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It started in June 2001 with a survey asking neighbors and residents of Seattle’s High Point development which of seven housing types they preferred for the site. Charrettes, or community design meetings, followed a year later. In November 2002, members of a resident design committee spent two hours poring over apartment floor plans and suggesting where to place interior doors and add entry areas. One of the architects showed how his firm had incorporated earlier community ideas into the project design. A month later, the committee voted on which features to include in a series of neighborhood parks.

That sort of intensive focus on detail, coupled with backand- forth communication between neighborhood residents and the architects and developers, was a hallmark of the High Point rehab project, spearheaded by the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA).

SHA tore up its plans again and again, proving it was willing to go back to the drawing board with Mithun Architects + Designers + Planners to incorporate residents’ feedback.

Mithun completely redrew the street grid for the new mixed-income neighborhood after residents asked SHA to save more of the 120 big trees on the site. The architects also doubled the number of townhouse facades in the HOPE VI redevelopment from 20 different designs to 40.

Finally the residents gave the redevelopment their blessing, and construction began in 2003 on 1,600 new units of housing—from public housing and affordable and market-rate rentals to for-sale townhouses, single-family homes, and condominiums. About 40 percent of the units were completed at press time, with full completion set for 2010.

“We really believed that there is a collective wisdom there that would improve the quality,” said Tom Phillips, project manager for SHA.

Giving neighborhoods real input

There’s a change in approach and attitude happening. More serious consultation among developers, architects, and the community is becoming the norm. Affordable housing developers across the country are increasingly following SHA’s model of inviting the surrounding communities to get involved in their projects’ designs. They’re finding that such involvement can be a recipe for improving their developments as well as for winning local political support.

When Sister Amy Bailey, vice president of community development for Mercy Housing California, identifies a potential development site, she holds a series of charrettes with residents and local officials to brainstorm options and create a plan that takes the whole neighborhood into account—all before Mercy even takes possession of the land.

This “master-planned” process helps identify services the new development might provide the neighborhood— ranging from community space to retail amenities to pedestrian-friendly features— and can help it earn local approval.

This process also helps produce designs that fit in well with their communities. A well-designed development “should have characteristics that you would see in the existing successful residential neighborhoods nearby,” said Randy Rhodes, an in-house architect for St. Louis-based developer McCormack Baron Salazar. “It respects the materials. It respects the scale.”

“You don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb,” agreed Eric Pinckney, vice president for Atlanta-based Integral Properties. At the prodding of local residents, Integral radically changed its plan for the Blake Street Flats in Denver from a traditional design to a flamboyant modern one to more closely match its neighborhood of rehabbed industrial lofts (see article below).

To get the conversation started, Bailey presents residents with a set of photographs taken of existing buildings in the neighborhood. “Give them a picture and they can tell you what they like and don’t like,” Bailey said. Mercy reviews the responses and makes a checklist of design elements residents want, ranging from individual entries to front porches to an appropriate height for buildings on the street front.

As the design process progresses, developers continue to present the residents with a menu of choices, rather than a finished design to take or leave. At High Point, SHA asked community members to vote on various design types posted around a meeting room by putting stickers on the designs they favored.

Affordable housing programs like HOPE VI and the low-income housing tax credit program ask developers to get the support of their local communities. But that’s not the only reason developers solicit intensive community feedback. Even those who have won federal financial support need local approval.

Every vote counts

Without the support of neighborhood stakeholders, the redevelopment at High Point could have been delayed or potentially shelved.

SHA needed the Seattle City Council’s go-ahead to double the density of housing in parts of High Point. Local elected officials can easily get voted out of office if they help push through an unpopular development.

Fortunately for High Point, residents testified in favor of the redevelopment. “That has a lot of weight with elected officials,” Phillips said.

In all, architects from Mithun attended 24 meetings with the community to help design High Point. The extra work added $100,000 to the cost of the $150 million project, but saved the company 90 times that amount. Problems that were identified at those meetings would have delayed High Point’s zoning approvals and the start of construction by at least six months if they hadn’t been resolved during the design process, Phillips said. With construction costs rising about 12 percent a year, that delay would have added at least $9 million to the cost of High Point, he said.

Developers like Mercy created their process of building neighborhood consensus in part to protect themselves. Affordable housing developers lost many sites in the 1990s because they failed to work closely enough with their communities on design, Bailey said. That resulted in city leaders rejecting proposals that did not have community support.

Consulting with the community has also become a necessity for the growing number of infill projects, which often draw opposition from nearby renters and homeowners. As cities like Boston and New York redevelop their last abandoned lots, concerned citizens are focusing their attention on the few vacant sites that are left.

In New York, the five teams of architects and developers that competed for a 1.4-acre wedge of abandoned rail yard in the South Bronx got an earful from the community at a public meeting before they submitted even the most basic sketches.

“When we were preparing our design, we really used this [feedback from the neighborhood] as a checklist,” said William Stein, principal for Dattner Architects, an architecture firm in Manhattan that collaborated with Grimshaw Architects to create the winning design.

“Getting community feedback is extraordinarily valuable,” said Adam Weinstein, president of nonprofit Phipps Houses. Phipps is developing that rail yard site in the Bronx, which will be known as Via Verde, in partnership with Jonathan Rose Cos.

Phipps Houses and Rose won the right to build in part because their architects found ways to respect the neighborhood’s wishes. They came up with an ingenious plan to provide more than an acre of open space for the community along with more than 200 apartments on the 1.4-acre abandoned brownfield.

Sound impossible? Via Verde includes rooftops covered with playgrounds, gardens, and even orchards. “You want a garden?” asked Robert Garneau, architect with Grimshaw Architects, who created the plan with Dattner Architects. “You got it. You want to meet by the pear tree? You got it. You want to read a book in a meadow? You got it.”

The neighborhood also wanted the buildings to form a visual bridge between a public housing tower to the north and a schoolyard to the south. So the Via Verde design gradually increases in height from two-story townhouses to an 18-story high-rise.

Via Verde means “The Green Way” in Spanish: It’s a pun referring both to the project’s sustainable development philosophy and to a path that residents can climb from the ground up a series of broad stairways to reach the chain of rooftop gardens. Construction for the estimated $67 million project is expected to start in late 2008.

Neighborhood feedback adds value

Developers that attempt to shorten the lengthy process of building consensus have been punished. Forest City Ratner Cos. reached out to local officials and community groups to win support for its plans to build more than 5,000 mixed-income apartments at Atlantic Yards. But it missed an important set of local stakeholders who have filed several highly publicized lawsuits against the developers. The result: The project is more than a year behind schedule and reportedly tens of millions of dollars over budget.

Architects also design better communities with ideas from the neighborhood. At High Point, the trees that SHA saved to please its residents added $1.5 million to the appraised value of the site, according to the appraisers, Phillips said. High Point’s market-rate for-sale housing units have been selling for as much as $620,000 apiece.

What residents want

The first concerns of local stakeholders when confronted by a proposed development are rarely aesthetic. That’s especially true of public housing residents, whose first concern is almost never a design issue like window treatments or facades but instead whether they are about to be thrown out of their homes en masse.

But once residents are able to focus on design, they tend to ask for things that affect their quality of life. They typically resist higher densities and demand buildings that fit in with the neighborhood. They often ask for buildings that provide a safe space to live, and they’re increasingly likely to ask for developments with green features that can provide them with lower utility bills or healthier indoor air.

All these issues are at the foundation of good design. They may not create the sculptural effects craved by the last generation of Modernist architects, but these concerns often radically affect the shape of affordable housing.

And that’s exactly how it should be, said LaVonne Conquest, a longtime resident of High Point, at a 2003 city council meeting where she testified in favor of changing the zoning to double the density allowed on the site. “The community is being built for the residents of High Point, not for SHA and not for the architects,” she said. “It’s being built with the opinion of the community.”

Locals Demand Bold Design

The people who lived in and around Curtis Park, a distressed public housing community in Denver, asked for a more flamboyant, contemporary design for Blake Street Flats, a plan by Atlanta-based developer Integral Properties to mix public housing with apartments affordable to low-income residents.

“I thought they would want something that looked more traditional,” said Dennis Humphries, principal with Humphries Poli Architects. Instead, the finished design for Blake Street, which includes brightly colored panels on the sides of the buildings, helps the 24 affordable housing apartments fit in on a street of industrial warehouses converted into lofts.

But a few blocks away, many of the same residents demanded a more traditional design for the 19 mixed-income apartments at Glenarm Place, which together with Blake Street makes up the third phase of the HOPE VI redevelopment of Curtis Park.