Wednesday, September 16, 2009

the once and future white oak: part two

Montgomery County's brought in one of the region's premier architecture firms to design affordable housing in White Oak. Why should the community get on board? Because it might make their homes look worse. Check out part TWO of our series "the once and future white oak," or click here to check out part ONE.

2 ) This development won't be like anything we've seen before, or so they say.

King Farm - Torti Gallas
These multi-family buildings - a mix of townhomes and apartments - in Rockville's King Farm neighborhood were designed by Torti Gallas and Partners.

"The problem of crime and drugs is not endemic to affordable housing," said Rick Nelson, head of the Department of Housing and Community Affairs. "It's prevalent in communities with a concentration of low-income housing." Nelson insisted that the complex would cater to a mix of incomes, including homes selling at the market rate, "workforce housing" aimed at households making less than 120% of the County's median income (or $120,000 a year), and other arrangements not described in detail.

DHCA offers homes for rent or for sale, though County Executive Ike Leggett has expressed his preference for for-sale housing, bringing committed homeowners to the neighborhood. But Nelson's vague description of who will live here has many nervous that the DHCA could swap out the higher-priced homes for even more subsidized units, which would be very disappointing. Truly mixed-income communities have proven to be successful at reducing the crime and disinvestment usually associated with those set aside entirely for low-income residents. This socioeconomic diversity is a must-have, and residents should ensure that the County keeps its promise to maintain that.

The DHCA is proposing two schemes, one with 93 apartments in two buildings, and another with 77 townhomes. As designs are refined, these numbers will likely go down. Both plans were created by Torti Gallas and Partners - one of the premier firms doing multi-family homes in the region, if not the nation - and are not only well-laid out but attractive. As architect Erik Aulestia explained, the goal for this and any projects like it is to create neighborhoods where "you can't tell the difference between a market-rate subdivision."

Housing at White Oak - Apartments
Plans of the apartment scheme.

I can appreciate residents' irritation with the apartment proposal, given that it may not seem too different than what currently exists. By concentrating all the units into two multi-story buildings, architects at Torti Gallas were able to use less land with the apartment plan, creating larger buffers from Milestone Drive and from the single-family homes in Sherbrooke. But it also requires more surface parking, creating a "dead zone" that is neither attractive to be in or easy to defend. In this scheme, a proposed neighborhood green is surrounded by the apartments, forming a space that feels like it belongs to those homes alone. It's a less-than-ideal fit for a site surrounded by lower-density housing in a neighborhood with a strong aversion to that building type.

Housing at White Oak - Townhomes
Plans of the townhouse scheme.

As I've written before, the townhouse option would be the best fit for the site, providing a transition between the high-rise apartments to the south and the single-family homes to the north. Aulestia referred to the streets in the plan as "friendly streets," designed as much for the car as it is for the pedestrian. Sidewalks are plentiful. Buildings face greens and squares instead of culs-de-sac. The result is an inviting, pedestrian-friendly community - one that identifies with Sherbrooke, rather than turning its back on them. There's even a neighborhood green accessible to both subdivisions.

This is not the "affordable housing," subsidized or unsubsidized, we've seen in East County before, where buildings float in a no-man's land of parking lots and common lawns that are neither functional nor safe. If this is anything like the firm's previous work, we'll get a neighborhood with an upscale, urban feel, comparable to Seaton Square, Gatestone and Whitehall Square - all new developments in White Oak that have a contingent of subsidized units.

No comments: