Remarkable Teamwork:

How glaserworks & TCB are transforming Avondale

historic apartments Revitalization

Introduction

Cincinnati’s Avondale community is undergoing urban revitalization, marked by the $50M redevelopment of historic apartment buildings along its main commercial corridor. In this  interview, glaserworks Principal Jeff Raser and Jeff Beam of The Community Builders (TCB) discuss how they worked together to overcome challenges and deliver a successful project.

“You need a team that is committed to the quality of the outcome. We literally took five buildings in Avondale that were on the verge of demolition – and made them National Historic Landmarks – that takes a pretty remarkable team!” (Jeff Beam, TCB)

Background Info

Client: The Community Builders (TCB)

As one of the largest and most accomplished mission-driven, non-profit housing developers in the United States, TCB works to build strong communities where people of all incomes can achieve their full potential. This mission is realized through collaboration with neighborhood groups, residents, public and private agencies and philanthropic interests.

Avondale Choice Neighborhoods Initiative

The Avondale Choice Neighborhoods Initiative will ensure that Avondale is a better neighborhood for all to live, work, play and worship. A group of community leaders and organizations who care about Avondale are working together to build better housing, increase student achievement and improve access to job opportunities for families. Avondale Choice partners are joining forces with Choice families and the community, with everyone contributing to enhance the neighborhood. Over five years, Avondale Choice and The Community Builders will restore or rebuild nine apartment buildings on or near Reading Road between Blair Avenue and Shuttlesworth Circle. The Avondale Comprehensive Development Corporation will work to involve residents in neighborhood safety, community civic organizations and prioritizing neighborhood investments. Visit Website

Date: Monday May 15, 2017

Interviewees:
Jeff Beam, Director of Development, The Community Builders
Jeff Raser, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, Principal, glaserworks Architecture + Urban Design

Give us a general overview of TCB’s Avondale Choice Neighborhoods initiative. What was the process and phasing?

BEAM: Community Builders bought five distressed HUD-assisted buildings in late 2012, we were brought in by the city and LISC to purchase those properties out of foreclosure, reverse the disinvestments and to preserve the buildings with their HUD subsidy and bring good housing back to the community.

The buildings came to our attention through media coverage in The New York Times. The Legal Aid Society of Cincinnati and Children’s Hospital filed a lawsuit against the owners because the kids in those buildings were getting so sick; this was based on emergency room visits, tracking the addresses from where these kids were coming from, and they were select buildings that had the same owner. So our involvement was about reversing pretty significant issues in the buildings – social, physical, environmental.

We devised a revitalization plan that would, not just fix up low-income housing but, be about neighborhood transformation – address blighted properties, distressed occupied buildings, revitalize vacant properties, bring new commercial development. We wanted a plan that would invest in people – in the services and resources that people could use actually making their lives better and healthier and safer.

The HUD Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant was the opportunity to do that. We applied for four phases of new housing and about $100 million of new development.

What was glaserworks role at this stage?

BEAM: An important piece of the Transformation Plan depended on glaserworks doing visualization work in the vacant buildings to show us vignettes of what’s possible, to make this corridor transformation more than the sum of its parts. Glaserworks did a lot on the design side – conceptual renderings, needs analysis, feasibility studies – to help us put the whole puzzle together.

What were your goals for this project?

BEAM: So there are, I’d say, multiple levels of goals because there a multiple layers to the partnership. Starting at maybe the most narrowly focused was to solve the most pressing problem – there were 140 units that were not providing quality housing for people. It was unsafe and unhealthy, just unfeasible for how people need to live their lives.

RASER: We walked in apartment units in the winter and people had their oven doors open, trying to keep their apartments warm.

BEAM: We went into other units where there were just piles of clothes and no real dressers or furniture of any kind, but what we couldn’t figure out why there were so many clothes. It was because in a community like Avondale it is easier access to donated clothing then it is to laundry services. You take a bus three miles to do laundry, or you can go to the clothing bank and pick up some free stuff. It was a kind of backward environment, in which people had to make individual household decisions where there were no good options available.

So our goal was to revitalize the housing, and to do it with enough depth and quality and thoughtfulness so that it was more than just a Band-Aid on the problem. Our goals were also: restoring century-old buildings so they were ready for another century; knitting them together so that they work as a community; improving the quality of amenities so that people can live their lives. 

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… as you start to layer in HUD program and the partners’ goals, then it becomes about very specific targeted outcomes related to education, health, safety, community engagement. The partners have specific outcomes within their part of the initiative. So, if you ask other people within our organization: ‘what are your goals for the project?’ you get right down to: we want to improve the number of people who perceive our neighborhood as safe, who perceive our housing as safe. We want to improve the earned income of each household. We want to increase the number of people earning an income.  We want to improve third-grade reading proficiency rate.  These are very specific targeted outcomes in each partnership that TCB provides the platform for these families to access what they need; a  couple of years in, we are seeing real progress in indicators – like perception of crime and health problems and trips to the emergency department  – are way down. 


What’s the scope of glaserworks’ multi-family residential project with TCB?

RASER: This historic renovation project, over both phases, will produce 200 apartment units in nine buildings totaling over 200,000 sf. It’s a big project.

BEAM: To break that down – there were five buildings that were taken from vacant shells, four buildings that were rehab, one building new construction, and one building demolition. That is a lot of pieces.

Talk about the historic architecture of these buildings. 

Vintage postcard

(Source: Cincinnati Historical Society)[/caption]

RASER: Avondale as a neighborhood was settled in the late 1800’s and it was primarily a fairly well-to-do Jewish neighborhood. They built some really wonderful grand buildings – many courtyard-style, U shaped, buildings – that were pretty magnificent. We have been renovating some of those grand buildings for this project. The oldest building in this portfolio was built in 1898 (Somerset).

Fast forward to present-day Cincinnati; these properties were not seen as ‘grand old buildings’. What happened?

RASER: After the 2nd World War, Avondale became economically depressed, wealthy people moved out and it became a higher crime neighborhood in the late 1980’s, 1990’s. We were fighting about 40 – 50 years of bad perception in this neighborhood and some bad reality too.

I remember talking with a local leader at the beginning of the Choice Neighborhoods initiative; the conversation was about the Poinciana – which is located at the heart of Avondale and at that time was right at the center of the crime hotspot map. The property had such a bad reputation, such bad perception; this local leader asked me ‘when are you going to tear that building down?’  I’m thinking like an architect and looking at a historic building – it actually a good looking building that building is very handsome, it was one of those grand old courtyard buildings, built for a wealthy population 100 years ago.

‘We are not going to tear it down,’ I said, ‘ we are going to bring the building back to life. The building is not the problem; the bad property management, the shoddy renovations – those were problems. The building is not the problem.’

historic renovation

Crescent Court Open House 2016[/caption]

What was the biggest design challenge you’ve faced with this project?

RASER: Even though a number of the buildings were originally very grand buildings there were many renovations over the years. These renovations were pretty poorly done. There were a lot of decisions made to just cover up problems and make things very, very cheap. Our work was not only restoring great early 20th-century buildings, but also unraveling the poor renovations that were done before; in some cases, that was more difficult than restoring the original architecture.

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One of the biggest challenges of historic renovation projects is the element of surprise.  You discover a sordid history from past ownership – shoddy repairs, past renovations that were poor – there were a lot of things in these buildings that we did not know about. So it has been a immense challenge for everyone – TCB, the general contractors, the consultants and glaserworks architects – more than we would have imagined. Even though people were living in a lot of these buildings, still there were things hidden behind those walls that were totally unexpected.

It wasn’t one big surprise; it was a thousand little surprises. Most of the buildings were occupied all the way through when we did the construction docs. Thank God it’s TCB doing this project because, when TCB sees a set of bad joists that have been rotted for years and years that have been in the bathroom, TCB doesn’t just cover them up with nice wood flooring; TCB says ‘No,  we are going to replace those joists. We are going to own and manage these buildings, we want healthy living here.’ That was refreshing on this project – taking the long-term view, thinking about future generations.


Tell us about the renovation – what improvements were made?

RASER: We tried to maximize natural light wherever we could. We got rid of every stitch of carpet in these buildings, because carpet gets dirty and it has dust mites (and there is a high incidence of respiratory illness amongst Cincinnati’s low-income population).

BEAM: Asthma is one of the major issues.

RASER: We didn’t want to have a single stitch of carpeting in this project and we don’t.  So carpeting is gone, we have hardwood floors, vinyl floors where we couldn’t restore the hardwood. We have brand new kitchens throughout; we have brand new bathrooms in every dwelling unit. We have new electrical systems throughout, new light fixtures so the apartment is brightly lit. We have completely new HVAC systems (which now include central air conditioning); this also promotes a healthy living environment – as opposed to having one window A/C unit that might go bad, fall out into the courtyard, and be horribly inefficient.

Everything is very efficient so that operational costs, heating and electrical bills, are as low as possible. We used LED lighting and very durable materials wherever we could, while still honoring the historic features of the buildings.

We restored as much of the beautiful architectural features as we possibly could – expansive marble staircases, ceramic tile mosaics, ornate ironwork on the handrails and stairways – while still trying to cover 200,000 sq., 200 dwelling units with a fairly limited budget. So we had a lot of choices to make on this project, which was a difficult thing; when it is all said and done, I am proud of what we delivered.

Were there accessibility improvements?

RASER: One of things we liked best about TCB’s approach was on accessibility. When they told us what their goals were for accessibility to these buildings, we explained to them that what they wanted was more than what the building code required; their response to that was, ‘we don’t care about the building code, we want to do more than the minimum, we want to achieve every bit of accessibility we can and more’. So, we have wheelchair lifts outside many of the buildings; we widened the doorways to more apartments than I can count so people using wheelchairs, walkers or crutches can make easy entry and exit. We made surfaces light and bright and hard. We got rid of all sorts of big thresholds so people wouldn’t have things to trip over.

We put double peep holes in doors so people in wheelchairs, or even kids, or older folks who aren’t tall, can see who is on the other side of the door. We did little touches – for example, we have little knobs outside the doors in a lot of the apartment units because we realize that some ladies who go shopping they take the bus to the grocery store, they have plastic bags and they get inside the apartments buildings, they set the plastic bags down, their groceries go all over the place. So we put hooks next to the apartment doors so they can hang these bags on these hooks and not spill their groceries all over the place. Sounds like a small thing and it is but it helps daily life of people who are living there, and that was our charge from TCB. They wanted to change hearts and minds and make these nice places to live, places where people with means choose to live, not places where people have to live.

Vintage postcard

(Source: Cincinnati Historical Society) 
renovated historic building

(Photo credit: HGC Construction 2017)

What were the keys to success on this project?

BEAM: There is nothing formulaic about community development and nothing formulaic about Historic Preservation; it is entirely about having very smart and very dedicated partners that will work their way through the whole process, from beginning to end.

You need a team that is committed to the quality of the outcome. We literally took five buildings in Avondale that were on the verge of demolition – and made them National Historic Landmarks – that takes a pretty remarkable team!

RASER: Renovation is definitely a fluid process, so you have to have a great team that is willing to be flexible and can ‘roll with the punches’. The contractors and subcontractors – they’re the ones out there that are discovering things, that have to be responsible enough to say, ‘Uh- oh, I see something that’s not right, I am going to stop I am not just going to cover it up. I am going back to my general contractor, the owner and the architect.’ and they have. I think HGC has done a good job, I think the group of subcontractors has done a very responsible job also. Everybody – the whole team – has to be very, very flexible in order to continuously – day, after day, after day – come up with good solutions to the problems we just can’t forecast.

BEAM: You need a team that is nimble in proposing because – not only did we have to deal with structural compromises and quality-of-life issues in restoring the buildings – once we had accessed the Historic Tax Credits we had to do it in historically-sensitive way. This meant our menu of options was narrower, typically more constraining. With a good team (that has a lot of knowledge and experience with these kind of things) we were able to navigate all of these issues.

Describe your experience working with glaserworks. How does this compare to your experience working with other architecture firms?

RASER: Do I need to leave the room?

[Laughter]

BEAM: I all seriousness, more than any other firm I’ve worked with, glaserworks is as committed to the project outcome as they are to the design outcomes. Some designers fight the budget because they have a fealty to the design, not to getting the highest quality project accomplished possible (which means working within a budget). But it is not just about financial outcomes. You heard Jeff talk as passionately about the human outcomes on the project as we do;

There is this amazing sort of civic advocacy in glaserworks – you are proponents for the city, proponents for neighborhood s, and proponents for good design.  Your designs have a positive influence on neighborhoods – it shows in TCB’s work with glaserworks and it shows in all your work.

RASER: TCB is a client we love working with. We started work with TCB back in 1999 with City West. We enjoy TCB because they are not just about putting out a product and building 49 apartment units in this building for x amount of dollars; they are truly about building a better neighborhood. They are always thinking about ‘what’s outside our doors, how are these buildings going to benefit the neighborhood?’ That is directly in line with glaserworks values – for better design.

Even though budgets are very, very tight doing these types of projects, we have to make choices, we have to prioritize. TCB is still constantly driving home, ‘We want durable materials, we want healthy living environments, that is why we can’t afford xyz oak hardwood floors, but by god – we are NOT putting carpet back in,’ so they make those choices to adhere to their values and they are good values to have. That is the sort of a non-profit developer that I can work with.

How was this project financed?

BEAM: The primary financing sources are: : HUD Choice Neighborhoods, HUD Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP)Low Income Housing Tax Credits, Federal Historic Preservation Tax Credit, Ohio Historic Preservation Tax Credit (which very competitive). To secure this financing, we relied on work from glaserworks’ Jeff Raser and the historic preservation consultant.

How did glaserworks help TCB secure financing?

RASER: glaserworks’ portion of the project was nine buildings in two phases – five of the buildings are now designated as historic landmarks. We knew going into the project TCB was going to gather financing from a variety of sources. With every different pot of money, comes a new set of strings attached; we assembled a team of experts to accommodate that.  The LIHTC credits require compliance with LEED and Green Communities, so we had a consultant who focused entirely on our compliance with those program requirements. First we worked with our team to prepare the nominations for the National Registry so the properties would be eligible for the Historic Preservation Tax Credits.

In addition to sustainability and historic preservation experts, we had a full complement of consultants – MEP, Structural Engineers, Civil Engineers, Landscape Architects – to get the project done right. 

3415 Reading Road

Extended Interview

 ‘We want to do the hard stuff’

RASER: The Avondale neighborhood in the City of Cincinnati has its main street, Reading Road, so the nine buildings are all either on Reading Road or near Reading Road. This was very purposeful for TCB. We looked at properties that weren’t part of that core, and TCB said ‘no, no, no; we want to stay to the core’, (which is the hard stuff) and they said, ‘we want to do the hard stuff’.

The one building at the center of everything is the Poinciana. If you look at the crime hotspot maps from 2010, you will see all these red dots right around Poinciana –  most developers would see that and say (whistle) ‘boy I am staying far away from that’ – but TCB focused their entire effort right on that area because it was the highest crime spot in Avondale.

BEAM: It’s interesting to note that we had not purchased the buildings yet when had applied for this grant. So we had a visioning session that was totally depended upon partnerships. We had the Avondale CDC,    literally going door-to-door surveying tenants to identify their needs and concerns of residents.

RASER: We did visualization at some community meetings where people were asked what they wanted to see in their neighborhood. To be honest with you, some of the folks in those meetings were so filled with just their daily life of being able to do laundry and to get their kids to school that it was difficult for them to step back and for them to say, ‘what do I want for our neighborhood?’

Proving the Market

BEAM: Poinciana is not the building it was before in terms of safety, the ability to do laundry on-site is it a major life change for everyone in there. The units that easiest for us to fill are the market units. We cannot possibly have enough units like 3415 Reading, which is the new construction building. We are constantly getting inquiries for renters for that building. It is a product type that people hadn’t believed that Avondale could fill and Avondale can fill that building many times over – which we plan to do with the Town Center. So we are proving out a market that we have known was there, that the neighborhood has the quality demands just like other neighborhoods in the city, and delivering it.

Place-making: The Courtyards

RASER: The previous owners had fenced off the grass courtyards with wrought iron; it was just a nasty place.  TCB removed all the fencing that kept ornamental beautiful wrought iron work at the front, the gates are off, there is grass there and bushes and it is well light, and now it is a pleasant place to be. So we fought crime through good place making.

BEAM: This is the fun part of the story. These are predominately young single mothers as head-of-household with multiple small children, who couldn’t let their kids go outside to play because (A) there was no place to play and (B) it was unsafe to leave the apartment. So fast forward to today, and you have healthy interiors with non-toxic materials, healthy air because there is no carpet, air conditioning so you can breathe in your unit, and a nice courtyard where your kids can play safely while you keep an eye out. Speaking of the courtyards – we took down the wrought iron fencing and created pleasant landscaped environments for kids to play in.