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The Sheridan Street Story

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Posted by Beth Miller, Executive Director:

Since we’ve been celebrating our 20th anniversary, 2011 has been an action-packed year at the Collaborative. But even in this extraordinary year, the ribbon cutting for APM’s Sheridan Street Housing stands out as one of the highlights.

Like all good things, these 13 contemporary, sustainable homes took time, perseverance, and partnerships. I feel lucky to have seen this project take shape, gain momentum, and get built.

While Sheridan Street Housing remained true to the original design concept developed at its start with the Collaborative—a minor miracle in itself—it also ended up being much more. It opened up new horizons for an experienced community development corporation and a young design firm. It inspired policy change. And it influenced what private developers offer homebuyers.

When I first saw the skinny, weedy lot at Sheridan and Montgomery Streets, it was hard to imagine exactly what kind of housing might look, well, at home there. The site faced the back yards of the APM’s neo-traditional Pradera Homes on one side and a gap-toothed block of 19th century row houses on the other. Yet APM was offering the site up as a test case for contemporary and green affordable housing.

It was 2005, and the Collaborative was just beginning its Affordable Infill Housing Design Challenge Beverly Coleman of Neighborhoods Now asked us to partner with them was to come up with design solutions for undersized, vacant row house buildings and lots that were a drag on the neighborhood real estate markets. How could these problematic properties be turned into housing that current affordable homebuyers actually wanted? APM as well as Project HOME and New Kensington CDC joined us to seek some fresh ideas.

Breaking Out of the Box

Interface Studio Architects (ISA) came up with design for a series of simple, airy sustainable homes in L-shaped pairs for the Sheridan Street site. Despite the fact that the footprint of each unit matched the footprint the average Philly row home, they offered a degree of day lighting and flexibility not found in traditional row homes. They used green materials and building systems that had not yet been made within reach of affordable homebuyers.

In the process, Rose Gray, Vice President of Community and Economic Development for APM, became one of the city’s greatest advocates for affordable, sustainably-designed housing. ISA’s  prototype worked well with APM’s big picture goals—a new neighborhood-wide emphasis on environmental sustainability and expanded housing choice.  In 2006, they got a chance to take the design further.

Piloting Funding for Predesign

As a result of the Affordable Infill Housing Design Challenge, the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA) had created a pilot program—the Excellence in Design Initiative— to fund preliminary design for affordable housing projects. Preliminary design is rarely if ever paid for through public funding and PHFA wanted to see how grants for preliminary design could boost design quality and originality.

APM applied for and won an Excellence in Design grant, one of three PA affordable housing developers to receive funding through this pilot program. ISA refined its design for Sheridan Street Housing, receiving the 2006 AIA Philadelphia Silver Medal , the highest honor awarded to yet-to-be-built projects.

Their success put affordable housing developers on the map as green innovators, as suggested in a 2006 City Paper article, The Trickle-Up Theory:  Could Affordable-Housing Developers Become Green-Housing Pioneers?

Inspiring a New Market-Rate Model

ISA’s award-winning design attracted the attention of Chad Ludeman and Nic Darling of Postgreen Homes. Sheridan Street Housing became the model for the 100K House, new infill housing with modest construction and maintenance costs for the entry-level homebuyers in the private market.

The first set of 100K Houses in East Kensington was featured in Dwell magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and countless design blogs. The 100K House has since been spun off into additional house models and is now being built on scattered vacant sites in other Philadelphia neighborhoods.

Bringing Sustainable Design within Reach

Of course, the final measure of Sheridan Street’s success was its ability to offer affordable new choices to homebuyers. So APM worked hard over several years to shepherd this groundbreaking project through—assembling the land and funding, keeping the project within budget, and marketing the homes.

Nilda Ruiz, Executive Director of APM, says, “Sheridan Street Housing has generated a lot of excitement—in our neighborhood and beyond too. We had a waiting list for buyers almost immediately, so its sustainable design holds definite appeal. APM is proud to have built an innovative project that reflects our long-term plan to use smart growth and environmental sustainability practices to eliminate blight.”

I got a sneak peek of Sheridan Street Housing in July when the Collaborative hosted a tour of the nearly-finished project. That derelict site I saw in 2005 is now successfully knit back into the rest of the neighborhood. The modern aesthetic  blends in well, perhaps because the cream and maroon facades tie into old and new brick homes next door, or perhaps because the dimensions of the houses match the traditional row house, or simply because the neighborhood is diverse not only in its residents and its fabric too.

Neighbors stopped by, enthusiastic and curious, to get a look inside too and talk about the houses with us. Sheridan Street Housing will be a good neighbor—and those already living next door are welcoming it thanks to the thoughtful, sustained work of APM.

It Takes a Village…

Community development can be a long and tedious process, but the perseverance necessary to make the transformation is worthwhile. The Collaborative was just one partner, if a very early one, in Sheridan Street Housing.

Over the six years from idea to occupancy, many partners were involved in making Sheridan Street Housing happen. I’d like to acknowledge the partners and jury for the Urban Infill Housing Design Challenge in 2005, just a few of the insightful people that Sheridan Street met along the way to getting built. While several have moved on to new places and pursuits since then, each continues to play an important role in revitalizing urban neighborhoods.

Co-Sponsor Beverly Coleman, Neighborhoods Now

Jury Lisa Armstrong, AIA, Armstrong Kaulbach Architects David Cleghorn, New Kensington CDC Manuel Delgado, Asociacion de Puertorriquenos en Marcha Nicholas Dema, Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority Jim Ferris, Fannie Mae Foundation Michael Funk, International Consultants, Inc. Michael Johns, AIA, Philadelphia Housing Authority Deborah McColloch, Philadelphia Office of Housing and Community Development Tim McDonald, Onionflats Ferdinanco Micale, Wallace Roberts & Todd LLC Jill Roberts, Project H.O.M.E. Moderator: Jody Beck,  University of Pennsylvania

Design Teams Francis Cauffman Foley Hoffmann, Architects Interface Studio LLC Becker Winston Architects

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