Opportunities for urban revitalization seldom come in neat little packages. Consider the turnaround of Providence's downtrodden Smith Hill neighborhood—a five-year effort involving three construction phases, two nonprofit developers, two builders, and a handful of non-contiguous lots to produce a mix of low-income, workforce, and market-rate housing. Phase one alone introduced 28 affordable rental units (some new, some rehabbed) on 13 scattered infill sites.
Carrying out the vision required a complicated system of moving parts and funding sources. Fortunately, Smith Hill had many of the necessary ingredients for an affordable renaissance, including proximity to public transit, zoning for tight lot configurations, and a legacy of mixed housing types, including duplex and triple-decker homes that were intrinsically affordable by nature of their size and shared walls.
As in all infill ventures, sensitivity to the existing neighborhood was paramount. And in Smith Hill, there were precedents worth honoring, notes architect Donald Powers, whose locally based firm photos: donald powers architects created the master plan for the revitalization effort. “One thing I've observed is that when you are working in a city context on standard sized lots of 50 feet by 100 feet, the good solutions were already arrived at a hundred years ago in terms of overall building dimensions,” he says. “Our role wasn't so much to reinvent the wheel as to tweak the formula.”
Some of the tweaks were cost-savers. For example, while older homes on the block were highly compartmentalized on the inside, new dwellings dispensed with unnecessary interior walls to open up communal areas. This move not only brought the new homes up to contemporary lifestyle standards, but made them easier and less expensive to build.
“With engineered lumber, the spans are much greater, so we were able to eliminate intermediate load-bearing walls,” Powers explains. “You don't need to have a center stick ... carrying the joists. That gave us more flexibility in opening up the ground floor with an open plan and fewer discrete rooms. This had cost implications because every wall you eliminate is money saved.”
Another secret to staying on budget was a sensitive, but less-than-literal interpretation of the area's prevailing architectural styles. Take bay windows, which would have been too expensive to pull off had they been framed and trimmed the traditional way. As an alternative, carpenters with Stand Corp. simulated the dimensional look of bays by “packing out” layers of 2x4s on the face of the plywood and then adding decorative brackets. These faux bump-outs maintained the rhythm of the streetscape and created an 8- or 10-inch-deep sill on the inside of each house for plants or pictures.
“Often the dead giveaway for affordable housing is flatness and lack of shadow,” Powers says. “Any chance you get to create an overhang or recess that adds depth to the construction, you should do it.”
Front porches were the one area where the team opted not to pinch pennies—the thinking being that authentic features such as double columns, sturdy turned posts, decorative railings, solid chrome mailboxes, and brick piers would convey a feeling of quality and permanence at eye level.
Phase two of the transformation involved the total rehab of five historic worker cottages (originally built for immigrant mill workers, circa 1891) into affordable rental housing. The third and final phase of redevelopment, now nearing completion, replaces a string of vacant lots and a dilapidated, one-story commercial building with 13 attached units of market-rate and subsidized for-sale housing, plus 8,000 square feet of retail space with mom-and-pop storefronts. The seven affordable residences in this mixed-use enclave (known as Capitol Square) will be reserved for individuals making 80 percent to 120 percent of the area's median income, with a price tag of $159,000. Market rate units will go for $239,000.
“Our philosophy is that creating affordable housing is only partially about creating a house; it's also about creating or repairing a whole neighborhood,” says Powers, noting that investments in relatively small things, such as landscaping and street lighting, can generate a momentum that is priceless. “It's not just a matter of putting roofs over people's heads. When a place is designed well, residents feel proud of where they live and they are more likely to take good care of it.”
Project: Smith Hill Revitalization, Providence, R.I.; Size: 53 acres (scattered site infill); Total units: 44; Density: 6.3 units per acre; Price range: $159,000 (affordable for-sale homes); $239,000 (market-rate for-sale homes); Square footage: 1,050 to 3,250 square feet; Builders: Stand Corp. (phases 1 and 3), Warwick, R.I.; Vasco Construction (phase 2), Seekonk, Mass.; Architect/Planner: Donald Powers Architects, Providence