Behre: A graceful addition where two bridges once touched down

Charleston, South Carolina – As Charleston County voters decide whether to tax themselves to build more affordable housing, the city of Charleston has provided a fresh, positive example of what such housing can be.

Grace Homes, a 62-unit affordable housing complex built and run by the Charleston Housing Authority, will welcome its first residents this month. It’s as handsome as any of the privately built mid-rises in the immediate area.

Its two 4-story buildings front Lee Street and what eventually will be an extension of the city’s lowline linear park toward the Ravenel Bridge. Its open corridors help give it a lighter, more interesting look. And its rooftop community place offers a great view east, toward the bridge and the city’s smokestacks and the newly covered Martin Luther King Pool.

In short, it fits in, which was the goal.

Of course, in an ideal world, the city might have built single-family homes where the Cooper River bridges once stood, a scheme that would have more seamlessly knit back together northern and southern parts of the East Side neighborhood.

But the S.C. Department of Transportation prohibited single-family homes as a condition of its land transfer to the city, says Housing Authority executive director Don Cameron.

So the authority tried to make it fit in as best it could. That’s why it features white siding (fiber cement siding, not wood) instead of the dark brick found on most other new projects here.

And building single-family homes likely would have been even more expensive: The most controversial element about Grace Homes has been that some think its units are not affordable enough. (A one-bedroom rents for $1,164 per month; applicants must earn between $14,400 and $28,300 to qualify). Two points on that: Section 8 vouchers can bring that cost down for the most low-income tenants, and our conception of “affordable housing” needs to grow a bit. A generation or two ago, government only needed to help house the poorest of the poor; today, the market isn’t providing enough options for teachers, police officers, waiters and so many others in the working class.

From an architectural perspective, Grace Homes is a new riff on the housing authority’s design approach to Williams Terrace, the 4-story elderly housing complex recently completed at Gadsdenborough Park, which won last year’s Excellence in Affordable Housing Design Award, presented jointly by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the American Institute of Architects.

Williams Terrace has a more attractive courtyard and a more creative window pattern, but both complexes feature the open corridors and desirable rooftop common areas. David Baker Architects (DBA) of California took the lead on Williams Terrace, while the T.Y. Lin International Group designed Grace Homes. A common denominator was that former City Architect Eddie Bello consulted on both.

Both are remarkable because they’re high quality on a budget. Grace Homes was particularly challenging financially because of soil issues on the site that required added handling costs.

Meanwhile, one of Grace Homes’ best features is completely out of sight: a massive underground cistern that will reduce the likelihood of flooding compared to before the project was built. The 200,000-gallon cistern will hold rainwater and eventually feed it into the city’s drainage system at half the rate. It won’t handle more than a 10-year storm, but bigger storms already flood the entire area.

This is what affordable housing should be: buildings that blend into their surroundings, improve their neighborhoods, serve their tenants’ needs — and are solid enough to last and beautiful enough so future generations will want to preserve them.

It’s doable, but it takes design talent, public investment and political will.

Cindy Carey

Publisher

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