Public housing gets anew look in Seattle

Creating an attractive residential neighborhood from scratch is a challenge under any circumstances. The task becomes harder still when it calls for designing a large, affordable public-housing project that doesn't look the part in a hot real estate market like Seattle's.

This, essentially, is the job Ed Weinstein and his colleagues at Weinstein Copeland Architects and three other firms have tackled. Within the past few years, they have crafted a master plan for replacing nearly 900 dilapidated housing units with a new neighborhood that is a mix of 1,200 low-income, moderate-income, and market-rate housing. It is meant to be a seamless mix of new public housing and for-sale units.

The redevelopment of Holly Park, located about 15 minutes southeast of downtown Seattle, holds national significance, Mr. Weinstein believes. That's because it's a trailblazer in efforts to normalize high concentrations of public housing.

"The overarching ambition here," he says, "is to create a neighborhood where various housing types are indistinguishable from one another, so that rental housing is not stigmatized by looking different."

This sort of approach is a priority of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), as well as local housing authorities, which are seeking ways to create safer, more stable inner-city neighborhoods.

The garden-style units in Holly Park were built as housing for World War II defense workers, and eventually became public housing. They were never intended to be permanent, and after 60 years, were ready for the wrecking ball.

So how do architects go about redesigning a 120-acre site in the middle of an established, if modest, residential area?

One of the first objectives, Weinstein says, was to integrate the new with the old. Surprisingly, this led to adopting a site plan that, at first glance, might seem less attractive than what existed.

The former development enjoyed gracefully curving streets, few intersections, considerable open space, and a relatively low housing density. The new one is built on a grid with rows and rows of closely packed homes.

The original development was not without drawbacks, however. Such garden-style layouts can be a misfit. This was the case for the old Holly Park, which did not blend with the rest of Seattle's Beacon Hill neighborhood.

Because its roads did not connect well with those at its perimeter, the general public seldom drove through. This also made it attractive to criminals, who could elude the police. And the parking courts were a breeding ground for drug dealing and other unwelcome activities.

"What we've done is extend the streets from the adjacent community onto the site and create a neighborhood block grid that is an extension of the adjacent neighborhood," Weinstein says.

Because there are "aberrant" block dimensions on the perimeter, the new site plan is able to incorporate just enough variety in the block layout to avoid a relentless feeling of uniformity.

In theory, there should be no noticeable difference when going from the surrounding neighborhood to NewHolly, as the project is called. In fact, there is a pleasant difference because NewHolly is built "to a higher standard. It has sidewalks and legitimate landscaping," Weinstein says.

The inspiration for many of the house designs is drawn from the cottage and bungalow styles common in Seattle. These often were selected from pattern books and built from kit houses during the early 1900s.

These influenced the designs in NewHolly, which is meant to look like a traditional neighborhood built out over a period of years with different, yet similar, housing types.

Single-family homes, two-family duplexes, and two- and four-unit town houses had to be tastefully interwoven and economically built, since HUD and state guidelines set maximum total development costs for the project.

The median price for a single-family residence in Seattle is about $260,000 to $280,000, and those on the market at that price are often 50 or 60 years old and require a lot of work.

In NewHolly, the price of a for-sale unit is $200,000 to $240,000, and this is for a new home, with landscaped streets and new infrastructure. About a third of the development is made up of for-sale homes, with the remaining being public-assistance units reserved for people with low-to-moderate incomes. Eventually, row houses will be part of the mix.

While there is a cohesive quality to the development's overall design, the architects have tried to use different roof configurations, colors, and floor layouts to give units individual character. The building footprints, however, are standardized. This saves money and speeds construction.

A number of steps have been taken to make NewHolly livable despite the high density.

The homes, for example, sit on small lots, but the land is used to maximum advantage.

This involves close attention to what Weinstein calls "a hierarchy of space," which begins at the public street, moves to the semipublic front yard and porch, and ends in private backyards. This gives people a sense of ownership that can be missing in garden-style apartments, with their undifferentiated public spaces.

In NewHolly, the decision was made to park cars in relatively secure and private areas adjacent to each home or on the street, as is typical in single-family Seattle neighborhoods, rather than in common lots.

Duplexes are laid out to provide adjoining units with separate entrances.

And all the units are designed with reasonable-size, not cramped, rooms.

Some critics objected to building units they felt were too large and too generous according to the conventions of subsidized public housing.

Making them smaller, the argument went, would mean more could be built.

Weinstein, though, defends the decision. First, he says it was important to make the units large enough to be marketable to buyers. Then, too, it's a quality-of-life issue of special importance in this traditionally family-oriented neighborhood.

"By having bedrooms no smaller than 10 by 10 feet you can have two beds for two children," he explains. "And by having a dining area approximately 10 by 12 [feet], you [can] get the family around the table at Thanksgiving. Increasing the size of the floor plans marginally to accommodate more people was money well spent."

Then, too, there's no great advantage in cost or capacity to squeezing in more, smaller units. Weinstein says only five or six more could have been built, accommodating about 30 more people.

Schools, parks, and playgrounds are all nearby. There is also some retail, but developers resisted the urge to place any kind of convenience shopping in the middle of Holly Park.

At the edge of the development is a new community-oriented facility called the NewHolly Neighborhood Campus. The buildings house a library, continuing education center, and various social services. The Seattle Housing Authority hopes the facility can help combat the isolation sometimes associated with public housing.

Renters have expressed enthusiasm for NewHolly, some calling it the best place they've ever lived.

In 15 years, Weinstein says, he would feel equally gratified "if the people who purchased homes had similar things to say, that it doesn't feel like an experiment, this feels like a neighborhood."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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