as well as pleasure,” he said of traveling. “I have a need to keep track of projects and what’s going on in other cities.”
Sanders works to ensure the future of urban development through his teaching. His construction on King Drive sets a pristine example for how to improve Milwaukee. Sanders did not win his MANDI award in March, but the sense of accomplishment he gets from his job trumps any sort of recognition.
“I love what I do,” he said. “It’s something that’s grown on me and it’s something I enjoy doing.”