Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Bland, Planned

In two public meetings last week, EYA unveiled preliminary information about the proposed redevelopment of the James Bland public housing complex. However, many details (including the architectural design) remain to be worked out before the project is submitted to Planning & Zoning staff for review some time in late May or early June.

At this stage, EYA proposes 134 public housing units and approximately 266 market rate units. At a ratio of two market units to every public housing unit, EYA and ARHA believe this to be an ideal mix.

Bland currently has a total of 194 public housing units, and with redevelopment 60 units will be off-sited. One-third of the current public housing units will be off-sited, in comparison to Chatham Square where 48% of the units were dispersed. Some 44 of Bland's units will go to to the redeveloped Glebe Park project in Arlandria while the City has pledged to identify and purchase land for the remaining 16 units. Housing Director Mildrilyn Davis confirmed under tough questioning that these 16 units will not be transplanted elsewhere in the Braddock Road Metro area but will go to another place in the City.

The proposed community will consist of single-family townhomes, multi-family homes built to resemble townhomes, and traditional multi-family buildings with both market rate and public housing units. Heights will vary from 3.5 to 4 stories, rising to the highest point at the west side of the site.

Public housing units will be scattered throughout the site rather than concentrated in any one spot, and as at Chatham Square and other stops on the recent public housing tour homes, the Bland site will be designed so that a bystander will be unable to identify which units are subsidized and which are market rate.

The Bland project occupies 8.5 acres and is therefore approximately twice the size of the old Berg (Chatham Square), which was 4.17 acres. Densities in the townhouse section of the Bland site will be similar to Chatham Square at approximately 36 units per acre but will rise to 55 to 60 units per acre at the multi-family building sites.

While we are getting more density than Old Town did a few years ago, it must be kept in mind that Chatham Square was funded with a HOPE VI grant. Those monies can be used not only for more resident counseling and outreach services, but to acquire land elsewhere for dispersed units. Although another round of HOPE VI grants are coming up, EYA and ARHA are developing the Bland site plan without expectation of Federal subsidies -- hence the density.

EYA staff presented generic looking designs at the April 23 and 24 meetings, as the building styles and detailing have not yet been settled. We are told that the site will include diverse architectural styles but we were also assured the project will be submitted to the Parker-Gray BAR for review and approval.

Given the depth of the block between N. Alfred and Columbus Streets, EYA proposes creating a new public street behind the privately owned homes on N. Columbus Street. There will be townhomes built facing the new interior road, which will be landscaped and feature on-street parking on one side. Addressing the concerns of some residents, EYA spokesmen also suggested the possibility of building the homeowners on N. Columbus fences that will increase the sense of separation and distance from the new construction. Townhouses will also flank Wythe, Madison, Montgomery and First Streets.

Currently, the multi-family buildings are sited on the east side of N. Patrick Street at the edge of the Bland property. Gone is the "solid wall" design for N. Patrick Street which some of us saw at the Hope VI meetings last fall. There is now a proposal to punctuate the facade of the multi-family units with setbacks and green space.

Although the townhomes will have small lawns, it appears there will be less public green space in the future than is currently featured at Bland, and those open spaces are currently slated to be clustered at the northwest quadrant of the property, with none in the sections facing Parker-Gray and the Inner City.

Because of project economics, EYA has stated there will not be underground parking as there was at Chatham Square. This is disappointing, but readers will remember that we were told repeatedly in the Braddock Road Metro planning process that building underground parking is costly. Since the Bland redevelopment must not only pay for itself but bootstrap the Glebe Park redevelopment in Arlandria, it appears this is where ARHA and EYA will economize.

Townhome owners will have off-site ground-level parking but the multi-family structures will wrap around four-story garages that we are told will be designed to be invisible from the street.

ARHA units in the multi-family buildings will be mixed with market-rate units on the first and second floors. Addressing ARHA's oft-stated concerns about elevators, EYA is proposing that residents (including those with disabilities) will be able to access their units directly from ground level or by going up a single flight of stairs. There will be no long, shared corridors, which create maintenance issues for ARHA (and, the Growler suspects, raise safety concerns as well). Market-rate unit owners on the top two floors will be able to access their units from the garage and shared corridors.

EYA is proposing a full complement of parking for the market rate units, undoubtedly to make them more competitive. But the developer will also be making a request for parking reduction for the public housing units, based on surveys and other City data that show fewer of these residents own cars and need parking.

Questions have already been raised on this blog about the parking garages and safety. Growler must remind readers that Chatham Square features shared garages, but these were the source of some lifestyle conflict between residents. Other issues that remain to be addressed include whether residents will be eligible for on-street parking permits and what the potential impact on the Parker-Gray neighborhood would be.

Finally, there was a presentation on ARHA and EYA's efforts to reach out to public housing residents about the upcoming redevelopment. We were told that residents love the neighborhood, with its access to transportation and shopping, and most wish to return after redevelopment. They are, we told, looking forward to better quarters with such amenities as washers, dryers, dishwashers, garbage disposals and more closet space.

Time will tell, but to the Growler it appears there is no strong backlash developing among ARHA residents against the Bland redevelopment. Interestingly, at these recent meetings we didn't see much of the non-ARHA citizens who in the past have tried to organize and rally residents. Could this be a good sign?

In summary, the Bland redevelopment project appears to be slowly jelling but there are still many critical issues that we in Parker-Gray need to ponder. Is off-siting 30% of public housing residents acceptable or are neighbors prepared to push for the higher level that was achieved at Chatham Square. Is the density too much, and if so is there any way ARHA and EYA can bring the proposed density down while still meeting their critical financial objectives? Can open space be more evenly distributed through the site, and what recreational activities will Bland as well as the new Charles Houston Center offer to keep children and teens occupied and out of trouble?

Finally, this note: EYA has been invited to make a presentation at the ICCA's upcoming May 14 meeting. If you were unable to attend last week's meetings, put this date on your calendar and come prepared with comments, concerns, and suggestions.