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 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 stable living communities. His work earned him a 2013 MANDI (Milwaukee Awards for Neighborhood Development Innovation) 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 nomination. “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 old neighborhood.
“I grew up in a two-story walk-up … that was built somewhere in the late 1800s or early 1900s in Chicago,” he said. “I have a great appreciation for the old buildings.”
Sanders’ father influenced his decision to pursue urban planning. A railroad worker in Chicago, he was an urban pioneer and never owned a car.
Sanders didn’t study his eventual profession until graduate school. He was a history major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, earned his master’s degree in urban and regional planning at UW-Madison, and later returned 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 the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Ten years passed before 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.”
In the years that followed, Sanders launched his plan for the neighborhood, which he called King Drive Commons. His work fulfilled him professionally and drew notice from other developers.
“He has been extremely focused,” said Howard Snyder, executive director of the Northwest Side Community Development Corp. “King Drive is a different place because of all that housing.”
Sanders’ work has improved the quality of life of King Drive residents such as Betty Speed. “I love my apartment,” she 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 beyond King Drive. As an adjunct professor at UWM, he helps mold 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,” he said.
He also serves as president of the board at Growing Power, a prominent urban farming organization in Milwaukee. In his spare time, he loves to travel to architecture hubs such as San Francisco 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.”