Cottages on Greene

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Location: East Greenwich, Rhode Island. A waterfront, “main street” New England town

The Project acts as a “show me” project for the principles of walkability, sustainability, and exemplary design. It was conceived as a practical experiment with the intent of creating a financially profitable development by increasing density and decreasing unit size; a formula that could only succeed in this affluent neighborhood through skillful planning and design. “Radical” densities could, with good design, knit seamlessly into the existing neighborhood. This tangible example effectively advances the cause of urbanism in a suburban town. The value is delivered to the residents and to the greater community through well-executed New Urbanist design principles. It is important to note that by functioning as a co-developer for the Project, the Architect maintained control of the design decisions that ultimately contributed to the success of the project.

Located in a waterfront, “main street” New England town, the Project consists of fifteen residences on a 39,000 SF in-town lot, for fifty years the site of an auto repair business. Five of the fifteen units are deed-restricted affordable units. The remaining ten are market-rate units, with a price point at the low end of what is considered “market-rate” in this community. The Project is located one block west of the town’s Main Street and is walkable to most daily needs and public transportation. To the west, the site is bounded by single family homes on 5,000 to 10,000 square foot lots. The site acts as a physical buffer between the commercial scale and use of Main Street and the residential character to the west, while the mixed-income nature of the development provides much-needed workforce housing. Construction was completed in November of 2010. Eight of the units are sold and occupied with another four under agreement.

Its fifteen 2-bedroom, 1000 SF “cottages” are a mix of building types consisting of free-standing single units, duplexes, and a 3-unit townhouse structure. It includes the historic restoration of one existing, 100 year-old cottage. Despite nine of the units being attached, the overall neighborhood appears as a cluster of 1 1⁄2 story free-standing cottages organized around a linear court and gardens. Bio-swales and rain gardens have been used not only as stormwater management, but as the landscape theme of the neighborhood: small bridges and boardwalks cross and re-cross the spillways and ponds creating a defining image of the landscape. The common spaces are anchored by community vegetable and cuttings gardens, well contained behind white picket fences, and a more formal sod linear court which provides a setting for neighborhood gatherings as well as a fittingly formal address on the public street.

The Project was conceived specifically as a response to a number of converging influences in the real estate market as well as social and environmental need. The design of the units and the neighborhood as a whole address five main issues:

1. Shifts in marketplace preferences of home buyers towards more compact, in-town homes, influenced by an increased awareness of environmental issues, higher fuel costs, and dissatisfaction with the “sprawl” lifestyle.

2. The difficult financial and economic environment which has driven the average home price down and limited the amount of available financing for developers and their potential home-buying customers. 3. The local political realities of achieving entitlement for higher density projects which, in the standard form of multi-family condominiums, have typically met with stiff community resistance, even when supported by the municipal planning professionals who advocate for appropriate density. 4. The relatively higher availability of small “in-town” sites commonly overlooked by developers who intend to build conventional multi-family condominiums requiring larger parcels and more open space. 5. The pressing need to find a market-based development model that can deliver affordable building types which are not publicly subsidized (except by density bonus).

The homes and the neighborhood have been conceived of as the “anti-condominium.” The cottages instead fill an unmet need in the marketplace for a smaller dwelling type, with access to both private and communal open space, which expresses the familiar image of a small house rather than the more institutional image of an apartment building or a conventional townhouse. This understanding of the importance of scale, detail and the styling of the units as single family homes is what has resonated in both the permitting and the sales process. For communities struggling with ways to promote efficient, appropriate density development projects to skeptical neighbors, the Project has been extremely disarming. To home-buyers looking for an alternative to a large house on a large lot miles from town, but put-off by the image and financial anemia of the condominium market, the Project offers a unique compromise – your own small “home” with all the attendant evocation of the “American Dream,” but with community, safety, walkability, and shared upkeep.

Response to Charter Principles

The goal of this project has been to demonstrate, by means of one well-executed, “radically dense” develop- ment that increased density in the form of good urbanism is one key to solving many of the ills of the “place- less sprawl” referenced in the Charter’s preamble. Despite the widespread consensus within the professional planning community regarding the benefits of density, in many places, especially the Northeast, there is far less enthusiasm from the neighbors for anything which is not a single family home on its own lot. The Project team supposed that no rationale, argument, or PowerPoint presentation would be as effective at disarming the local “opponents of everything” as a well executed neighborhood of 15 homes on less than an acre seamlessly knit into a neighborhood of 5000 to 10000 SF lots. Indeed, even before it was built, it had become an object of great interest to municipalities around the state looking for politically palatable models of development that offered increased affordability and decreased infrastructure costs through appropriately higher densities. Indeed the success of the project (both in terms of entitlement and market response) has been the extent to which it has embodied, among others, the first 3 principles of The Charter concerning the block, the street, and the building:

19. A primary task of all urban architecture and landscape design is the physical definition of streets and public spaces as places of shared use.

The parti of the Project’s urban form is the definition of a pedestrian street which visually extends Olson Way and physically links it to Greene Street to the North. While this urban space is not technically publicly owned, it serves as de-facto public right of way from the neighborhoods to the north to the Elementary school to the south. Likewise, the units facing Greene Street complete that side of the street, offering a scale and spacing which continues the patterns found in the residential neighborhood to the west. By internalizing the bulk of development to the site and carefully calibrating the architectural scale at the public frontage, the project has been universally acknowledged, even by objectors, to fit perfectly and to have repaired a long derelict part of the public way.

20: Individual architectural projects should be seamlessly linked to their surroundings. This issue tran- scends style

For architects and urbanists, style may not be primary. For most groups of neighbors opposing a development in the North East, it figures far more prominently. The Project gained considerable support through its demon- strated respect for the scale, character, and even detail of the neighborhood into which it was proposed to be built. Despite the fact that the 16 units per acre was comprised of singles, duplexes, and a triple unit townhouse which was not a form that was ‘traditional’ to the neighborhood, great care was exerted (and communicated) to compose these non-traditional forms from elements that were instantly recognizable as “local.” The respect and care shown for the existing context was universally acknowledged with even staunch objectors conceding that it looked like it “fit perfectly.”

21: The revitalization of urban places depends on safety and security. The design of streets and buildings should reinforce safe environments, but not at the expense of accessibility and openness.

A primary goal of the project was to render in the garb of “detached” single family cottages, an architectural “framework” which might foster a mutually supportive and mutually protective community. Early advice by real estate professionals to “gate” the community for perceived safety were firmly rejected, our contention being that the community, by the nature of its compactness and physical arrangement would feel – and in fact, be much more secure than conventional developments. The market has proven that, in terms of perception, we were right. Of the 10 units currently sold or under agreement, 8 of them are single woman who have all stated that the combination of perceived community and personal safety was central to the project’s appeal to them.

Lessons learned: 1. Early and Proactive Coordination with Local Jurisdictions Knowing that the cottage court envisioned for the project would not meet the letter of the NFPA in several specific ares, the design team spent a significant amount of time researching the specific provesions of the NFPA, Life Safety Code and local ordinances as well as the intent behind each provision that would govern this project. Using this gathered information, the team prepared a series diagrams that highlighted that highlighted for the local fire chief exactly where the current design was and was not in compliance for the local fire chief exactly where the current design was and was not in compliance with the governingwith the governing ordinances while offering specific, well researched and clearly documented ordinances while offering specific, well researched and clearly documented alternatives for satisfying the alternatives for satisfying the intent of the code. Taking a proactive approach that clearly demonstrated intent of the code. Taking a proactive approach that clearly demonstrated our understanding and concernour understanding and concern for the fire chief’s responsibilities succeeded in making an ally out of an for the fire chief’s responsibilities succeeded in making an ally out of an entity that is often the most difficult toesnwtiaty. that is often the most difficult to sway. 2. Use Infrastructure as an amenity Recognizing that conventional stormwater management practices (detention / retention ponds) would compromise the integrity of this cottage court – the design team worked tirelessly to develop a stormwater system that would be technically defensible while acting as a real landscape amenity for the community - enhancing rather than detracting from the overall design. The result of this effort was a nuanced and layered stormwater system of bio-swales, bio-retention, rain gardens and underground storage that exceeded the expectations of the technical review boards while becoming a seamless part of the landscape aesthetic of the cottage court. 3. Consider non-traditional contractual relationships in order to maintain greater control We recognized early in the process that much of the success of this cottage court would reside in a primary entrance) maintaining control of architectural details, landscape design and site/infrastructure decisions throughout the process. A typical fee for service contract between architect and developer often leaves the architect relatively powerless during construction as the developer inevitably seeks to trim costs. Recognizing thispotential reality, we leveraged the considerable value that we typically provide during the permitting process for an equity position on the development team. As true partners, our incentives were truly aligned with therest of the development team which provided a solid foundation for continuous and active involvement inevery cost decision during construction. This level of project involvement gave us a place at the table andthe clout necessary to ensure that the built reality would closely match our vision for this neighborhood.

Transect Zone(s): T4 general.
Status: Complete
Project or Plan's Scale: Neighborhood
Features: Affordable/subsidized housing, Transit oriented development.
Land area (in acres): 85
Total built area (in sq. ft.):
Total project cost (in local currency): 3.1e+06
Retail area (in sq. ft.):
Office area (in sq. ft.):
Industrial area (in sq. ft.):
Number of hotel units:
Number of residential units (include live/work): 15
Parks & green space (in acres):
Residential types: Townhouse/rowhouse/maisonette, Live/work.
Project team designers: Donald Power Architects, Inc.
Project team developers: N/A

Previous site status:

Starting/Ending date of construction/implementation: - 2010