Willow Bend is a new development planned for an ecologically rich, 7.6-acre infill site in the Walker Park neighborhood of Fayetteville, Arkansas. The project is envisioned as a replicable model of sustainable and attainable housing, and once completed will serve as a pilot project for future attainable housing in the region. The design was completed in 2011 and focuses on a sense of place and the human experience, creating a neighborhood of approximately 78 residential units of mixed types (up from an original 63 single-family homes) that can be loved by its inhabitants for generations to come. This will be accomplished by integrating landscapes, a mix of residences, and neighbors into an urban environment that “reflects a deeper civic meaning and a distinct community character,” according to the project’s design consultant, Community by Design.
The plan for Willow Bend was initially driven by a series of design charrettes conducted by Dover Kohl & Partners in 2006 as part of Fayetteville’s long-range master planning process. In those charrettes, neighbors identified characteristics and goals that form the guidelines for how Willow Bend is designed. Throughout the project, stakeholders, led by the nonprofit Fayetteville Partners for Better Housing, have likewise stressed an equitable focus on economics, culture, and environment in order to meet their goal of crafting a neighborhood that provides citizens making less than 50 to 80 percent of the median income the opportunity to live in town and become homeowners.
Though the Walker Park neighborhood, located just south of downtown Fayetteville, lacks quality affordable housing, it is built upon the city’s traditional street grid system. The Willow Bend site was therefore selected by developers and the city for its walkable location and associated transportation affordability. It is also within close proximity of major employers, retail centers, the city’s extensive multi-use trail system, and Walker Park, a major park just two blocks away. In addition, the existing tree canopy and stormwater features on the site provide an idyllic setting for demonstrating the integration of landscaping and placemaking principles.
Fayetteville Partners for Better Housing and other stakeholders are working closely with local developers and builders to ensure the financial feasibility of the project, though long-term funding has not yet been acquired. The project awaits submission to the city for final plat and plan review and approval. Once funding is acquired and approvals received, construction can begin.
Meeting a Need: Affordable Housing in Northwest Arkansas
Rising land costs, coupled with rapid growth in northwest Arkansas, have resulted in an increasing gap between the demand and supply of affordable workforce housing. Attainable housing typically refers to the housing needed by those who make more than the income limit established for federal subsidies, but still struggle in the current housing market. These households would likely have incomes that fall between 50 and 80 percent of the median income.
According to the project’s market study, 40.5 percent of the population of Fayetteville had an annual household income less than $35,000 in 2010. And of the nearly 14,000 owner-occupied housing units that year, only 25 percent fell into the project’s target market value of less than $100,000, indicating a need for low-income, affordable housing.
The Process: Four Phases to Move Willow Bend Forward
Three of the project’s initial four pre-build phases have been completed, and the pursuit of funding to complete the fourth phase is underway. The first phase included the creation of Willow Bend’s vision and goals. The second consisted of concept and master planning, as well as schematic design. The third phase was design development, resulting in the creation of plats and plans. The fourth phase will consist of plat and plan submission and city review and approval (the entitlement process).
Phase 1: Background Information and Data Collection
Making traditional town form the standard for Fayetteville’s new development
Growing a livable transportation network
Assembling an enduring green network
Creating attainable housing opportunities
The mission statement set forth in the Booklet is simple: “To create a replicable model of sustainable and affordable housing.” The goals are defined in varying elements, including affordability, quality neighborhoods, connectivity, parks and open space, materiality, light imprint, landscape design, “green” technology, wayfinding, walkability, utilities, street details, sidewalks, street trees, design speed, urban agriculture, character, landscape, parking, streets, architecture, and porches. In “Streets,” for example, the Booklet states:
Willow Bend streets will be conceived of as both social and utilitarian spaces. A street should be designed as a place for people, not just simply a conduit for traffic. The streets will be a place that puts the pedestrian first, providing a high caliber experience, and then from there accommodate other modes of travel. The design of great streets takes in consideration height-to-width ratios, buildings fronting the street, ample sidewalks, street trees, and pedestrian scale lighting.
To be successful, a street should be conceived of as an outdoor room. A room obviously has a floor plane, walls, and a ceiling plane. Building facades act as the walls to contain the space giving it clear definition. The recommended ratios of a street range from 1:1 to 1:6, vertical to horizontal. Beyond a 1:6 ratio, the sense of spatial enclosure is lost.
Additionally, the project inventory and analysis includes a thorough property analysis of existing resources and opportunities, ranging from neighborhood context, pedshed, and circulation; to trees, vegetation, and soils; to topography, slope, and hydrology. The due diligence report provides a series of analyses to determine the market for the proposed homes. Analyses include a market study, visual preference survey, LEED for Neighborhood Development pre-qualification study, environmental site assessment, and examination of impact fees.
Phase 2: Concept and Master Planning
Building on the materials prepared in Phase 1, the development team next created preliminary concept plans that became the basis of one cohesive master plan, The Houses at Willow Bend Master Plan. The master planning process was guided by input from community stakeholders, city staff, and the development team, including Community by Design and the architecture firms of Donald Powers Associates (now Union Studio Architects) and Brown Design Studio.
The Houses at Willow Bend Master Plan was informed by a recently adopted form-based zoning code and parallel cottage court ordinance which together encourage a mix of unit types and higher densities. The plan is also being used as a pilot project to facilitate the development of a proposed low-impact technical manual. In addition, the Master Plan identifies potential barriers to the traditional town form. The traditional town form allows the project to better reflect the city’s goals related to place-based streets and livable communities, building from its City Plan 2030 planning efforts.
Concept planning resulted in the creation of “rough” sketch concept plans for the site. The concept plans schematically explore street alignment, access and circulation, building envelop patterns, parking, open space, residential uses and density, streetscaping, and amenities and landmarks. Though many of the concept plans are presented in the Phase 2 Booklet, only three concepts were formalized and presented at public meetings. The third concept, Concept Plan “C”, was selected “due to the abundance of existing natural features that the plan preserves and also since the plan requires a significantly lesser amount of proposed street or infrastructure,” according to the Booklet. The master plan was built around this chosen concept.
The Master Plan itself includes development of roadway alignments, lot layout, building footprints, pedestrian circulation, open space and landscape features, parking analysis, residential program analysis, plan phases, and summary and cost estimates.
The Phase 2 Booklet includes rich, 3D illustrations completed by Christopher Illustration, providing both birds-eye views and detailed perspectives. Within the “Illustrations” section, the document further details unique components of the concept plan, including a pinwheel square, “a tool borrowed from early 20th century planner John Nolen as a way to bring multiple streets of varying alignments together at a public square,” says the Booklet. Other elements include the Boardwalk, the Central Green, Washington Avenue Entrance, Central Green and Cottage Court, and the Willow Bend Front Porch. The Boardwalk description, for example, reads:
The Willow Bend boardwalk and shallow marsh evolved from a community design effort that integrates both ecology and placemaking principles into one. The boardwalk completes a neighborhood plan that mimics a modified city block providing pedestrian connectivity along with properly scaled space for homes to face on to. In a response to the ecology and natural features of the site, the boardwalk and homes are located on the western edge of an upland soil stratum, preserving the old stream bed in the lower soil stratum. Connecting the pinwheel square to the central green via a pedestrian route, the boardwalk passes through a short enclosure between two homes on the northwest corner of the pinwheel before opening up into a large green space where the shallow marsh is located….
Phase 2 also included development of an architectural pattern language in a “range of detailing and design” called the Vernacular to Refined Spectrum. According to the Booklet, “This Spectrum gives the designers great flexibility in design while staying in a common language which will build the Community feel at Willow Bend. Builders will enjoy the range as it allows them to build core floor plans with only slightly different detailing, thus giving economy and a great variety at the same time.” The pattern language includes such terms (and graphical elements) as eaves, gable/pediment, doors, porches, windows, columns, and foundation.
The Master Plan includes a range of well-connected, human-scaled public and private spaces that adhere to the topography and vegetation of the site. The homes are intended to define the edges of these spaces by providing both comfort and interest to the pedestrian passing through the neighborhood. The pattern language calls for the new homes to adhere to the massing and classical design elements original to the region, as well as a mix of unit types affordable to those of varying income levels. The homes are directly influenced by Jean Sizemore’s 1994 doctoral thesis, Ozark Vernacular Houses: A Study of Rural Homeplaces in the Arkansas Ozarks, 1830-1930, which describes such home types as I-house, Central Hall Cottage, Bent House, Prow, Pyramid, and Double Pen. The Booklet’s resulting architectural prototypes include elevations, floor plans, and detailed descriptions for 15 single-family home types ranging from approximately 800 to 1,600 square feet.
A draft set of architectural guidelines, the Architectural Design Standards, was also created. The guidelines promote five primary goals:
Create architecture that helps to establish the Houses at Willow Bend as a distinctive, unique, and special place.
Durability is a critical element in the architectural design guidelines. The materials and construction detailing of the houses at Willow Bend will contribute to their longevity. This emphasis on durability is to maintain property values over the long term and to encourage the wise and efficient use of resources.
Provide opportunities for craftsmanship, ornament, proportions, and decoration that are consistent with regional historic archetypes.
Require construction standards that mandate a level of energy efficiency so that long-term comfort and operating expenses are reduced and the use of non-renewable resources is discouraged.
Encourage house designs that increase opportunities for connections with nature, the landscape, and the immediate community.
The guidelines include sections on massing; exterior wall materials; roof materials; eave, rake, and fascia; porches; windows; dormers; shutters; doors; shed roofs at door; and prohibited materials.
Finally, Phase 2 included development of a Low-Impact Development (LID) Stormwater Overlay, which “is intended to provide a more microscopic look at how we can program the different spaces with stormwater features that improve water quality . . . [and] quality of place.”
Phase 3: Design Development
Once the Master Plan was approved, work on project design development began. According to cost estimates detailed in the Phase 2 Booklet (last revised February 2013), the cost of installing the infrastructure to meet the needs of the originally planned 63 lots in Willow Bend is $1,997,000, excluding any offsite improvements. The cost of the land, sales and marketing, financing, design fees, overhead, city impact fees, and city parks fees is estimated to bring the total cost to $2,980,000, or just over $47,000 per lot. Lot costs, however, should range from $18,000 to $34,000 for builders to meet the 50 to 80 percent affordability requirement, offering homes for between $80,000 and $153,000. The developers recognize, then, that significant reductions in cost are necessary to meet the housing attainability goals.
Savings opportunities exist by increasing density, waiving city impact fees, reducing infrastructure costs, and eliminating or reducing optional stormwater features. Accordingly, the developers revised the original Master Plan to support the construction of duplexes on many of the lots. Since then, additional residential types have been incorporated, as well.
With these modifications in place—and indeed, before the Master Plan was formally revised—design development for Willow Bend was undertaken. Design development included creation of a preliminary plat, grading plan, drainage plan, utility plan, and landscape plan. These plans were then used to provide more refined cost estimating and constructability reviews, resulting in the Master Plan revision.
Phase 3 further included a geotechnical investigation and recommendation and development of the street cross-sections.
Additionally, an Affordability Overlay was created and included in the revised Master Plan. Beginning with an infrastructure affordability analysis, the Overlay examines opportunities for reducing the cost of infrastructure, including gravel alleys, chip and seal pavement, minimal excavation, grate inlets, narrower streets, appropriately sized water and sewer lines, overhead instead of underground utilities, street lights on utility poles rather than separate streetlamps, and turndown (directly attached to curb) sidewalks.
The third phase was completed in December 2012, though the challenges of reducing infrastructure cost remain.
Future Work: Phase 4 and Buildout
Next steps for the project include submission of the site plans to the city for preliminary plat approval. Once approval is received, construction documents will be developed and submitted to the city’s engineering department.
After all necessary plans are approved, Fayetteville Partners for Better Housing will contract with a construction company to install the infrastructure necessary to begin site buildout. Depending on availability of resources, infrastructure construction may occur in multiple phases or all at once. A site phasing plan was created as part of the Master Plan. The City of Fayetteville has recently committed to providing $1 million for street construction at Willow Bend, assisting the developers in meeting affordability goals. The necessary additional funding has not been yet been secured, however.
Assuming successful completion of the project, revenues generated from home sales that are in excess of expenses will be used by Fayetteville Partners for Better Housing to begin the design and development of the next attainable housing project in Fayetteville.
Conclusion: Lessons Learned about Affording Affordability
Developing attainable housing in the context of placemaking is a challenging but worthwhile endeavor, even though the future of Willow Bend remains uncertain. Still, the project provides five key lessons:
Resident-Supported Design Matters. The quality of the design for the homes at Willow Bend has greatly benefited from the design team’s expertise and general design philosophy of placemaking, which focuses on a sense of place and the human experience. It is seeded, though, by the city’s forward-thinking, long-term planning efforts, resulting in prior neighborhood design charrettes and a developer-led visual preference survey.
Affordability Requires Flexibility. When following conventional development guidelines, affordable housing often becomes difficult without a subsidy to install the infrastructure. During the initial visioning process, stakeholders planned for the project to include 63 single-family homes, but quickly realized that the cost of the infrastructure required to serve homes at this density would only be affordable to those earning over 115% of the median income. Density—converting single-family lots to duplex lots, for example—was one easy yet elegant way to reduce per-house infrastructure cost.
Affordability Requires Density. By increasing density, with the inclusion of a mix of unit types, the project is able to decrease the per-lot contribution to the infrastructure cost, allowing the homes to be more affordable. Increased density also contributes to the project’s sustainable placemaking goals by encouraging a walkable neighborhood where neighbors are well-connected to each other.
Ensuring Affordability in Perpetuity is Tricky. Ensuring the affordability of the homes at Willow Bend for multiple generations has been a focus for the project. A community land trust was explored as one method of ensuring perpetual affordability, but challenges such as trust management, capital resources needed to seed the trust, and potential Federal Housing Administration mortgage conflicts were identified. Other ideas such as five- to ten-year deed restrictions that could require affordable resale continue to be explored, but only offer required affordability for a limited amount of time. Even though the question of which specific financial mechanisms will help ensure perpetual affordability remains unanswered, the small, energy efficient, and durable homes proposed at Willow Bend will help maintain affordability through reduced utility and maintenance costs.
A Clear Funding Strategy is Necessary. Fayetteville Partners for Better Housing received an initial loan and donation from the Fayetteville Housing Authority to purchase the land for Willow Bend. A partnership with the City of Fayetteville has secured grant funding for three phases of design for the project. But without a sound source of funding for future phases, the developers so far cannot complete project submission and buildout, resulting in an uncertain future. Developing a clear funding strategy at project inception—one with the flexibility required to weather today’s variable economic climate—would have enabled the project to move forward without the frustrating stops and starts necessary to track down funding before each phase.
Willow Bend | Fayetteville, Arkansas
7.6-acre infill development currently in pre-submittal phase
Goal: Create a neighborhood that provides citizens making less than 50 to 80 percent of the median income the opportunity to live in town and become homeowners
Mission: Create a replicable model of sustainable and affordable housing
78 total residential units designed on the Ozark vernacular: 18 single-family homes, 24 cottages, and 36 duplexes
Density of 10.2 units per acre
25 percent open space (1.91 acres)
Funded in part by a Sustainable Cities Institute Pilot City Program Grant
Developer: Fayetteville Partners for Better Housing in partnership with the City of Fayetteville and the National Center for Appropriate Technologies
Designer: Community by Design with Union Studio Architects, Brown Design Studio, and Christopher Illustration
Neil Heller was a lead designer on the Willow Bend project and is currently pursuing his Master of Urban and Regional Planning at Portland State University. He is less of a conceptual artist and more of a creative yet pragmatic problem solver. This approach has proved especially useful in the frugality of the new economy.
Header and home page images by Christopher Illustration, courtesy Community by Design.