It takes a neighborhood to design a mixed-income community - Metropolitan Planning Council

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It takes a neighborhood to design a mixed-income community

National and local experts share development techniques and strategies for community involvement in the planning of mixed-income sites

MPC’s 10th Building Successful Mixed-Income Communities forum, on March 28, 2007, attracted more than 200 developers, public housing residents, and affordable housing advocates. Co-sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, in collaboration with the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), the forum focused on planning, design and architecture in mixed-income communities. The panel offered national and local perspectives on development priorities and community involvement in the planning process.

MarySue Barrett, MPC president, welcomed panelists and attendees, and Commissioner Lori Healey of the Chicago Dept. of Planning and Development (DPD) and Carl Byrd, CHA director of management, made opening remarks. Joseph Williams, president of Granite Development Corp., and MPC Resource Board member, moderated the panel featuring:

  • Don Carter, president of Urban Design Associates (Pittsburgh, Pa.);
  • Peter Levavi, vice president of Brinshore Development, and MPC Housing Committee member; and
  • Shirley Newsome, chair of the North Kenwood-Oakland Conservation Community Council.

Carl Byrd, Joseph Williams, Don Carter, Peter Levavi and Shirley Newsome

Williams highlighted MPC’s position that the relationship between “bricks and mortar” and residents’ lives must be “in harmony” and reminded the audience of MPC’s long-term commitment to being “part of the solution” as mixed-income communities flourish in Chicago. Outlining his work with Granite Development Corp., Williams admitted community planning is both “excruciating and extraordinary.” Planning and design play a significant and strategic role in success, and “we only win if the community process wins.”

Comm. Healey stressed DPD works to bring public institutions into neighborhoods to serve as anchors for development. Land  use, selection and design are critical so that new mixed-income communities “blend in” with the surrounding neighborhood. The focus is on creating housing because “without rooftops, you don’t get the retail,” which drives additional commercial development and jobs. The built environment is about more than housing, Comm. Healey said; “it’s about creating neighborhoods with the opportunity to live, shop and work.” She also highlighted the need to establish strong transportation hubs in communities where the region’s transit networks have been underutilized for decades.

Byrd emphasized that “CHA residents are citizens of Chicago first,” and despite its past “dismal record,” CHA is working to “re-engage residents and communities back into the fabric of the city.” According to Byrd, over 60 percent of CHA’s Plan for Transformation is complete, with 9,500 units of senior housing and 2,500 scattered sites rehabilitated by the beginning of 2007. He acknowledged that the development of mixed-income sites has taken more time than the rehabilitation of other sites because it requires collaboration between city agencies and departments, developers, community groups, and other stakeholders. Byrd’s presentation demonstrated the success of three mixed-income sites at the family, development and neighborhood levels: West Haven Park (Henry Horner), Roosevelt Square (ABLA), and Oakwood Shores (Madden/Wells/Darrow). Byrd closed by saying, “What used to be a cautionary tale of two cities is now a story of integration and the end of isolation.”

After Healey and Byrd’s opening remarks, Williams asked panelists to address the following questions:

  • What principles, methodology and techniques can be used to include the community’s voice into the final plan, from inception to “final product”?
  • What is the relationship between the bricks and mortar of a new development and the well-being of its diverse residents?
  • How do community residents, developers and planners knit together the new mixed-income communities and their surrounding neighborhoods, and how can the surrounding areas (and city) contribute to the success of these communities?

Don Carter, of Urban Design Associates (UDA) in Pittsburgh, began by commending Chicago for its efforts to create opportunities for public dialogue such as the day’s forum. He described UDA’s extensive work in building mixed-income housing across the country, including in Pittsburgh, Pa.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Portsmouth, Va.; Baltimore, Md.; Louisville,  Ky.; Charlotte, N.C.; and even Chicago (at the former Madden/Wells site).

Carter’s presentation outlined key principles for designing mixed-income communities, such as involving residents, respecting historical context and architectural precedents, providing connections within neighborhoods and to the surrounding community, developing and providing design guidelines, and enhancing neighborhood amenities. Moreover, he said, affordable and workforce housing must be dispersed within and indistinguishable from market-rate housing. As an important component of its work, UDA has created pattern books that offer guidelines and controls for builders and developers of mixed-income housing, and contribute to creative design and housing variety in these communities.

Excerpt from UDA Pattern Book

Carter said the first principle of planning is resident involvement. “Sometimes you have to meet the people on their porches,” he said. Community planning with broad-based participation is a three-phase process: one, understanding what is going on currently; two, exploring new ideas; and three, deciding what to do. Developers are thus “facilitators of a process, not the dictators of a plan,” he said. Carter described a case in which community residents were asked to label a neighborhood map with negative and positive areas as well as areas where they “want new things to happen.” Carter concluded by sharing Maine’s “design features of great American neighborhoods,” which states neighborhoods should be walkable from end to end; have a civic core and mix of uses, an interconnected street network, recognizable boundaries, and housing variety; and provide for chance meetings and privacy.

The former Madden/Wells site in Chicago                                                                                     Plans for the new Oakwood Shores community in Chicago

Brinshore Development’s Peter Levavi summarized three components of architecture and design of mixed-income communities based on lessons the company has learned: the decision-making process, macro-planning, and micro-planning. He reiterated the importance of community participation for legitimacy and support, but stated it is difficult to get “real, important and meaningful input” for a couple of reasons. Many people have pressing concerns or grievances that need to be addressed before they can focus on community planning. In addition, most are ill-equipped to have a technical discussion about architecture. To remedy this reality, Brinshore uses Image Preference Surveys to solicit public input through a series of slides that are ranked by participants on a scale of 1 to 5 according to their desirability. After the initial survey, a new slide show is created and the images are ranked again. Levavi commented that these surveys show “how much shared vision there really is between income groups.”

For site planning and building design, Levavi recommended a few best practices, including: creating solid streetwalls, i.e., avoiding gaps between buildings that become no man’s territory; designing buildings that face the street so people can see what’s going on from their homes; rearranging Chicago’s typically narrow residential lots in a creative manner to provide private outdoor space; and including diverse residential designs by using a team of architects instead of just one firm.

In his experience, Levavi said backyards attached to individual units work better than large, communal areas of open space because they promote each resident’s sense of ownership. A variety of building designs help create a sense of uniqueness and attachment to units and buildings. Levavi also stressed the concepts of universal design to accommodate the needs of diverse households and green initiatives for energy-efficient plans that contribute to sustainability while reducing utility bills – a significant expense, especially for low-income residents. He acknowledged that public housing redevelopment can be “fantastically expensive,” but explained the task of building mixed-income communities is an “iterative process in which we learn more from each development.”

Shirley Newsome shared her experience in community planning in the North Kenwood-Oakland area, on Chicago’s South Side. The neighborhood has an ideal location on the Lkefront and also is a designated historical district. Efforts to rebuild public housing in the neighborhood began before the onset of CHA’s Plan, and it is now home to three mixed-income sites: Lake Park Crescent, Jazz on the Boulevard, and Oakwood Shores. Newsome highlighted a few key strategies for making the community planning process successful: have elected officials involved “at every step along the way;” establish personal relationships with residents; respect different leadership styles in each community; involve residents in more than housing planning such as schools and parks; and keep residents and community members informed through ongoing communication.

A brief Q&A session followed the panelists’ presentations. Below is a sampling of topics that were discussed:

  • Private vs. Community Space
    • Carter said in his experience, leftover spaces and undesignated common areas are generally “taken over” and became trouble spots in the communities. He also clarified that open space can work if it is well-designed and thoughtfully managed. Newsome agreed, and said that because of quality design and management, open spaces are not problem areas in the redeveloped North Kenwood-Oakland community.
  • Unit Accessibility
    • Carter said the Congress for the New Urbanism is currently working with a U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development task force to address the issue of accessibility and “visitability.” In traditional neighborhoods, there are usually steps to a front porch; however there are alternate ways to make buildings more accessible such as side entrances.
  • Creating Indistinguishable Units
    • Levavi said he does not consider making market-rate and subsidized homes indistinguishable a challenge, but acknowledged that “the bar has been raised for rental units in mixed-income communities.” Amenities such as dishwashers and washer/dryer hookups are expected. He also said market-rate and affordable housing renters often have lower expectations than public housing residents in terms of room size, and it has been more of a challenge to attract public housing renters to the new homes than market-rate or affordable renters. Newsome pointed out the units are identical in one of the mixed-income sites in the North Kenwood-Oakland area because any unit could be for a public housing, affordable, or market-rate buyer.

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