Deteriorating public housing projects pose a challenge all over the country. But as they say, with great challenge comes great opportunity.
In parts of Savannah that opportunity isn’t going to waste, as those dilapidated projects are being replaced with state–of–the art mixed–income, mixed–use communities, built to the highest standards of energy efficiency and sustainability.
Attractive buildings, plenty of green space, playgrounds – all designed to foster a spirit of a welcoming neighborhood. As realtor Stacy Marcus recalls one of her clients saying, “It’s just like coming home.”
In the current highly politicized environment – where government is attacked as unable to do anything but waste money and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (aka the stimulus) is called a failure – the facts on the ground, at least in the area of affordable housing, prove those contentions wrong in Savannah.
Not only have these developments succeeded, they have done so with honors. For example, Sustainable Fellwood, off West Bay Street, was awarded LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold for Phase I and II, and, it was just announced that the 100–unit senior housing gained the highest achievement of LEED Platinum.
The Eastside community of Savannah Gardens (on Pennsylvania just north of Gwinnett) is being developed according to stringent Earthcraft Coastal Community certification.
And the Savannah Housing Authority, which had already received a HUD grant for the demolition of Hitch Village, was one of only 13 housing authorities in the country to receive a major Choice Neighborhood Initiative Planning Grant. It will support the development of a comprehensive neighborhood revitalization plan, to transform Robert Hitch Village and Fred Wessels Homes, and the surrounding area along the Wheaton Street Corridor.
In every case success is due to cooperation among city government departments and agencies, non–profits, and private sector developers — with strong community and neighborhood involvement. A complex financial structure includes federal and state tax credits and grants, local bank support, other financial institutions, and private investors.
In addition to this network of public–private cooperation, two themes dominate these residential developments: the importance of community involvement and “pushing the envelope” for sustainable living.
“The local community was involved early on,” recalls Denis Blackburne of the Woda Group, one of the four companies that form the Development Team. Meetings were held at Moses Jackson Elementary School.
“We held a design charette with draft plans and site plans. The community provided so much input. For example, the location of the 100–unit senior housing was originally placed to the back of the site – for more peace and quiet, we thought,” says Blackburne.
“But the seniors said, ‘no.’ They wanted it at the edge of the park near the bus stop and close to the businesses planned for the area fronting Bay Street,” she says.
“The original plans also called for the two–story apartment buildings to be constructed near existing streets, but the neighbors were concerned that the height of the buildings would be too abrupt for the surrounding single family neighborhood. As a result 13 individual houses were built on the property and the two–story buildings moved inward to make a smoother transition,” Blackburne says.
“A neighborhood task force was also created and provided advice on color schemes, choice of logo, things like that.”
A similar approach was taken at Savannah Gardens. “CHSA Development, a non–profit, put together an advisory council composed of residents being replaced and five surrounding neighborhoods,” says Martin Fretty, head of the city’s Housing Department.
“A design charette was held at nearby Savannah High School and the age range of attendees went from 4 to 95. The planners received a lot of good information.”
Residents wanted to preserve trees, provide some on street parking, housing options and maintain the current configuration of Crescent Drive.
Before a single building was demolished at Hitch Village, the Savannah Housing Authority held several meetings to gain the support of residents who were to be displaced as well as the local community.
“It was a very structured procedure required to obtain federal funding,” says Rosalyn Truitt, director of development services. The funds provided for both the demolition of buildings as well as resettling displaced residents.
Currently the Housing Authority is at the preliminary stages of establishing four task forces – Housing, People, Neighborhood, Community Engagement — to prepare the planning grant publication.
“We have 24 months to provide a transformation plan and then will have to submit it to compete for an implementation grant,” Truitt explains.
All of those committed to this process are tasked with creating a viable, workable implementation plan that will create a sustainable, mixed–financed neighborhood with safe streets, good schools, accessible transportation, and job training.
The tone for aggressive green building was set at the first meeting that included the development team of Parallel Housing, Inc., The Woda Group, LLC, Melaver, Inc., Vanguard Developers and Lott+Barber Architects. Virtually all of the participants had direct experience in LEED certification.
“Right off the bat,” says Blackburne, “we made a commitment. This was going to be a LEED project. Although there were those who said that LEED requirements were too expensive and added 10–15 percent to the costs, the development team was experienced in the field, and those costs were coming down dramatically.”
To residents of Sustainable Fellwood the type of construction has a direct impact on expenses.
“Living in an apartment in Savannah, my electric bill was around $200 a month,” says Gwen Jackson Gregory. “My highest electric bill when I first moved into an apartment in Fellwood was $80.”
Since moving into senior housing, that bill has dropped to $30–$40 a month, she reports.
Fretty says city staff was already oriented to energy efficiency. “The overriding mandate came from Mayor Otis Johnson and the Aldermen. They were looking at the world and local economy. The benefits outweigh the disadvantages.”
The decision was made to go with the Georgia–based Earthcraft Coastal Neighborhood certification. Like LEED, this encompasses far more than just energy efficiency. Reduced waste, reuse of existing materials, low emission cabinetry, rain barrels, balconies, front and back porches, pervious parking areas to lessen rainwater runoff. A better living experience in the individual houses comes from 9’ cathedral ceilings, fresh air circulation, and a virtually maintenance–free exterior.
“Affordable housing means more than just lower rents,” says Garrison Marr, sustainability officer in the city housing department. “Lower maintenance costs and sharply reduced utility bills also make a home more affordable.”
Basic plans of the all–electric homes were drawn up in–house and estimates of energy use prepared by special software. “It was estimated that total electric energy costs would average $100 or less per month,” Marr says.
Typical energy–saving features are those included in any green development — low flow showerheads, faucet aerators, low–flow toilets, Energy Star appliances, compact fluorescent lighting, extra insulation.
The homes at Savannah Gardens also have ceiling fans with light kits, motion detector lighting, spray foam in attic and other fill areas. They have a geothermal heating and air conditioning system that also produces hot water, and have electrical conduit installed to make them solar ready. All utilities are underground.
Fretty considers these homes to be extraordinary energy efficient through the use of higher quality material and system package. For example, notes Gary Udinsky, of GBU Construction, one of the five local homebuilders, the fiber cement siding has a 25–year warranty, as do the outside decking and interior hardwood floors. Roof shingles have a lifetime warranty. Windows are fitted with a unique metal screen than can withstand hurricane–force winds.
“There are so many extras that provide safe, secure, high energy efficient living,” says Udinsky.
These extras finally convinced Jajuana Chisholm to buy a home in Savannah Gardens.
“It was time for me to have a home of my own. I looked around Savannah and the problem with buying an existing home was the strain on my budget. There were always things to be redone. Here I just move my furniture right in.”
Lowered utility bills and favorable financing clinched the deal. The metal hurricane screens also impressed her.
“With two tropical storms already this year, and the possibility of boarding–up windows... This way you can just pack your stuff and go.”
That sense of community, of locals buying into the new housing developments, brings with it a sense of pride, says Fretty. In the long run that means greater stability for the community. The approach taken here in Savannah is a model of government, private, and community involvement that should go beyond affordable housing. Hopefully, it sets an example for real estate developers and builders throughout the Lowcountry.
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