The Sugar Hill Project seeks to level the playing field for poor families in Harlem.

The ambitious development will provide 124 permanent affordable housing units. In addition, the project will be home to a universal preschool and the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling.

“Seventy percent of children in our neighborhood are born into poverty,” says Ellen Baxter, founder and executive director of Broadway Housing Communities, the developer behind the project. “There are almost no quality early childhood opportunities for young children. By the time they land in kindergarten, their academic prospects are seriously hampered.” With its focus on children, Sugar Hill looks to be a game-changer for the community.

“We imagine there will be more writers, engineers, and architects coming out of our neighborhood with the emphasis on creative and cognitive development at such young ages,” says Baxter, who has worked 30 years in advocacy and housing development. She was one of the founders of the New York Coalition of the Homeless in 1980.

Broadway Housing was founded in 1983, and Sugar Hill is the nonprofit’s largest undertaking and first new construction project after completing six gut rehabs over the years.

It is also notable because it is designed by David Adjaye, architect of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which will open in Washington, D.C., in 2016.

“I am always interested in new typologies, and this project represented an entirely fresh approach to the genre in design terms,” he says. “I enjoyed Broadway Housing’s approach of creating a community building that provides for the entire family—with a childcare center—and places such a high importance on art—with a proper full-scale museum. It was a unique opportunity. Broadway Housing Communities is an enlightened client in this respect, and we had a shared enthusiasm for ‘reinvention.’”

At Sugar Hill, Adjaye has designed a 13-story building that dramatically steps back at the ninth floor to create a terrace and cantilever on opposite sides. Baxter calls it “a work of art for the neighborhood.”

The development gets its name from its historic neighborhood. Home to the Harlem Renaissance, it is where Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. DuBois, and Duke Ellington once lived. While some have felt Adjaye’s design is too modern for the neighborhood, it was unanimously selected by a design committee that Broadway Housing assembled.

“Inspiration was drawn from the history of Sugar Hill,” Adjaye says. “For example, we used the Harlem Rose as a decorative motif for the façade,” he says. “I was also conscious to create a building with a striking presence that would offer a visual gateway to the neighborhood and establish a strong, dignified silhouette on the elevated site.”

Adjaye was then paired with SLCE Architects, a firm that brought extensive affordable housing experience to the project.

Foundation of affordable housing

The development’s combination of uses is what makes the project exciting, but it’s clear the bedrock is the 124 low-income apartments.

“The truth is it has all been made possible by the structures of affordable housing,” Baxter says. “Those other elements of education opportunity and cultural opportunity would never have happened without the foundation of affordable housing. We couldn’t have ever afforded to build a preschool. There is no capital for that. There is no capital to build a museum in a poor neighborhood.”

Seventy percent of the Sugar Hill Apartments are reserved for households earning no more than 50 percent of the area median income (AMI), with some units targeting households making even less.  In addition, 25 apartments are set aside for formerly homeless individuals and families.

The demand for the apartments has been overwhelming. More the 48,000 applications came flooding in from hopeful families, a sign of the tremendous need, says Baxter.

The housing will open first in August. The preschool and early childhood center will follow in September. The adjacent 17,000-square-foot children’s museum, which will be used by the preschool as well as open to the public, is expected to open at the end of the year or early 2015.

The $89.2 million development didn’t come cheap. It is financed with more than a dozen sources. The financing engine driving the deal is a blend of low-income housing tax credits for the residential portion and New Markets Tax Credits for the other uses.

“Broadway Housing is a fantastic organization,” says Laura Bailey, managing vice president, community development finance, at Capital One, the project’s lead financing partner. “We were thrilled to providing financing for the new development, which will help enrich the Sugar Hill neighborhood with new, affordable housing and facilities that will foster education, cultural arts, and community development.”

The company provided a $25 million construction loan and $36.5 million in equity, including low-income housing and New Markets credits, to support the development. Part of that support included a $750,000 grant to support residential, early childhood and museum programming.

Richman Housing Resources was the syndicator.

Other financing partners include the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, Low Income Investment Fund, The Sirus Fund, New York Community Trust/Delacorte Fund, Oak Foundation, Federal Home Loan Bank of New York through HSBC Bank, and Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta through Capital One.

Connect with Donna Kimura, deputy editor of Affordable Housing Finance, on Twitter @DKimura_AHF.