PORTLAND, ORE. - This city bid farewell to what was its largest public housing project and welcomed a brand new neighborhood. New Columbia is a total reconstruction of the aging Columbia Villa public housing development, which was built in 1942 for World War II shipyard workers.
The project was located in an area that had become socially, physically, and economically isolated from the rest of the city.
Reinventing the 82-acre tract of land into a mixed-use, mixed-income community became the largest neighborhood revitalization project in Portland, increasing the original 462 units to 854 new units. The Housing Authority of Portland (HAP) completed construction of its 556 rental units in 2006. Trenton Terrace, a 66-unit affordable seniors housing project developed by the nonprofit Northwest Housing Alternatives that is part of the overall development, was completed in January. The last of the 232 for-sale homes that are being built by private homebuilders will be completed this year. Forty-one of these homes are affordable.
The community also includes a four-acre city park and four smaller parks, a new public elementary school, a Boys and Girls Club attached to the school, and Portland Community College’s learning center.
Main Street is a multi-use neighborhood center with apartments above the street-front stores and public buildings. The architecture draws on Portland’s Craftsman and Northwest housing styles.
To create diversity within the new neighborhood, the single-family homes are being built by five different homebuilders.
New Columbia demonstrates that “housing authorities can act as a developer successfully on complicated projects,” said Mike Andrews, director of development and community revitalization, adding that the project is an example of how federal public housing money can be leveraged with public and private partners.
The development also aimed to be environmentally sensitive. Two mixed-use buildings have received Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, a first for a HOPE VI project. More than half of the existing trees were preserved.
HAP’s housing cost about $156 million, which was seeded with a $35 million federal HOPE VI grant. The figure also includes the costs for relocation of former residents, demolition, and infrastructure work. There are 370 public housing and project-based Sec. 8 units.
A criticism of some HOPE VI projects has been that the redevelopment has taken too long and led to a loss in housing units. New Columbia was completed on time, on budget, and the number of overall units has nearly doubled.
Former public housing residents were offered the opportunity to return to the new community. About 110 of the families came back, according to Andrews.
To finance its rental units, HAP completed four mixed-finance closings that were staggered throughout 14 months to meet construction deadlines. There were four LIHTC transactions—two involving 4 percent tax credits and two involving 9 percent LIHTCs—totaling $58.7 million. Syndicators included Alliant Capital, MMA Financial, and Enterprise Community Investment, Inc. HAP also did three bond closings, including one that pledged future federal capital funds toward the bond. In addition, New Columbia received support from the city of Portland and various foundations.
HAP also pioneered the first use of New Markets Tax Credits toward the development of a public elementary school.
Additional project information, as provided in application by the nominator.
Q. Why does the nominated project deserve to be recognized based on the award criteria of this contest?
A. In 2003, Columbia Villa was an aging public housing development with a meandering, confused street layout that effectively cordoned it off from the surrounding community. Built for World War II shipyard workers in the early 1940s, it had become socially and economically isolated from the surrounding neighborhood, an 82-acre tract of land urgently in need of comprehensive revitalization. More than that, as the largest neighborhood revitalization project ever undertaken in the city of Portland, Ore., it was widely seen as a benchmark for this community’s ability to achieve community revitalization and social change.
New Columbia was funded, designed, and built in the belief that it takes a community to transform a community. The true measure of community support is best seen in the neighborhood’s involvement at every stage of planning and construction. For example, before demolition, the site had 430 trees, many with diameters greater than 48 inches. Residents were concerned to save as many established trees as possible, and more than 50 percent of them have been preserved, despite requiring significant design adjustment of the almost three miles of new streets required for New Columbia. The city’s Urban Forester considers this a remarkable accomplishment.
In place of 462 very low-income families, New Columbia is now home to 854 households. HAP blended all housing types—232 new homeownership units, 186 affordable rental units, and 370 public housing and project-based Section 8 rental units—so that there is no discernable difference between income levels in the development. The remaining 66 senior rental units are located where Main Street and the central park meet. To ensure educational and opportunity for all, an eight-block mixed-use section on the eastern boundary is dedicated to the provision of a wide array of programs and activities for residents of all ages. HAP also guaranteed that every former resident who wished to return to New Columbia would be able to do so.
To reconnect New Columbia to the prevailing neighborhood block system, the developer used two transformative devices. First, its narrow streets foster a more intimate atmosphere, alleys running behind the houses reduce the number of cars parked on the streets, and wide sidewalks encourage pedestrian and bicycle use. Second, to avoid that sense of “phased development” or a single “master plan” that plagues so many larger projects, HAP adopted a “rolling development” design-and-build model, engaging an array of design teams to operate concurrently with a shared set of guidelines. The result of this creative problem-solving approach is a much more organic, diverse, yet integrated neighborhood.
Community stakeholders advocated a Portland-model of development that places a high value on sustainability and environmental responsibility. Perhaps the two most significant sustainable-development achievements involve the preservation of existing trees, and the onsite management of storm water runoff. The master plan capitalized on the natural slope of the site so that all storm water within the development is collected, treated, and disposed of onsite.
Q. How does this project represent an innovative solution to a specific development challenge?
A. The core funding for New Columbia was a $35 million HUD HOPE VI grant. All of the stakeholders agreed that to make the project successful, it was vital to include a community campus and a new, onsite public elementary school. However, the HOPE VI funding packing did not permit expenditure on non-residential development. Finding a solution to this resource gap was New Columbia’s greatest development challenge. In response, HAP pioneered the first-time use of New Market Tax Credits dedicated to the development of a public elementary school.
Although initially cautious, the leadership of Portland Public Schools and the Boys and Girls Club joined with HAP and the city of Portland to explore a new, shared-use campus. A volunteer committee was convened to create momentum. These local business leaders, public finance experts, and board members from the four founding partners rolled up their sleeves and created a vision that called for the co-location of key youth services into a campus that has saved money while creating quality educational and recreational opportunities for generations to come.
With the opening of Rosa Parks Elementary School, the former neighborhood’s award-winning academic program now operates in an inspirational facility. Shared spaces inside the building provide more synergy: students use the cafeteria and rooms for music, art, and computers during the day; club members use them when school is not in session.
The city’s willingness to join the partnership provided another key ingredient—a double gymnasium, currently under construction with ballot measure funds. Agreements to share the new gymnasium and the classroom spaces connecting the public school and the Boys and Girls Club reflect tremendous cost-efficiencies for each of the partners.