Affordable housing that an affluent town accepts
Seven years after they were first proposed, 47 sometimes controversial affordable dwelling units are nearing completion in Barrington, Rhode Island, a well-heeled town about 10 miles south of Providence.
Thanks in part to the house designs and neighborhood plan produced by architect Donald Powers, the development is now winning considerable acceptance from townspeople, some of whom vehemently opposed the project at the beginning.
The eight-acre development, called Sweetbriar, initially was laid out by a different designer and was to consist of houses with varied setbacks, superfluous gables, long driveways, a meandering street system, and no sidewalks. Townspeople disliked it. They argued that the project, sponsored by the East Bay Community Development Corporation, would hurt property values, burden the school system, raise taxes, and increase traffic. The municipality of about 17,000 fought the proposal all the way up to Rhode Island Supreme Court.
Underlying the discord was a difference in economic condition. A family of four can qualify to live at Sweetbriar only if its income falls below $44,000. The median annual household income in Barrington as of 2008 exceeded $97,000.
Powers, a Providence architect who grew up in Barrington, got involved in the project in 2005, offering to produce a new, more pleasing design — one made up of traditional-looking houses that would draw from the character of an old neighborhood nearby. Predominantly they would be two-family side-by-side structures with front porches, sidewalks, and rear alleys. Powers also recommended creating a public green anchored by two small groups of townhouses.
The East Bay CDC approved Powers’s concept, and the first of the units were completed and occupied last fall, with rents varying according to the occupants’ income. “The design,” Powers believes, “was the thing that turned the tide,” making a controversial project more palatable. As built, the cluster of houses has an orderly arrangement, yet it avoids monotony. “By varying the porches and where they attach and how they’re detailed, and by varying the roofline,” some individuality was achieved, he observes.
New design, same numbers
Affordable housing programs place a huge emphasis on getting the costs down, Powers observes. He had to redesign the project while keeping it “statistically identical to the previous submission” — same number of units, same house types (duplexes), etc. “All of it was built for about $95 per square foot for vertical construction, which was considered a low price at the height of the market,” Powers says. (The depressed economy has, he says, pushed construction costs down 25 percent since then.)
“It’s all clad in Hardi Board, and the running trim is painted wood,” Powers notes. “Wet areas are in paintable PVC. We worked closely with the contractor [Nation Wide Construction of Woonsocket, Rhode Island] to vet every detail to make sure we didn’t lose the character.”
Philip Hervey, who was hired as Barrington town planner around the time Powers submitted a design, says, “I saw the new plan and said we had to do that. The town was litigating it at the time. The town has definitely embraced the new plan.”
Because parking is provided in small paved areas accessible from alleys, the number of curb cuts on the street has been greatly reduced, making on-street parking more plentiful than in the first plan, Hervey points out.
A stabbing in Sweetbriar last February, allegedly committed by a Providence man, set off some renewed criticism. But that incident doesn’t seem typical of behavior at Sweetbriar. “There are some people who still object on the principle of [opposing] building affordable housing, but they’re not the great majority,” Powers says.
The 47 units are expected to be finished by the end of August. Three homeownership units are scheduled for a later phase.