A Compromise in Cambridge: Public-Private Partnership Results in Affordable Homes

After years of nurturing a controversial affordable housing project through the planning and approval stages, as well as overcoming legal battles and the recession, Lori Cowles finally gets to watch it go up before her eyes in Cambridge.
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Cambridge, Mass.—After years of nurturing a controversial affordable housing project through the planning and approval stages,  as well as overcoming legal battles and the recession, Lori Cowles finally gets to watch it go up before her eyes in Cambridge.

The building, designed by Cowles and her team at HMFH of Cambridge, happens to be across the street from their offices on Temple Street in Central Square, a historic neighborhood with easy access to public transportation.

“We have a 40 person firm, and not everyone worked on this project, but everyone is invested in watching it go up,” said Cowles, principal of HMFH. Common threads of conversation around the office involve the latest progress on the construction.

The project involves a unique public-private partnership in which the YWCA leased the land where the $11 million, six-story, 40-unit low- and moderate-income development to the Cambridge Housing Authority (CHA). A longtime eyesore, the former swimming pool site had fallen into disrepair and was no longer being used.

“It was a failed site for decades, and not being used at all,” says Cowles. Proposed projects such as an office building and a boutique hotel didn’t meet muster with the city, but with an intense need for more affordable housing in the area and the potential for the YWCA to benefit from the transaction, a deal was struck. The YWCA got advance cash for a much-needed building renovation, and the 99-year lease of the site by the CHA moved forward.

The 15 one-bedroom and 25 two-bedroom units will be quickly absorbed by the long waiting list of residents in search of affordable Cambridge housing. Completion of the construction and resident move-in is expected in 2015.

Designing the building involved myriad challenges. HMFH was working with an exceptionally narrow site, surrounded by historic buildings. The YWCA next door also contains housing—103 units for single women who have been homeless, ill, suffered abuse and other traumas, and a family shelter that can meet the needs of up to 10 families try to stabilize their lives.

Offices, a bank, more residential buildings and a church are also nearby. The project went through extensive vetting by Cambridge’s historic assessment review staff—and some design changes to accommodate their requests—before moving forward.

“These are high quality buildings that have been there for a long time. And while we didn’t want to in any way mimic them, we wanted to be respectful of them,” Cowles explains. But the architects also wanted the building to be visually interesting to look at. They decided to work with window placement and exterior patterning to engage those will view the structure from the sidewalk and from neighboring buildings.

The result is described as a “jewel box,” and illustrated via rendering as a modern building that pulls in light and color to transform what could otherwise have been a very boring, flat structure.

“It’s a lot to look at even though the shape is a very simple economical shape. The exterior envelope has a lot to engage the people that are walking by,” says Cowles. Indeed, an artists’ rendering of the unfinished project shows off an almost Rubix-cube like affect. Energy-efficiency features will include a green roof and bamboo flooring.

A consortium of 13 different funding partners made the financing possible.

“Our funding partners didn’t need to hang in there with us through a prolonged lawsuit. When they did, the message was clear they were intent to see it through. It was a big edge for us to have the funding partners standing firm,” says Gregory Russ, executive director, CHA. The lawsuit, filed by a neighboring building owner, was settled when the new construction was moved three feet further from their shared property line.

Primary funding for the project is coming from the City of Cambridge Affordable Housing Trust, City of Cambridge Home Funds, Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development, Massachusetts Affordable Housing Trust, Federal Home Loan Bank, East Cambridge Savings Bank and Tax Credit Equity.