Community Takes a Transformative, Sustainable Approach to Affordable Housing

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Post date: April 26, 2017
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On a bright morning last November, I hopped on the Blue Line light rail in Minneapolis, transferred to the 2 bus, and headed west down Franklin Ave S to its intersection with Portland Ave S, where Will Delaney, Associate Director of Hope Community, was waiting to receive me.

This busy intersection, once fully abandoned with three vacant gas stations, is now a dense and vital linchpin of the neighborhood, thanks to Hope Community and its development partners. The non-profit community engagement and development organization has been in the Phillips neighborhood for over 40 years, since it began life in 1977 as shelter and hospitality house. In the 1990s, Delaney explained, the crack cocaine epidemic and general disinvestment took a toll on the community.

Community implements ambitious plan to develop affordable housing opportunities

Widespread vacant lots and housing (with as many as 200 city-owned homes at one point) were major issues for the Phillips in that decade, and Hope Community employed a two-pronged community development approach to fight back against damaging cycles of disinvestment, violence, and poverty. First, the organization revamped their mission to focus on physical place and the development of affordable housing and public spaces such as community centers and gardens. Second, Hope Community completed numerous listening session­s in the neighborhood to draw out what neighborhood residents wanted and began extensive community engagement efforts around various learning, leadership, and community opportunities.

Although Hope Community saw and heard a need for livable, affordable housing and improved communities, Delaney said they wanted to make sure from the start that any investment was rooted in an alternative to gentrification, with opportunities for low- and moderate-income people.

 To this end, the non-profit purchased land, worked with the community and other non-profit developers on a bold plan to reclaim the vacant land at Portland and Franklin and address 22 vacant buildings around the intersection. In 1996, Hope Community purchased 90 percent of the frontage on Franklin between Portland and Oakland Avenues and in 1999 laid out its "Children's Village Vision" for a 16-block area surrounding the intersection.

Through this ambitious vison and collaboration with Aeon, a Twin Cities-based nonprofit affordable housing developer, the South Quarter redevelopment plan was created and set into motion. The Rose—the fourth and final phase of the redevelopment at Portland and Franklin--represents the completion of this vision. The intersection is now home to the Rose and the other three phases of Hope Community's redevelopment. Constructed from 2003-2008, these projects  added a total of 120 housing units, most of which are affordable. After 2008, though, the intersection's fourth corner—the northwest corner of Portland and Franklin—lay bare for several years due to delays caused by the financial crisis and recession. Finally, the financial stars aligned, and Hope Community and Aeon set out to develop the final corner, located nearest 35W.

Final phase incorporates groundbreaking combo of affordability and sustainable design

This concluding project, though, became something more than your average affordable housing development. Indeed, it represents a legitimately groundbreaking achievement in the conceptualization and construction of urban multifamily housing. What makes this project­­ so special? It combines affordability and accessibility with hyper-sustainable, cutting-edge design, something that is not often considered when building or renovating affordable housing units.

The Rose development, featuring 90 units in separate rectangular buildings (of which half are affordable), was the result of project planning that dreamed beyond the status quo—well beyond! Delaney explained that "Pretty early on, our partner at Aeon, Gina Ciganik, supported the idea that this building could push the envelope for green sustainable building design." The Wellstone's sustainability features were a beginning success, but the vision for the Rose flew far beyond that first foray.

To begin with, the Rose was designed to the Living Building Challenge (LBC) standards, which Delaney described as "LEED on steroids." The LBC includes strict guidelines around the use of energy and water (net zero, specifically), healthy building materials, clean air, and access to nature and place, among other ambitious ideals.

Although the Rose will ultimately not garner an official LBC certification due to technical constraints around heating and other energy use, it is still the very first affordable, multifamily development in the country to utilize LBC standards.

Despite the energy demands of Minnesota's contrasting seasons that keep the Rose from reaching net zero energy use, the development is nonetheless an astounding 75 percent more efficient than a baseline code building. 

It features an innovative solar thermal hot water heating system that supplies a good portion of the development's water needs, with the potential for solar panels on the roof eventually.

It may seem unbelievable that an almost 100-unit apartment complex could have such a high degree of efficiency, but Hope Community and Aeon accomplished this with little trouble through the LBC standards and the corresponding use of innovative building techniques and materials.

As the LBC standards involve a healthy living environment—and in response to a history of environmental racism in Phillips and the air pollution from the adjacent interstate 35W—the Rose's baseline systems and general materials were chosen with the residents' well-being in mind.

What became readily apparent during the materials procurement process was the lack of transparency that exists with normative building materials, and it was this opacity that led Hope Community and Aeon to look for suppliers who were upfront about what was in their materials. 

From Delaney's perspective, 'ingredient' or component lists for building materials are far from offering a high level of clarity.

"As we did this project, we found that people know what's in their food, but you can't actually figure out what's in a lot of building materials," said Delaney with a wry grin.

So, in the face of these transparency challenges, Hope Community and Aeon took an alternative and fresh approach. Indoor air quality is an oft-neglected environmental and health equity issue, and the materials used in the average building emit harmful chemical gases, especially directly after installation. Delaney elucidated, "We invested in a centralized air system that filters the [outside] air and provides fresh air to all units. We used no-VOC (volatile organic compound) paints, bio-based tile flooring, a goat hair carpet, drywall with low chemical levels, and Cold Spring, MN granite with no off-gassing."

Tour highlights living amenities integrated with sustainable design elements

After the sit-down part of my interview with Delaney ended, he led me on a tour of the development complex, and at this point I truly began to understand just how different the Rose is from the average apartment building. We strolled out of the light-filled community space that faces the Franklin-Portland intersection and over to a seemingly nondescript gray stairwell door. To my surprise, though, Delaney opened the door to reveal a pleasant, well-lighted stairwell that was comfortably painted and featured an odd sort of flooring material that made the space feel more like a stairway in a well-appointed home than an apartment complex.

I had to ask about the uniquely textured carpet, and Delaney explained to me that it was indeed made of a rather unique material. The stairwell carpet is made entirely of goat hair, which is meant to be more durable than regular carpet in addition to its lack of chemical toxins. Of the abundance of light, Delaney said, "There's lots of light in the stairwells purposefully. We wanted them to have windows and be an open, welcoming space." The general feeling of cozy, well-lighted airiness continued into the hallway we entered on the second floor, with comfortably vibrant LEDs (every light in the entire development is LED) framing a red and white painted corridor.

Notwithstanding the overall feeling of open, welcoming light one gets in all spaces in the Rose, the buildings were designed to minimize the amount of window coverage to decrease energy use or loss due to large windows. When in the Rose and in the empty apartment I toured, though, it's hard to notice this design choice, with good reason. Every single apartment, whether it's a studio, one, two, or three bedroom unit, has a large picture window in the living room space. While in the apartment I was struck by how much natural light permeated the whole place, despite the bedroom windows being relatively smaller.

I mentioned the Rose's centralized air system before, and during our time in the apartment unit, Delaney went into detail about what it means for individual residents and building energy usage. "People control their own thermostat, but the system has centralized fresh air intakes. Most buildings have lots of different air penetration spots through intakes and vents, which means more holes in buildings and more opportunity for energy to escape. Having it centralized on the roof makes the system tighter and easier to insulate. In addition, the system shifts hot and cold air from different parts of the building to balance demand."

All apartments also include Energy Star appliances and special hyper-low flow toilets that use under a gallon of water per flush, which saves water while lowering water bills for residents.

Following my interior tour, Delaney led me outside to show off the variety of outdoor amenities the Rose offers, features that are not often included in dense urban housing developments. We made our way outside and into the unique urban oasis between the Rose's two parallel apartment buildings. The west end of the space, nearest 35W, is bookended by on one side by two sculpted grassy knolls meant to stimulate play and a neatly-landscaped seating area. This isn't your run-of the-mill patio seating, though—the seats are a few dozen reclaimed tree stumps repurposed by Wood From The Hood, a Minneapolis business that reclaims wood from all over the Twin Cities.

A center path runs through the middle of the entire outdoor area, bordered in the middle on one side by an open grassy area and the other by a semi-rain garden with a winding path of native stone meandering through it. The rest of this community space is reserved for traditional patio and relaxation use, with a grill available for all residents to use. At the east end, a short fence and door provide a sight privacy barrier between the streetscape and the Rose's private outdoor space.

 

 

At this point I assumed the tour was at its close, but Delaney led me through the north building—passing another sunny community space and community exercise room—to another of the Rose's special features, a community garden.

The Rose's welcoming garden space, from the second I saw it, was clearly something beyond your usual plots of beans and carrots. A paved concrete path leads from the gated entrance to a trellis in the middle of the garden, complete with green Adirondack chairs. This garden, as Delaney explained it, was conceived through a community listening process conducted before building the Rose. Community members wanted a garden that would also function as a community space, as well as a learning space. There's even an old-fashioned red hand pump that draws water from an underground cistern, so children can get a sense of where their water comes from. Another part of the garden is a small garden tools and materials storage hut, with an educational poster on the Rose's water-retention prowess. Indeed, 75 percent of the rain that falls on the Rose's site is captured and reused in some way.

At last, my tour with Delaney had come to an end, and it was time for me to catch the bus back to work. As we walked back past the Rose, I marveled at what Hope Community and their partners had achieved at their formerly forlorn intersection—from abandoned gas stations to livable, sustainable housing.

Gordy Moore took a tour of Hope Community as part of his work as an intern for the Metro Clean Energy Resource Team (Metro CERT). GPI directs Metro CERT, that is part of a statewide partnership with a shared mission to connect individuals and their communities to the resources they need to identify and implement community-based clean energy projects. Metro CERT serves the 11-county Twin Cities metropolitan area by empowering communities and their members to adopt energy conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy technologies and practices for their homes, businesses, and local institutions.

Learn more about Metro CERT here.