Vetter Denk Architects has taken the post-industrial town of Green Bay, Wis., by storm. Block upon block of prime waterfront footage, a marvelous working river—“urban theater like you wouldn't believe,” says John Vetter, AIA—and the city had turned its back on it. Green Bay is the state's third-largest city, and yet there was no for-sale housing downtown until recently, when the firm put together, pro bono, a boardwalk plan for residential, retail, and civic spaces. “Planning department [officials were] looking for commercial venues, but we convinced them that homes were their first ingredient,” Vetter says.

Vetter and fellow Milwaukee native Kelly Denk, AIA, started out doing design/build some 20 years ago. They used the construction process to inform their design work, creating clean-lined, site-specific houses that are knit with nature. “We began to see the power that appropriate architecture can have on people's lives,” Vetter says, “and translating that to the urban condition was compelling to us.” The firm eventually stopped building its projects, but winning a design competition for Milwaukee's Beerline neighborhood eight years ago propelled them into development. Located on the Milwaukee River, Beerline's condos, row houses, and single-family homes are designed to attract an economically diverse group of buyers, ranging in price from $140,000 to well over $1 million.

The firm has work under way in downtown Sheboygan, Wis., too, converting the historic C. Reiss Coal Co. building into condos and lofts. But it is the Green Bay project that Vetter is most excited about. The partners have rights to develop a four-block area, which will include rental loft units built with affordable tax credits, a hotel, and a children's museum that had been slated for relocation out of town. The Astor Place condos, ranging in price from $165,000 to $800,000, are smartly designed, with good ventilation, 35-foot-long terraces on some units, and materials that mix the rough and refined. “People who want to live downtown are looking for something more playful and inventive,” Vetter says. “It's more about where the city is going than where it's been.”

Vetter Denk Architects

verbatim what drew you to this path? “We are drawn to the rich diversity, vitality, and energy that we find in urban environments. In particular, the neglected or forgotten areas of cities attract us because we are able to make a greater impact on a local economy and community. Being our own developer allows us to get the job accomplished—and to a higher standard.”

what were you doing 10 years ago? “We were focused on the single-family residential market from a turnkey master builder standpoint.”

what do you hope to have achieved 10 years from now? “We want to help create urban neighborhoods that have the live/work/play dynamic. The skew we'd like to put on that is environmental awareness and the potential for mass customization, creating affordability but not having it all stamped out.”