Making Adaptive Reuse Work for Affordable Housing

6 min read

How transforming existing structures can help ease the crisis: insights from a recent National Housing Conference webinar.

senior housing
Skyview Park Apartments. Image courtesy of PathStone Corp.

PathStone Corp. developed Skyview Park Apartments within the blighted Irondequoit Mall in Irondequoit, N.Y. The endeavor was an adaptive reuse of a former Sears department store, turning the vacant big-box retail space into a 157-unit senior housing facility.

According to the panelists who presented during a National Housing Conference webinar this week, the nation is facing an affordable housing crisis that could at least be partially addressed through adapting existing structures to create new housing and develop communities.


READ ALSO: Shared Equity Programs Topic of NHC Webinar


Mike Kingsella, CEO with Up for Growth, led the webinar, titled “Adaptive Reuse in Post-Pandemic Development.” The program looked at what kind of structures can be repurposed into new housing, what some of the barriers that projects like this can face and how local residents and governments can impact the process.

Some buildings work better

David Garcia, policy director for the Terner Center for Housing Innovation, noted some buildings work better than others as adaptive reuse candidates. Existing structures need to be large enough to house at least 50 units to make the project economically feasible.

According to Amelia Casciani, senior vice president of real estate development with PathStone, the company was able to create 157 units at Skyview Park Apartments by constructing a two-story building adjacent to the Sears being converted. The adaptive-reuse portion will have 73 senior housing units and the new building will have 84 units, with both structures connected by a skywalk.

“There’s an idea that you can turn any building into housing. And with enough money that’s true. There naturally are a series of characteristics that really lend themselves to adaptive reuse,” Garcia observed.

adaptive reuse
Adaptive Reuse in Post-Pandemic Development. Image courtesy of the National Housing Conference and NeighborWorks

Office, retail or industrial properties being considered for adaptive reuse into multifamily should be free of deteriorating building materials, equipment or systems that will need to be replaced. If the structure was built prior to the 1980s, the developer may also have to pay for remediation efforts to remove asbestos, lead paint or other hazardous materials that are no longer used in construction.

“You don’t always know the full extent of that until you actually open the walls and get to the building itself. There’s a lot of systems that may need to be replaced in older buildings that cost just as much as a new construction project and sometimes more,” he pointed out.

Government efforts

Local ordinances can be vital to helping launch adaptive reuse projects and ensure they are successful. Garcia advised local governments to tailor local regulations to streamline the approval process, create more flexibility in meeting building code requirements and clarify the legal process for adaptive reuse projects.

“It is really important to think creatively about how to get these projects to work and how to get them to work within the existing framework of our land use regulations,” he said.

Abygail Mangar, program manager for the National League of Cities, cautioned developers to be considerate of local municipalities, where there may just be one government employee who is the housing staff member for the entire town. NLC member cities are aware of the affordable housing problem, and they have already heard ideas and solutions, but what they need is information. She noted they need case studies of successful projects and to hear from people just like them from other local governments, so they have an idea of what to do.

“Tell me how they financed it? Tell me what policies or tax credits that they needed to have in place to make it happen? Tell me the stakeholders who were involved in the process. What did the timeline look like?,” said Mangar.

Detroit launched its Strategic Neighborhood Fund in 2014 with the support of the business community. The public-private fund includes around $63 million in contributions from businesses and another $157 million in philanthropic and public donations. The funds are being used for the development of infrastructure, housing and park areas in 10 areas around the city.

“It’s been tremendous to see what this transformation can do to this commercial district and the catalyzing affect it has on a streetscape and on the rest of the areas and neighborhoods that immediately abut it,” said Antoine Bryant, director of the Planning & Development Department for Detroit.

The city also adds to its affordable housing efforts by requiring that multifamily developers looking to build apartments in Detroit must set aside 20 percent of the units as affordable to households at 80 percent of AMI or below.

Detroit recently announced the adaptive reuse of Fisher Body 21, a long-abandoned industrial facility where the Fisher brothers manufactured bodies for automobiles. Jackson Asset Management and Hosey Development will convert the building into the Fisher 21 Lofts. Bryant said the $134 million project is the largest African American-led development in the city’s history.

NIMBYism

According to Bryant, NIMBY, or Not in My Backyard, exists everywhere, no matter what the project is and no matter what the benefits might be to the community. There will always be local residents who oppose the construction of new housing, particularly multifamily developments. Mangar observed that many people do not want apartment buildings or other multifamily projects in their neighborhoods or towns.

“There is this misconception that there’s single-family houses and then there’s this mysterious other that we’ve been fearmongered about of multifamily housing,” she said.

Adaptive reuse projects may help alleviate some of the NIMBY opposition, as the process involves putting unused, vacant or even dilapidated buildings back into use. Detroit residents appreciated the reactivation of existing facilities that held some importance to the neighborhood.

“It actually really brings to light the fact that we’re reinhabiting these entities that have a cultural resonance with the community,” Bryant said.

Casciani noted that getting residents to buy in to an adaptive reuse project depends on the kind of property being developed and the community where it is located. PathStone found it much easier to move forward with its Skyview Park Apartments than another developer did with a different housing project that was trying to get off the ground in Irondequoit.

“However, we tried to do something a little similar in a different community in Pennsylvania and the opposition was terrible,” she said.

Effective and consistent community engagement is the most crucial factor in ensuring a positive reception to an adaptive reuse project. Bryant urges his staff to attend community meetings even when there is no project on the drawing board.

“When we involved our residents long term and consistently, they begin to believe that the city actually has their desires and their needs at heart,” he observed.

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