Mar 9, 2010 4:00 PM  PST

In Oakland, Solar and Affordable Housing Part of the Same Deal

By Erin Milnes
Published March 9, 2010
Oakland, Calif., a city that has long suffered from a shortage of housing for low-income families, now has 99 new affordable rental units – all of them solar-powered.
Developed by BRIDGE Housing Corp. of San Francisco with grants from the city of Oakland and other sources, the Ironhorse Apartments at Central Station offers one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments that families earning less than $50,000 per year – 50 percent of the area’s median income – can afford. The complex also includes a ground-floor garage, a community room, classroom and music space and a landscaped garden area and courtyard.
The development, built on 29 acres of abandoned industrial land not far from downtown Oakland, received a score of 146 points – triple the number needed for certification – from GreenPoint Rated, a California green building evaluation system. Ironhorse was given high marks in all categories: energy efficiency, resource conservation, indoor air quality, water conservation and community.
Although construction on the project was completed in November 2009 and residents began moving in immediately, the grand opening ceremony was scheduled for Wednesday morning, March 10, to thank the financial partners, development team, city councilmembers and other stakeholders.
"This is an exemplary sustainable development project providing housing at a variety of affordable income levels, a commitment to union labor which means high-quality workmanship and decent wages, and green building standards," said Nancy Nadel, councilmember for the city's District 3. "I am excited to see our policy directions shaping our new developments to better meet the needs and standards of Oaklanders."
Sustainable Design
Designed by architect David Baker + Partners and built by J. H. Fitzmaurice, Ironhorse incorporates many sustainable building measures, among them solar-heated water, photovoltaic arrays to supply electricity for common areas, certified "green" carpets and vegetated “green roofs,” which last longer than conventional roofing and provide insulation from both heat and sound.
“We try very hard to push the envelope of sustainable design on every project, and Ironhorse is an example of the stars really lining up,” Baker said.
Baker + Partners has worked with BRIDGE since its inception and has made sustainable green affordable and mixed-use housing its core business. Ironhorse is Baker’s eleventh project with BRIDGE.
Baker said sustainable design is compatible with the economic aims of affordable housing: “In our experience, green design is something that we accomplish within the building budget and with the help of specific grants and credits targeted to encourage sustainability. ... Plus sustainable features have long-term benefits, such as lower operating costs.”
Cynthia Parker, president and CEO of BRIDGE, said that the organization is committed to creating cost-effective, energy-efficient homes. A leading nonprofit developer of affordable housing in California, BRIDGE has participated in the creation of more than 13,000 homes in the state since its founding in 1983. The organization plans to include domestic solar electricity as well as solar water heating in future projects, according to Julia Anderson, project administrator.
At Ironhorse, grounds were sustainably designed as well, with high-efficiency drip irrigation controlled by satellite weather data, outdoor furniture made of recycled-material composite lumber and two vegetated swales, which filter roof runoff before it enters the water table.
Residents are allotted the use of large metal planters for vegetable gardening along the pedestrian walkway that separates the complex from Pacific Cannery, an adjacent loft development (also designed by Baker + Partners and also GreenPoint Rated and certified at 51 points).
The Ironhorse complex’s GreenPoint Rated score of 146 points places it in the highest category of green for multifamily buildings. A score of only 50 points is required to be certified, and most of the recently evaluated apartment buildings have scored in the 80–90 range.
Ironhorse's top-level roof is entirely covered by solar photovoltaic and solar thermal panels. The system, designed by Sun Light & Power of Berkeley, features a 154-kilowatt photovoltaic array (832 Mitsubishi 185-watt modules) and 1,280 square feet of solar water-heating equipment.
Founded in 1976, Sun Light & Power was one of the first solar energy companies in California and is a leading expert in solar hot water systems. The company also installed the solar system at Crescent Park, in Richmond, Calif., the largest solar-powered affordable housing community in the United States.
According to Sun Light’s founder and president, Gary Gerber (who was also 2008 and 2009 president of the California Solar Energy Industries Association): “Almost all new affordable housing projects want solar. The bond money that drove much of this growth is partially used up; however, we believe more funding is on the way.”
It may not be a long wait. Five federal stimulus grants for clean energy worth more than $40 million are expected to be awarded to the Bay Area by the California Energy Commission in the coming months. One of the programs to be funded is a pilot multifamily affordable housing energy retrofit program for Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco. Another is a California FIRST (Financing Initiative for Renewable and Solar Technology) project that will likely boost the use of solar throughout the region.
Quality of Life
New residents of Ironhorse say they were attracted by the green factor. Jimisha Baker, who moved into the complex with her young daughter just last week, said that the building’s design definitely played a role in her decision to apply.
“The whole way they put the building together was impressive, with it being sustainable for the environment. And the solar water heating is great. You can’t even tell the difference from regular heaters. It works wonderfully,” she said.
Ironhorse’s leasing agent, Liz Cheng, noted that many applicants say they “feel like they are contributing to the environment by choosing a sustainably designed building.”
The aesthetics of the development show it is a far cry from the housing project towers of the 1960s. The color palette of bright earth tones and the many planters reminiscent of horse troughs suggest a place more rural than urban.
The four-story complex is completely ADA-accessible, with its elevators also helpful for families with young children.
Although Interstate 880 is only a few hundred yards away, the buzz of traffic isn’t audible when inside, thanks to the insulation and state-of-the-art windows. The classroom has been sound-proofed to become a music room, complete with a donated piano, and the community room features comfortable couches and carefully selected art as well as a flatscreen television.
BRIDGE will offer classes and other community-building activities at the site based on resident input as well as research.
The apartment complex is part of Central Station, a development and residential reintegration project involving several developers, including BUILD, a partnership between BRIDGE and the state pension fund CalPERS. When all phases are completed, more than 1,200 new homes will be constructed, along with new retail and the restoration of the historic 16th Street Train Station.
Central Station is located in the historic Prescott-Oakland Point neighborhood, although many Oaklanders think of this district as part of West Oakland, a name synonymous for many in the Bay Area with crime and poverty.
Amid the Victorians in disrepair, low-rent warehouse spaces, chain-link fences, funky art studios, and tiny hipster cafes, the Central Station development represents a turning point in the restoration and gentrification of this former terminus to the Transcontinental Railroad.
According to the leasing agent, Ms. Cheng, neighbors of the Ironhorse say that crime has already decreased significantly in the past four years. The website, which uses police reports to create an interactive map of the city’s crime, seems to back up this assessment, with a crime rate so far this year that is no worse than many of Oakland’s mixed-income neighborhoods.
BRIDGE is still accepting applications for the three-bedroom units in the apartment complex, with about 80 percent of the building now occupied. Income restrictions apply. For leasing information, please call 510-839-5555.
Erin Milnes is a free-lance writer and editor in Oakland, Calif. She has worked in the media for the past 20 years, with stints as managing editor at Loyola University Press in Chicago, senior editor at West Group in San Francisco, producer at TVMoto, communications director for Digital Zoo and co-creative director at Prime Chuck Creative.

For additional information on this article, please contact:
David Myers
510-845-0472 x106
Source: Erin Milnes

Tendenci™ User Home © 2004 Tendenci™ software by Schipul - "The Web Marketing Company" |