TOPEKA, KAN. — For the Topeka Housing Authority, the creation of its newest development—Echo Ridge Apartments—provided a wealth of knowledge for those involved.
Green and sustainable features had never been high on the priority list for the housing authority. But when it was awarded $10 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds through the Department of Housing and Urban Development Public Housing Capital Fund Recovery Program in September 2009 for the 66-unit development, that changed because of the green requirements tied to the funding. And the development team embraced the challenge.
“It was a great learning experience from the standpoint of developing the site from bare land to active community,” says Trey George, executive director of THA, Inc., the nonprofit development arm of the Topeka Housing Authority.
Echo Ridge also is the first large-scale development completed by the housing authority since its older complexes were built between 1960 and 1980, according to George. And the $13.9 million development is the housing authority's first low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) project, with Midwest Housing Equity Group, Inc. (MHEG), providing $3.5 million in LIHTC equity.
“We're seeing more public housing authorities come in for tax credits,” says Fred Bentley, rental housing director of the Kansas Housing Resources Corp., which allocated the tax credits for Echo Ridge. “This is a good example of how a public housing authority can access the tax credit program to use it to help their properties, whether it's building something new or fixing up an old property.”
The need for affordable housing is great in Topeka, according to George. Based on median income, there's need for approximately 3,400 families. The housing authority currently provides housing for about 1,800 households made up of more than 700 public housing units and more than 1,100 Sec. 8 vouchers it administers.
The family development features 16 one-bedroom, 38 two-bedroom, and 12 three-bedroom units.
“We are targeting the very lowincome individuals,” says George, adding that residents don't pay more than 30 percent of their incomes for rent. “Our average household annual income is about $11,000.”
Central City, Neb.-based Mesner Development Co., the developer of the project, took a different approach to the overall design of the 13-acre site. Market Street runs through the middle of the development, so separate architects and general contractors were assigned to each side.
On the west side of Market, architect el dorado and general contractor Kelley Construction Co. created two sets of duplexes and the community center. The buildings have insulated concrete-form design and sedum “planted” roofs that require no maintenance. The east side, created by architect Tim Schaller and McPherson Contractors, Inc., features 62 units set up in a traditional duplex style with reflective roofing.
The development has outdoor solar lighting and a large photovoltaic panel on the roof of the community center. This provides the energy for the community center and the common areas.
Since the residents are responsible for their own utilities, the development team paid special attention to details that would keep the utility bills as inexpensive as possible. A high-efficiency ground-source heat pump system runs throughout the community, which helps to heat and cool units cost effectively. All of the units also have Energy Star appliances, low-flow water fixtures, and triple-glazed windows.
Fifty percent of the concrete in the project is permeable, which means stormwater soaks back into the ground. And there's a water retention field that is designed to capture the first half-inch of rain in any 24-hour period.
Landscaping includes nut trees, berry bushes, and hardwood trees throughout the development. Once the landscaping starts to mature, George estimates that about 50 percent of the ground will be naturally shaded by trees, shrubs, and bushes.
“The green technology is important to be advancing,” says Bentley. “This project is a good example for architects, contractors, developers, and subs to be aware of because it shows us how to build more green.” George adds: “Having that stimulus money was key in doing the green features that we did. We will incorporate as much green in our future developments and redevelopments as we can.”
Echo Ridge also has a strong focus on sustainable living. There is a community garden, and each unit has its own raised garden plot and rain barrel. There are also two compost bins and a worm farm at the community center that residents can use for their own gardens.
To focus on resident engagement, the housing authority recently hired a sustainable development initiatives manager for the development. The manager has already been helping the families get involved in the community garden and has been teaching classes on recycling and preparing meals in healthier ways in the teaching kitchen in the community center.
“She is getting our residents very involved in gardening and living a more sustainable lifestyle,” George says.
The first residents started to move in in November, and full occupancy was achieved at the beginning of May.
“It's a beautiful project. The community recognizes the value and frankly appreciates the federal government support in Topeka,” says Pat Michaelis, executive vice president of MHEG. “Those awards were going to be made somewhere, might as well be Topeka.”
George adds, “We wanted to get across with Echo Ridge that public housing can be just as beautiful as other housing. ... [The community has] been very surprised about what a public housing development can look like.”