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Collegiate Teams Plan Affordable Housing Sites

Written by Paul Restuccia for The Boston Herald on May 9, 2003.

A local affordable housing competition that matches the Boston area's critical need for affordable housing with the talents of top area graduate students is allowing local community development corporations to tap into some fresh thinking.

This week's third Affordable Housing Development Competition, sponsored by the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston, the Citizens Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA) and the Boston Foundation, introduced some innovative ideas to long-standing obstacles to getting housing built.

Five volunteer teams, made up primarily of students from MIT's planning, architecture and real estate programs and Harvard's design and Kennedy schools, with additional participants from BU and Wentworth, made in-depth presentations for proposed projects in Codman Square in Dorchester, Union Square in Brighton, Mattapan Square, Maverick Square in East Boston and the North Common neighborhood in Lawrence.

"This is a development competition, not a design competition,'' says FHLB Vice President David Parish. "We put student teams together with community development corporations to work on real-world projects.''

Each team has graduate students from at least two area schools to avoid what Parish calls an "architectural Beanpot,'' and teams are made up of planning, architecture, public policy and finance students. They work with community residents and municipal officials and come up with site plans, building design and projected development costs and operating expenses.

The competition is no mere academic exercise. A proposal for the former Dartmouth Hotel in Dudley Square that finished second in the 2001 competition had its groundbreaking yesterday and Nuestra Comunidad Development Corp. managers say the student team's input was instrumental in the final $11 million project, a restoration of an 1871 hotel with adjacent new construction of 20 units, for a total of 65 units of affordable studio and one-bedroom apartments, six artist live-work spaces and around 11,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space.

"What we're ending up doing is very close to what the students proposed,'' says Evelyn Friedman, Nuestra's executive director. "We incorporated a lot of their ideas in the interior and exterior design of the new building. It was fun to work with a group who has fresh ideas and aren't jaded yet.''

Dartmouth Hotel project manager John Mahony says that tearing down a one-story addition to the hotel and replacing it with a separate new building was the student team's idea.

"Tapping into bright young people like these is crucial, because building attractive, affordable housing is fundamental to the future viability of this region,'' says Paul Grogan, president and CEO of the Boston Foundation.

Judges used six criteria to judge this year's presentations: project financing, physical design, community responsiveness, environmental sensitivity (20 percent each) as well as project feasibility and innovation (10 percent each).

This year's winning design was a proposal called Norfolk Corners, an ambitious project that conceived both a master plan and phased development on the Norfolk Triangle, a 21-acre area near Codman Square plagued by dilapidated housing, empty lots and auto uses, both legitimate and illegal, that's made the district a hotbed for stolen vehicles. The development plan calls for a three-phase plan for 70 units of affordable housing spread among sites along New England Avenue and Norfolk Street and a plan to consolidate repair uses to make the area more visually attractive and help buffer residents from pollution.

"What was really impressive about this project was how successfully they met some complicated goals such as reorganizing auto uses into one area of the site and building a mix of housing - from triple-deckers to 9-unit dwellings - that fit into the existing neighborhood,'' says Diane Georgopulos, a competition judge and architect who does rental development at Mass Housing.

"It's the most rewarding academic experience I've ever had and also the most work,'' says MIT planning student Zoe Weirobe, a member of the Norfolk Corners team. The group, which also included students from Harvard, each of whom spent several hundred of hours on the proposal, including holding nine meetings with community residents.

"The students' work was equivalent to that done by professionals,'' says Lisa Davis, director of development for the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation "The real value of their proposal is that they've left residents, who helped draw up the scope of the project, with a framework to move forward.''

This year's second-place competition finisher was a team that worked with Lawrence Community Works on a proposal on a 32-unit proposal called the Vista Verde that drew its inspiration from the neighborhood's preference for apartments to house larger families. The team created a glass-walled community center as the focal point of the project and emphasized green design principles and energy efficiency in addition to preserving a treasured oak tree.

"We had to match the communities wants and needs with financial realities,'' says team participant Todd Liederman of MIT. James Alexander, also of MIT, characterizes the experience as "full of real world constraints. But we also got to know a neighborhood.''

The winning team will receive $10,000 and the runner-up $6,000, with the prize money split between the nonprofit developer and members of the student teams.

"The students worked on theses while taking a full course load,'' says Vista Verde faculty adviser James Stockard, who teaches affordable housing finance at Harvard's School of Design. "Most of the work is theirs what I did was to help them clarify the details. I've done this for 3 years and found these students to be astonishingly perceptive and accomplished.''

Many students say that neighborhood input was a critical factor in their proposals and judge Scott Darling, an attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation agrees.

"The first thing I looked at in these proposals was community process,'' Darling says. "If you have that in place the rest will follow. Residents don't want something imposed on them from the top down.''

A student team working with the Allston-Brighton CDC canvassed 120 residents as well as local community and citywide leaders in formulating a plan to convert a dilapidated nursing home in Union Square into what they call Generations House, 24 units of affordable housing geared toward "grandfamilies,'' housing grandparents raising young children.

"We thought about an assisted living project for this site, but the students came up with a really imaginative and much-needed use,'' says John Woods, director of housing development for Allston-Brighton CDC. "We've never had the resources to flush this out in detail until the student team tackled it.''

"We applied a lot of what we learn in class,'' says Generations House team member Thomas Suh who studies finance at the MIT Center for Real Estate. "But we also had to make the numbers work and come up with real world sources of funding, some 17 to 20 on this project - everything from low-income tax credits to grants to conventional mortgages.''

Two other teams proposed denser development near public transportation nodes, a central tenet of the emerging smart-growth movement. One worked with the Mattapan CDC and a private developer on a proposed 7-story mixed-use project near the Mattapan Red Line stop that would 55 housing units, 22 affordable and 33 market rate along with second-floor office and ground-floor retail complete with a rooftop community garden. Another team working with East Boston's NOAH for a five-story project on a vacant lot near the Maverick Square Blue Line station that would contain 55 units of housing with underground parking, commercial space and a "Gateway Community Center.''

"We want to encourage young people to enter the community housing field, to bring in new talent that's desperately needed,'' says Aaron Gornstein, executive director of CHAPA. "Having students participate with local community groups encourages them to stay in the area.''

One 2001 competition team member, Cagatay Ozkul, is now a project manager at the Codman Square NDC and several few students on this year' team said they are planning careers in affordable housing development.

"All the presentations showed great invention and courage,'' says Georgopulos. "The student teams were not afraid to be bold, and that's what it's going to take to solve a lot of affordable housing problems.''