Anyone who still thinks green building and affordable (especially rental) housing are mutually exclusive needs to visit Ironhorse at Central Station in Oakland, Calif.
Part of a larger effort to redevelop 29 acres of abandoned industrial land in the heart of the city, the 99-unit, four-level complex features an array of green building staples, from roofs fitted with vegetation or solar panels and collectors to energy-efficient appliances, water-saving fixtures and irrigation systems, and low-VOC finishes.
But it’s the stuff you can’t see, or need to look at more closely, that not only enabled developer BRIDGE Housing to create Ironhorse, but also reap benefits for itself and for the residents beyond achieving green building certifications—and offer one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments to residents earning 20 percent to 50 percent of the area’s median income.
Consider, for instance, the building’s location on a brownfield parcel within close proximity of public transportation and existing services, a building design that encircles a park-like courtyard, or its staggered forms and colorful finishes that create dimension and remove the stigma of low-income housing, encouraging residents to take pride in its upkeep. “There’s a lot about this project that is intrinsically green,” says BRIDGE Housing project manager Ben Metcalf. “Part of green is bricks and mortar, and part of it is attitude.”
In that vein, BRIDGE Housing takes a different view than most about return on its green (and other) investments at Ironhorse, specifically those—such as the 130kW photovoltaic system—that impact operating costs and long-term maintenance. Unlike a private developer that would likely sell to a management firm and try to reap an immediate payback, BRIDGE will own and operate Ironhorse for the long term. “We’ll be able to realize a payback and benefit from lower utility bills and repair and replacement costs,” says Metcalf.
In turn, he says, those savings can be plowed into resident and community programs and services or simply ease pressure on the developer’s operating budget.
Going green at Ironhorse also helped BRIDGE Housing secure funding for the project. By making sustainable practices a priority, for instance, the developer won a competitive application for money from the city of Oakland. “The city was making a big push for green,” says Metcalf. BRIDGE also won a $65,000 grant that allowed it to engage a green building consultant and pay for the green roofs and planters that dot the footprint.
In conjunction with seasoned green architect David Baker, the design-build team (all in place and collaborating from the start) engaged a variety of options to marry its low-income housing and sustainability goals. “At almost every turn, we were given choices and questions to ponder so that we could create the best project,” says Metcalf.
The result, he says, is a project that makes use of “every square inch” of its tight infill site to make the project sustainable. “We thought about how to incorporate green into everything,” says Metcalf.
Ready for occupancy in November of last year, Ironhorse at Central Station (the name refers to the adaptive reuse of a historic train station within the master plan) has attracted mostly families. They’ve been moving in at a clip of 25 per month to achieve full occupancy by March—an arrangement more about keeping a manageable pace than demand, which is abundant. Residents receive a “green guide” at move-in that encourages them to use eco-friendly cleaning products and public transportation, among other lifestyle changes that impact the effectiveness of the project. “It’s satisfyingly symbolic that low-income rental housing can benefit from green building,” says Metcalf. “Green isn’t just reserved for luxury homeowners.”
Learn more about markets featured in this article: San Francisco, CA.