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Development Contest Yields Two Winning Teams

Originally published on May 4, 2001, as "Student Architects Take Lead in Affordable Home Design" in the Boston Business Journal.
Reprinted with permission.

by Mary K. Pratt
Special to the Journal

Linda Landry, an architectural intern, and her team of fellow students have a plan to improve a parking lot in downtown Waltham.

Their design calls for a mixed-use, mixed-income development with 38 residential rental units. The building would be three to four stories high. Its brick exterior would blend nicely with the existing neighborhood of multifamily homes.

The team's plan won first place and a $10,000 prize in the Greater Boston Affordable Housing Development Competition. The winner and a second-place prize of $6,000 were announced April 19.

The Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston, in partnership with Citizens' Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA), sponsored the competition to encourage students to find solutions to the challenges of developing affordable housing, to introduce them to issues related to affordable housing and to give them practical experience.

"I saw the competition as a way to have a real project," said Tami Chuang, a student of urban studies and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Five teams made up of about 26 graduate and undergraduate students from six area universities teamed with nonprofit developers to identify Boston-area sites and community needs.

The teams' plans addressed many issues, from building designs to community outreach, from financing to environmental impacts.

The contest comes at a time when more and more attention is focusing on the need for affordable housing in eastern Massachusetts. As most people know, home prices and rents in the area have dramatically increased, leaving many scrambling for decent housing.

"We've seen in recent years a record level of need for affordable housing," said Aaron Gornstein, executive director of CHAPA. 'There's a severe shortage."

Students participating in the contest said the competition helped them see the heightened need for affordable housing and taught them the complicated issues surrounding financing such developments. "It's very typical of what a community development organization would do," Chuang said.

Teams had to deal with such issues as acquisition of sites, revenue streams, mortgage financing, grants and subsidized loans.

"A big challenge was learning about resources available," said Laura Siegel, a first-year student at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government studying for a master's degree in public policy. Siegel and her four fellow teammates took second place for a plan to renovate a vacant Boston building.

Industry experts involved in the contest said they were impressed with the student teams' designs.

The winning entry was submitted by four students from Harvard University and MIT working with Watch Community Development Corp. in Waltham. The project called for a mixed-use development on two downtown parking lots.

Waltham has a vacancy rate of nearly zero, and these two lots are an underutilized neighborhood resource, according to the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston's web site.

Team members said they wanted the development to fit the area and offer services and amenities needed by tenants.

"With our development, you want to reference the character of the surrounding neighborhoods in Waltham, two- or three-story multifamily homes with porches," said Sarah Karlinsky, a student at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government studying public policy and urban planning "What we designed blended with the rest of the neighborhood."

The team also put 240 parking spaces underground and topped it with a public park

The second-place team worked with Nuestra Comunidad Development Corp. of Roxbury to design renovations for a vacant building in Boston for affordable housing.

Siegel was guarded about details of the project, citing negotiations to pursue the development. She did say, however, that the team addressed the challenge of providing affordable housing that provided quality and privacy.

"You're obviously going to have high-quality materials, not luxury materials, so it's a place you feel you could live, she said. Good design is crucial to quality affordable housing, industry experts said.

"Affordable housing has to be good housing, but that kind of housing is expensive," said David Parish, senior vice president of housing and community investment at Federal Home Loan Bank. He said some people still think of affordable and public housing as the cinder block, high-rise towers that were unattractive, unsafe and crime-ridden — and consequently torn down. "They don't realize that given the resources that we can do it right now."

The student teams came up with plans that incorporated good design and addressed community needs, Parish said.

"They all exhibited an understanding of the issues and underlying concerns," he said.

Some of the students' projects are moving forward, from contest entries to proposed developments, and some of them might actually be built.

"That's a bonus we weren't really expecting," Gornstein said.

Winning Teams

First Place
Sarah Karlinsky, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
Jenna Hornstock, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
Linda Landry, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University
Carlos Rosso, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Students worked with Watch Community Development Corp. of Waltham.

Second Place
Tami Chuang, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Angie Datta, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
Laura Siegel, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
Richard Alsop, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University
Hanna Jirasetpetana, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Students worked with Nuestra Comunidad Development Corp. of Roxbury.