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Can affordability share space with infill development?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  03/13/12 @ 3:00pm  |  Posted in Vibrant cities

Cities and suburbs looking for a post-Recession edge are planning redesigns of derelict shopping centers and ways to address the mono-culture of single-family homes. Both are liabilities if not handled properly. But examples of retrofits are surfacing daily, from University Circle's Uptown to Dublin, Ohio's effort to attract young workers by bolstering its traditional downtown with walkable urbanism.

A perennial concern around urban infill projects-particularly in already upscale markets like University Circle and Dublin-is affordability. Are mixed-use developments like Uptown-financed with public and private money, but which still function like traditional developments with targets for profitability-at odds with attracting a range of residents? Uptown's rental units start at $1,325 and top out at $2,260 a month. The Plain Dealer picked up on this issue, noting: "It represents a stretch toward higher prices in a city that's just starting to see modest rent growth spurred by strong demand."

If the development fills up, the market bears out that rent, then, what's the problem? Well, for one, we may be pricing out grad students, young professionals and creatives who would bring a different kind of energy, and maybe more action to the street. Who knows if the artist or Gen-Y renter is a better customer for the bars and restaurants at the ground level than the empty nester, doctor, or busy hospital executive who can afford to live there?

Some new developments deal with this potential imbalance by setting aside a significant portion, say 25% of the rental units, at a subsidized or lower rate. Critics of this plan might ask, who will subsidize the rents if not for the usual players like HUD? They might also rightly point out that two miles east in Cleveland Heights students and young professionals have their choice of spacious apartments renting at half of Uptown's rates all within walking distance of the campus and thriving commercial districts like Cedar-Fairmount and Coventry. More over, existing rental units like the 12-story brick Commodore Place Apartments at the corner of Euclid and Ford should get a boost from the new demand generated by Uptown.

But those counterarguments to setting an affordability target for Uptown–while valid on many levels-miss some important points. Does Uptown have a metric of success with room to include: Age and income diversity? A mix of demographics that is going to create a sense of community? Put lots of feet on the street? Which group is able to convince more of their friends to move to campus and patronage Uptown? Plan the launch of the next Facebook with friends in a café? Only time will tell, but one last point on existing housing in the Uptown footprint–one of the largest, Abington Arms, is reserved for seniors.

One model in Cleveland that future Uptown mixed-use developments could be tasked with in terms of more affordability is the Enterprise-funded redevelopment of a seriously derelect public housing property in the trendy Tremont neighborhood into Tremont Pointe, a new, ped-friendly green-built development that rents both subsidized and market-rate townhomes. Like the Hope VI mixed income HUD projects in the '90s, it shows how attractive design, walkable and affordable can co-exist in the same place in Greater Cleveland.

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