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Planners like the word “workforce”. Neighborhood groups don’t.



“Not in my back yard.”
The term NIMBY (or the derivative Nimbyism) is used pejoratively to describe opposition by residents to a proposal for a new development close to them. Use the word “workforce” for a proposed development and there could be stampede of nervous neighbors afraid of what may be moving into their surroundings.

“Workforce” is a term Planners are fond of using to refer to housing – mainly, but not necessarily, ownership – targeting families with relatively good-paying jobs, but left out of the private market by rising house prices, such as the young adult offspring of Nimbyists that are just entering the workforce at entry-level salaries.

There is a relatively famous “Workforce” housing development in the Hampton Roads area, in Newport News, Virginia. Called Hilton Village, it was named among TEN GREAT NEIGHBORHOODS in the country by the American Planning Association in 2009.

Hilton Village was originally planned as an English-village-style neighborhood. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The neighborhood was built between 1918 and 1921 in response to the need for housing during World War I for employees of Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. It even received a federal subsidy for a portion of its development cost.

Hilton Village is a quality project, true. It was designed by some of the best planning minds of the time. The nimbyists did not muster for this one. It was well conceived and survives today as a neighborhood of very small homes on small lots, occupied by residents of modest means and moderate lifestyles. There also remains, to this day, the original a street of small retail establishments that borders the residences.

“Hilton was the first of about 100 housing projects federally financed and built during World War I. Many of its features — tree-lined streets, pedestrian-friendly mix of homes and businesses, walkability — can be found in newer mixed-use developments such as Port Warwick, said acting City Manager Neil Morgan.” Newport News.

The point is that the “workforce” housing initiatives can be done successfully. On the website of Virginia Beach Community Development Corporation it reads: The Workforce Housing Program was created to improve affordable housing opportunities for vital members of our community – our teachers, police officers, firefighters, nurses, medical technicians, military personnel, retail workers, recent college graduates and young families.

Virginia Beach has instituted an ordinance program that offers a “bonus density” to developers who voluntarily build workforce housing units in combination with the development of market-rate units. By allowing developers to build more units with no additional land cost, rental units are more affordable and “for-sale” units are sold with special financing that allows for more affordable monthly mortgage payments.

Workforce is really not a bad word. I contend that the most neighborly neighborhoods are socially diverse, as well as walkable, centralized, sustainable and above all PLANNED. The end result can have such an obvious character and identity that they can even become listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Specifying “affordability” in Traditional Neighborhood Design



Redevelopment planners are facing a new challenge for replacing deteriorated single-family houses with new homes that conform to Traditional Neighborhood Design standards, including that prospective buyers cannot qualify for the selling price of the new home. A sagging economic climate has made getting financing to purchase a new home increasing difficult for more and more prospective homeowners. The cost of construction has not dropped enough to make new homes more affordable. The result is many builders are unwilling to invest in new construction for urban in-fill properties.

Affordable Urban Plan

Sample affordable house plan

Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority recently took a proactive approach to meeting this challenge. It is based on the assumption that if it could offer to their single-family builders new TND house plan that was less expensive to build, the construction cost could come down to a selling price that would enable today’s homebuyer to qualify for its purchase. Willing builders would jump at the chance, right?

How do they find a satisfactory house plan that meets the design standards of traditional neighborhood design and costs less to build?

Here are ten ways to accomplish that objective:

1. Reduce square feet. A 3-bedroom house on a small lot can be as small as 1,200 SF without being too small to be comfortable. Neighborhood streetscape density can dictate the maximum space between houses and the appropriate house width. This considera-
tion along with minimum room widths can increase the minimum to around 1,300 SF.
2. Reduce room separation walls. Open kitchens to dining areas; living rooms and foyers; hallways and laundry space.
3. Reduce bathrooms. Historical house plans from the early 20th Century typically had one full bath for a whole house. Today we can design for a single full bath located in the hall convenient to all the bedrooms, with chambered areas for multiple use; a powder room on the first floor is sufficient unless there is a bedroom.
4. Reduce building offsets. Straight walls use less lumber to construct; long walls are more cost efficient that short walls; a square is the most efficient building shape.
5. Modest size bedrooms are okay. Give priority to large spaces in the open areas where the family gathers as a group. Historically speaking, house plans typically had small bedrooms, in Europe they still do.
6. Concentrate plumbing into one quadrant. Minimize the length and number of drainage and water lines.
7. Avoid unnecessary windows and doors. Design for window balance and proportions on the front profile as viewed from the street, other sides of the house can have one window per room.
8. Reduce the number of shingles on the roof. Keep roof slopes the minimum necessary to achieve historical architectural style; avoid dormers.
9. Minimize porches and details. TND architecture will certainly deal with a covered entry porch. Strive to keep it simple and locate it as close as allowed to the sidewalk.
10. Locate house with space on one side to park at least one car off the street. It is desirable to leave enough space to construct a detached garage at a later time.

NRHA sent out an RFP in July, 2011, to local architects and builders, to develop new house plans that would meet affordability parameters based upon a published preliminary plan that its in-house architects derived. The resulting construction plans would be published in its on-line HOUSE PLANS LIBRARY where pre-approved urban plans are displayed for purchase from the architects and designers who own the copyrights. It remains to be seen whether the plans will found “acceptable” by builders for speculative projects or their own marketing agenda. Dozens of ready-to-build urban plans can be purchased from on-line plans websites.

It is worth comment what other planning approaches may be available to spur house construction action toward affordable products in the urban setting. What is the likelihood of success with the NRHA plans it is developing?

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  • GREGORY M. FRECH

    Urban Underbelly is a blog that seeks to share the back stories of successes and struggles in achieving the visions of New Urbanism, especially in Hampton Roads, Virginia

    New Urbanism: is a city planning and architecture movement directed at the creation and restoration of vibrant neighborhood places: centralized, sustainable, walkable and socially diverse.
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