Housing Restart: In Oakland, California, the brownfield site of severely distressed housing is sustainably reborn.
For decades, Tassafaronga, in Oakland, California, was a brownfield, tainted with asbestos, lead, and toxic insecticides. In that blighted condition, it became the site of a hardscrabble housing project, a place segregated, virtually disconnected, from its surroundings. But recently, creative financing and environmentally enlightened development strategies have brought about Tassafaronga's rebirth (really, its reincarnation). Its 7.5 acres, in a neglected section of East Oakland, have been transformed, emerging as a vital mixed-income community-the first project in California and one of the earliest nationwide to achieve Gold LEED-ND plan certification. And within that reclaimed community, the 157 new rental units have been built to Platinum LEED-Home standards.
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The saga of Tassafaronga goes back to 1945, when the U.S. government developed the land, erecting temporary housing for wartime workers in Oakland's shipyards. The site's prime contaminants date from this era-as does the name, honoring a South Pacific World War II battle of dubious distinction. In 1964, after the Oakland Housing Authority (OHA) acquired the property, it replaced the original structures with 87 public housing units: grim low-rise concrete buildings in a barren hardscape.
Literally fenced in, and choked off by dead-end streets, it stood isolated from its adjacencies: industrial facilities to the west, and to the east, a battered neighborhood of small, cheek-by-jowl, single-family homes. Tassafaronga Village, as the project was quaintly and optimistically christened, devolved into a breeding ground for drug and gang crime. "We tried to revitalize it 10 years ago, but that didn't work," says Bridget Gulka, an OHA senior program manager who helped spearhead Tassafaronga's recent transformation. Deep fissures in the concrete and seismic issues added to the deteriorating scenario. In 2007, OHA secured permission to demolish the project, officially deemed “severely distressed.”
From the start, says Gulka, sustainable approaches-to demolition, construction, site planning, and ongoing function-were a priority. Tassafaronga Village was ultimately dismantled and rebuilt with 97 percent of its waste materials recycled, many sorted on site, and all existing concrete foundations ground up for the project's new road base. But before OHA could begin, it needed to reinvent its financing methods specifically for this venue.
“Tass was the end of the line, the last Oakland housing project to turn around,”says Gulka, “but we were striking out securing federal funds.” After coming up empty with HOPE VI, the US Department of HUD's program to revitalize destitute public housing, OHA took a leap, approaching Tassafaronga in a new role: as a non-profit developer. As she recalls, “we'd worked with enough of them to learn the ropes.”
To raise capital without a big federal grant, OHA took the controversial step of persuading HUD to swap the public housing units for project-based Section 8 federal subsidy vouchers. “The same level of subsidy for the same income group,” says Gulka, “but the key difference: now we could take the vouchers to the bank and get a loan.” Unlike public housing, which remains in the low-income sector virtually in perpetuity, these Section 8 vouchers only guarantee the housing to this demographic for 30 years-via a 15-year federal contract with a 15-year renewal extension-though additional extensions are certainly possible. OHA raised more than $23.5 million in tax-credit equity for this $75 million project (and, according to Gulka, all tenants in good standing from the demolished buildings had first dibs on moving back).
To reenvision Tassafaronga, OHA hired David Baker + Partners, San Francisco architects experienced with social, environmental, and housing issues. Where competing firms called to demolish the pasta factory at the site's north end, Baker proposed reusing it adaptively, bridging the divide between residential and industrial adjacencies.
Today, Tassafaronga Village, with colorful new buildings clad in stucco and fiber-cement board, weaves together diverse housing types and income levels, from very low to moderate. Unlike the monotonous 1960s design, these forms are richly varied, bringing together new structures-a 60-unit, three-story apartment building and 77 units in two- and three-story townhouses-with the ex-pasta factory, now housing 20 lofts and a medical clinic. Habitat for Humanity is erecting 22 affordable, for sale townhomes here, designed by Baker with construction fueled by homeowner sweat equity. In its aspirations to lift the entire community's pride and culture through social and physical diversity, Tassafaronga reflects the influence of HOPE VI, with its New Urbanism and Defensible Space planning principles. That model's emphasis on walkable, high-density communities, punctuated by pocket parks-connecting to the surroundings without sprawl-dovetailed with the goals of LEED-ND, emerging as a pilot program just as Tassafaronga headed into design.
By cleverly acquiring a small, land-locked triangle of undeveloped property and swapping land with neighbors to square off awkward parcels, OHA reconnected to neighborhood streets and gave new life to a formerly dangerous back alley. Advocating the crime-deterrent benefits of “positive pedestrian flow,” the designers fronted the buildings on streets and paths wherever possible. Such quiet, crime-reducing design moves (albeit supplemented by hidden surveillance cameras) replaced gates and fences. The reconfigured thoroughfares are traffic calming: relatively narrow and now with pedestrian sidewalks. Lush swales green the route, while achieving 100 percent site stormwater remediation. Tassafaronga has benefited from two new elementary schools and a previously languishing park along its borders, helping reknit the site's edges into the larger context.
According to the LEED-ND scoresheet, this project scored high for its brownfield clean-up and reuse, urban location, reduced automobile dependence (and reliance on bus lines), energy and water efficiency, proximity to jobs and schools, and housing affordability and diversity. Though Tassafaronga's Walk Score hovers below average for Oakland, ideally, the community will catalyze growth in nearby retail. Though the nearly one-mile route to the closest Bay Area Rapid Transit station is not optimal, a defunct rail spur could eventually provide a green bike/pedestrian link to it.
Tassafaronga's rental buildings are all poised for LEED Platinum certification, but budget-driven trade-offs produced variation in sustainable features across its housing types. (Though Habitat may not pursue LEED certification for its 22 homes, Baker's firm also designed them with attention to the environment.) Only the apartment building includes a green roof. And while all 157 rental units provide solar-heated water, only the Habitat and apartment buildings have PVs to generate electricity. With sensor controls, tenant education, and other measures, Tassafaronga's energy usage remains 20 to 30 percent below California's progressively stringent code. Exemplary in yet another way, the ex-pasta factory reuses everything from the concrete shell, wood framing, and roof to concrete floors (ground, sealed, and polished) and structural steel (supplemented for seismic codes).
Several months since opening, Tassafaronga is bright, well maintained, and fully occupied. Green gathering spaces balance built form. Individual garden plots are producing vegetables, and repurposed cattle-feeding troughs in the plazas burgeon with native, water-efficient plantings.
“Sustainability isn't necessarily about green bling,” says project architect Daniel Simons. ”Here, efficiency came through lots of practical and small moves done carefully-from good insulation and thermal-break windows to dual-flush toilets and low-flow fixtures. Not all glamorous." Baker agrees: “The future is about paying attention-the sum of many little things.”