Workforce Housing: Using Design as a Creative Solution

June 23, 2006 0 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Without a doubt, downtown Jacksonville is in the middle of a residential boom. However, up to date, it hasn?t been balanced growth. Due to rising land and construction costs, the majority of projects coming online are luxury priced riverfront residences.

 Gateway Lofts - a market-rate work force housing by Boulevard Centro - Uptown Charlotte, NC

 Workforce Housing: Using design as a creative solution

 "The move of urbanism is huge. The only thing that gets in its way is price. We want to rethink the way people live." David Furman - Boulevard Centro

 Without a doubt, downtown Jacksonville is in the middle of a residential boom.  However, up to date, it hasn’t been balanced growth.  Due to rising land and construction costs, the majority of projects coming online are luxury priced riverfront residences.

 While its great to see our skyline grow before our very eyes, unless we can find out a way to equal out the discrepancy and provide housing for average citizens, our downtown will never become the vibrant and diverse atmosphere we all hope to see in the future.

 Currently, the Jacksonville Housing Commission and the city have begun to compile a list of under-utilized city owned properties in the core that could become candidates for workforce housing.  The JEDC has mentioned Brooklyn and East Jacksonville as candidates for affordable and workforce housing.  This is a good start, but it’s critical for the Northbank core to have market rate units as well.  Why?  Because to create a dense, culturally diverse, and vibrant community  on the Northbank, residents need to be within close walking distance of the places they work and play.  With the built in residential population base, the Northbank will eventually transform into a 24/7 community that does not close up shop after  6pm.

 Given that land and construction costs won’t be coming down anytime soon, its  now time to find creative alternative solutions to help make it easier for developers and the city to deal with this  dilemma.  One potential option, that is rarely discussed, is making use of architectural, interior, and urban design elements to create more affordable housing units.  This can make projects viable, without the use of city incentives.

 Boulevard Centro

 A company already successfully doing this practice is Boulevard Centro in Charlotte, NC.  Boulevard Centro focuses exclusively on urban housing solutions that are affordable in price.  Through design, Boulevard has successful found a way to develop work-force housing (without incentives) in locations that capitalize on proximity to existing amenities within the city.

 Constructed in 2001, Silo Lofts was Centro’s first workforce housing project.  The company found a small 5,400sf site adjacent to a flour milling plant.  Instead of viewing the industrial facility as a negative, Centro used the silos as a design theme and amenity, as well as  rezoning  the site to accommodate a 32 unit structure.


 “By most condo standards the Silo units are tiny. At 500 square feet, they're no bigger than a typical studio apartment. But the wide-open units will have few interior walls, 10-foot-high ceilings, and walls of glass looking out on a skyline view. Barbie doll-size kitchens will have just two-burner  cooktops and overhead combination convection/ microwave ovens.  David Furman (founder) figures young urbanites will eat out or bring home prepared meals, so why load up on commercial-style and -sized appliances?  His main goal was to get the price to $100,000 and under. It worked, and the project sold out last November."  

"With urban housing going gangbusters for the last few years, the only way you can make it more affordable--because land prices are more expensive and construction is more expensive--is to make it smaller," he explains. "People will trade space for proximity if you make it cool."

  Novare Group

 Another company having success in this arena is Atlanta’s Novare Group.   Since 2000, Novare has concentrated on the development of high-rise, mixed-use condominiums, targeting buyers in the 25-to-40-year-old age range in Atlanta, Tampa, Charlotte, Austin and Nashville.  Common architectural features include floor-to-ceiling glass walls, large balconies and 10ft ceilings.  This creates the opportunity to offer projects featuring units with a wide mix of price ranges.  Like Boulevard Centro, the architecture is contemporary, which is normally cheaper to construct, then traditional architectural styles because of a reduction in interior finishes (ex. No crown molding, exposed masonry walls, air ducts, etc.)


 Novare Groups' recent projects in Austin (360 - left) and Tampa (Skypoint - right) both had pricing ranges starting as low as $170k for 1 bedroom units.

 There are other companies doing this as well, but these two examples their various projects shed light to the issue.  We know that land and construction costs will continue to rise.  However, a change in attitude and understanding of what end users seek, and in quality design, could be enough to make workforce housing profitable without the help of city incentives.  Here's some suggestions for any concerned parties.

 Residential unit sizes are smaller
As mentioned, land and construction cost continue to rise.  Because of this, it  is unrealistic to believe its possible to offer downtown condo units in the same price range as something one would find in Argyle or Tinseltown.  To make units affordable, square footages have to shrink.  The developers mentioned  they will offer one bedroom units as small as 500sf.  However, the spaces are well designed and offer contemporary features, such as 10ft ceiling heights and floor-to-ceiling windows, many with unblocked skyline views.   Most importantly, unlike living off of Gate Parkway, these developments are located in pedestrian friendly areas where  restaurants, museums, and nightlife are only a hop and a skip away.  This means, although the actual living space may be smaller, downtown and its environment become your living room.

 The Ledge, is Boulevard Centro's latest workforce housing development


The Ledge's smallest unit is only 557sf.


 **as of 6/23/06, shows new construction work force housing units in the heart of Uptown Charlotte in this square footage range as low as $122,000 or roughly $220/sf.**

 Interiors tend to be contemporary
 To help cut back construction cost, many developers have started to offer residential units with less frills.  This means open floor plans, exposed masonry walls (no drywall, baseboards, furring strips), no crown molding, exposed air ducts (creates higher ceilings, no dropped gypsum board ceilings), laminate countertops and regular appliances, instead of granite and stainless steel.  While it may not seem like much, when you add the cost of the materials not used, the money saved on construction cost can rise significantly depending on the size of the development.


 This rendering is an example of a 1 bedroom workforce unit with a open plan layout.


 The left image is an example of an unfinished open plan unit with exposed masonry walls, while the right image is an example of an open plan layout with exposed air ducts.  Cutting down on interior finishing, helps reduce construction prices, which is critical for reducing market rate pricing.

 What Can the City of Jacksonville Do?

 Most of this falls on educating local developers on the end user's lifestyle and characteristics, as well as understanding that this can be done without the use of public incentives and can be just as profitable as producing luxury riverfront projects, because of pent  up demand.

 However, there are some things the city can do which would help stimulate residential growth in the Northbank.  Identifying underutilized city owned property (IN THE HEART OF THE NORTHBANK) and issuing RFP's for mixed-use workforce housing projects.   There are a couple of great sites that come to mind. The lot the city wants to waste  by creating a pocket park on Main Street, the seven block courthouse site, and two undeveloped sites off Laura Street  near FCCJ and Hogans Creek.  Issuing RFP's would make the city money from selling the land, provide mixed use market-rate workforce housing (without using incentives) and enhance downtown as a pedestrian friendly environment.  The money coming into the city from these land sales could then be used to fund additional downtown improvements, such as Tri Vu's Streetscape plan, Lighting Laura Street, the Greening of Downtown, or sprucing up the parks lining Hogan's Creek.

 **EDITOR'S NOTE: Issuing an RFP for a block or two of the courthouse site would require the courthouse complex to go vertical, as opposed to the spread out suburban plan currently on the table**

Discuss this Article