North Philadelphia: ‘Design in Action’ tour explores affordable, green housing

By Kara Savidge and Christine Fisher
For PlanPhilly

As part of the Community Design Collaborative’s three-day “Design in Action 2011” conference, the collaborative led a tour of affordable housing projects that are bringing green design and architecture to neighborhoods where such strategies weren’t often exercised in the past.

Rose Gray, APM vice president of community and economic development, leads the tour group through Borinquen/Gateway Plaza at 5th and Berks streets.

The tour, “Gritty + Groundbreaking: Green + Affordable Housing in North Philadelphia,” stopped at sites developed by Asociacion Puertorriqueno en Marcha. APM provides behavioral health and human services and works toward economic and community development throughout eastern North Philadelphia.

Rose Gray is the vice president of community and economic development at APM. She said that in 1990, APM realized that in order to aid the community’s human and mental health it needed to address the physical surroundings in the community, addressing issues such as blight and vacancy.

“Physical development and supportive services go hand in hand,” Gray said. “Everyone should have access to parks [and] recreation, and it lowers crime rates because people think something’s happening there. A Harvard study said that greening even lowers domestic violence rates.”

Since developing its initial strategic plan for the neighborhood, which Gray said allowed the agency to “look at the community as a whole,” APM has developed a commercial retail center with a laundromat, credit union and supermarket at 5th and Berks streets. The retail center and a pocket garden adjacent to the property were both visited on the tour.

Ashby Leavell, a graduate student in University of Delaware’s public horticulture program, examines the green roof deck at the Sheridan Street Homes.

Gray explained that the city once did much of its manufacturing in the surrounding area. Eventually, abandonment occurred and public housing owned 60 percent of the properties in the community. She said that APM recognized a need to bring residents back to the area and stabilize the parts of the community where residents did live.

Linda Dottor, tour organizer and program manager at the Community Design Collaborative, said that bringing innovation in architecture to low-income neighborhoods is something they’ve been spending a lot of time trying to do.

Dottor said she believes the tour was beneficial to conference attendees, a group she called a “national crowd,” and said was comprised of individuals trying to bring new thinking to communities across the country, while allowing each community to have a role in creating new development options.

“Dealing with community greening efforts and gardens, it’s always great to compare how space is being used by people in a neighborhood,” Dottor said.

Gray said the design collaborative has partnered with APM on several projects throughout the last 20 years including organizing the community through greening and storm water management initiatives.

As part of its 2005 Affordable Infill Housing Initiative Challenge, the Community Design Collaborative assisted APM with constructing the Sheridan Street Homes at 1800 Sheridan St., near 7th Street and Montgomery Avenue.

Daryn Edwards, the principal of Interface Studio Architects, worked on the design for the Sheridan Street Homes. The 13 units employ a number of sustainability measures including green roof decks, solar hot water heating units, sun shades for the decks and rain water collection barrels, among other features. At the site, he explained the project concept and tour-goers were able to walk through the freshly constructed units.

Gray said that APM strongly believes in the importance of varied and sustainable housing options for homebuyers looking for affordable housing. The development of the Sheridan Street Homes exemplified this notion.

“The region of low and moderate income should have access to quality housing and various housing types, and not be stereotyped as to where one can identify affordable homes versus moderate and higher income homes. Energy savings [are] important to all economic levels and good sustainable materials last longer and there are less repairs,” Gray said.

“Housing development affects an entire community so what we build can positively or negatively [and] affect our community in many ways.”

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