Wednesday, June 22, 2005

More Willow Oaks

After my earlier post about Willow Oaks I got an e-mail invitation from Greensboro's HCD director Andy Scott and community planner Dyan Arkin for a guided tour, which I gladly took them up on. We also met up with James Cox, the contractor with Mid-City Urban, the lead developer on the project. (Unfortunately, they couldn't show me the interiors of any of the completed units because they are all rented.)

I wanted to know just how a project like this comes into being. I got some answers, though please don't ask me to explain the finances of this project. The complex web of federal and city subsidies is far beyond my ken.

But here are a few facts that I was able to understand. It started with a $23 million Hope VI federal housing grant. Andy described Hope VI as an attempt to bring "the discipline of the private sector" to government-subsidized housing, and if you read Hope VI link, you'll see that it emphasizes community involvement, employment, and crime reduction. That's a very different approach from 60s-era urban renewal, when the government's main idea seemed to be, "let's knock down this old stuff and build some high-rises for poor people." Boy, did that approach not work.

Other partners in the project were the Greensboro Housing Authority, the City of Greensboro, and Mid-City Urban, which is investing some $60 million.

Duany Plater-Zyberk is the firm that did the overall neighborhood design. They did a great job of incorporating the ideas of the residents of Morningside Homes (the failed urban renewal project that Willow Oaks is replacing). DPZ gave digital cameras to the residents and sent them around Greensboro with instructions to photograph things that they'd like to see in their new neighborhood. Their preferences guided the architecture and greenspace designs that DPZ came up with.

DPZ's Tom Lowe was the lead designer; Andy Scott called him the best urban designer of his generation.

The first phase of the development -- mostly low-income apartments called The Villas -- is finished, and Mid-City is now building single-family houses ranging in size from 1250-2000 square feet. James Cox reports that interest in these houses is strong (one potential buyer is a dentist), though only a couple are completely finished. Several others are under construction. Cox indicated that prices start at about $125,000.

Another phase of development will bring in neighborhood-oriented retail and business -- hopefully including jobs for some Willow Oaks residents. I can't wait for that part, and hope it gets going soon. One of my daughters will be attending Lincoln Academy just a few blocks away from this neighborhood, and it's always nice to have another shopping option in the travel loop.

This kind of holistic approach -- folding low-income housing in with middle-class housing and neighborhood-friendly business and schools -- is typical of other Hope VI projects I've read about. And Willow Oaks successfully avoided one of the pitfalls that earlier Hope VI projects fell into, by making sure that the residents of Morningside Homes were all taken care of and relocated successfully into the new project.

Will it be a success? We won't really know for a generation or so, but I think it's got a good shot.


Billy Jones said...

This can't really be a Greensboro neighborhood 'cause they've got sidewalks-- wonderful safe sidewalks. Where did you really go?

Anonymous said...

What a great idea . . . sending people around with cameras to show what they like. How many people do you think would come back with pictures of snout houses? What people think they want, and what their inner design sense tells them that they really want, I would think are not the same.

Rob Alan said...

Obviously, the charette produced what the residents wanted. The idea to get potential residents involved (and using digital cameras) was wonderful.

Southside's success hopefully, bodes well for Willow Oaks.

Looks beautiful!