Until recently, if the word “green” came up when discussing public housing projects, it was most likely preceded by “Cabrini”. The infamous Cabrini-Green housing project, on Chicago’s North Side — despite being the setting for Good Times, of all shows — became the poster child for all that was wrong with public housing and urban renewal efforts of the postwar years. But Cabrini-Green and many projects like it have been torn down, to be replaced by townhomes, low-rises, and mixed-income housing. A new development in Denver is no different, except that — wait for it — it’s greener than even the new Cabrini-Green could ever be.
Last Friday, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan took a tour of the new housing development in Denver, called Benedict Park Place. Like most public housing built since the passage of HOPE VI, the project isn’t actually a public housing project. It was funded with both public and private money, and has a mix of market-rate and subsidized or public units. What makes it unique is that the state of Colorado will recoup its investment on the property in just seven years, according to the Denver Post‘s report on Donovan’s visit.
But it isn’t the mix of market-rate housing that will put money back into state coffers; it’s the geothermal heating/cooling system that replaces the traditional HVAC superstructures one might otherwise need on a project of this size, which frees up rooftop space for — you guessed it — solar panels. These innovative, energy saving technologies will reduce energy costs on the project by 60%. In addition to that, one-third of the housing in the complex will be set aside for the building workforce, and the development is also providing green jobs training to the perhaps comically-named Mile High Youth Corps, a non-profit that aims to train young people for, and connect them to, high-skill, lucrative, green jobs.
The story is almost too perfect: affordable housing, sustainable development, and investment in a young, under-skilled labor force, all rolled into one project in Denver. I was beginning to doubt the fact that green collar jobs actually exist, and that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — which provided $5.6 million to this project — was actually doing anything to create them.
But the fact that one project can address so many different problems demonstrates quite clearly just how inextricably linked all of our most pressing urban policy issues are, and how solving them will require a holistic approach. On a large scale, some of the extra spending won’t be the easiest sell, politically — a bike sharing program and a community garden? — but the fact that the development is fiscally responsible because it is environmentally responsible is incredible. What better use of stimulus dollars could there be than to demonstrate a new way forward that is somehow fiscally, environmentally, and socially responsible?
Secretary Donovan’s visit happened just a few days after the release of HUD’s new Strategic Plan. The plan will “guide the agency through fiscal years 2010-2015”, and lead HUD into its fiftieth anniversary. There are five specific goals to the plan: strengthening the housing market, creating more quality affordable rental housing, utilizing housing to improve quality of life, building inclusive and sustainable communities, and making HUD more accountable and efficient. Benedict Park Place appears to touch on all five of these goals, which bodes well for the agency: hopefully it’s a sign of things to come.