Study to explore options for Willow Heights public housing in Fayetteville

Posted: January 26, 2018 at 1:01 a.m.

NWA Democrat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK The west-facing side of the preschool and Willow Heights public housing in Fayetteville is seen Jan. 4.

FAYETTEVILLE -- A prominent design center will explore what's possible at a public housing complex near downtown, about a year after the Housing Authority board decided to sell the property for private development and move residents elsewhere.

Steve Luoni with the University of Arkansas Community Design Center presented to board commissioners Thursday a proposal to develop a livability improvement plan for Willow Heights, 10 S. Willow Ave. The plan was made possible through a $25,000 grant from the Endeavor Foundation out of Springdale at no cost to the Housing Authority. The foundation is a grant-making organization dedicated to strengthening quality of life for Northwest Arkansas residents, according to its website.

Objectives

The University of Arkansas Community Design Center was awarded a $25,000 grant to come up with a livability improvement plan for Willow Heights. The plan’s objectives are as follows:

• Inventory existing site conditions and review previous engineering feasibility studies for improving Willow Heights.

• Build a scale model of the neighborhood to test scenario plans.

• Convene an information gathering/design workshop with current Willow Heights housing residents, neighborhood residents, community leaders and restoration developers to determine informed needs and desires for developing scenario plans.

• Develop scenario plans for site development and building improvements, including introduction of mixed-income housing to the site.

• Provide cost estimations of planning decisions.

• Draft a final exhibition-grade livability improvement plan, including plans, sections, elevations and renderings for exhibition in a public forum with opportunities for community engagement, input and dissemination.

Source: Staff report

The Community Design Center, an outreach center of the university's Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design, will put together a study by April, Luoni said. The study will look at building frontages on buildings, landscape architecture and the addition of new, market-rate units.

In the end, three scenarios involving the housing structures, outdoor elements and preschool will be presented to the board, ranging in architectural ambition. Part of the design will entail merging aesthetics with functional problems, such as flooding, walkability issues and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The study will include cost estimates, but where the money comes from to pay for any improvements at the site will be up to the board to explore, Luoni said.

The board decided last year to sell Willow Heights for $1.25 million to a private developer and move its residents to a planned expansion at another property the Housing Authority operates at Morgan Manor, 324 E. 12th Place. An effort spearheaded by neighbor Melissa Terry brought the move to the forefront of public scrutiny while the Housing Authority continued on with the plan.

Terry eventually became a member of the Housing Authority board and has proposed renovating Willow Heights, rather than building elsewhere.

The city assessed the cost of needed repairs to rehab Willow Heights at about $4 million. A previous assessment from the Housing Authority's hired consultants estimated the cost at $2 million. The estimated cost of the entire expansion project at Morgan Manor is $8 million. In August, the authority didn't receive a major tax credit it sought for the project but will apply again this year.

Morgan Manor operates under a form of Section 8 called the Rental Assistance Demonstration program, which combines public and private equity to provide rental assistance to low-income residents. The Housing Authority is in the process of converting its other three properties from conventional public housing to RAD.

Deniece Smiley, Housing Authority executive director, said making the units at Willow Heights livable likely will come at a huge cost.

"I think we really need to be looking at that," she said. "Pretty is fine, but it's our responsibility to provide the whole picture."

Luoni said the center's work will take a big-picture approach. Feedback will play a key role in the direction the study takes, he said. The study's findings will be nonbinding, and serve as an informational tool for the board in making future decisions.

"We want to open this up as much as possible to any stakeholder who wants to participate, and particularly with the residents," Luoni said. "We're going to schedule meetings on-site."

Terry praised the process, saying part of the issue with the decision-making before was a lack of transparency. She also commended the RAD consultants' offer to work with Luoni and his team at no additional cost.

In a letter, Eric Gold, hired consultant with RAD Conversion Specialists, pointed out practical issues relating to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development restrictions and parameters to receive tax credits, which serve as the primary funding source under the RAD program.

Gold outlined a variety of other options regarding Willow Heights. The Housing Authority could sell the extra property at Morgan Manor and use the proceeds to rebuild Willow Heights, or buy property somewhere else in Washington County. It could sell Willow Heights and move residents elsewhere in the county. It could buy 12th Street Apartments, next to Morgan Manor, and move Willow Heights residents there. The authority also could purchase a different apartment complex and move residents there.

Commissioner Chris White expressed hesitancy at changing directions after the board had already made a decision. Plus, the board is under a contract to sell the property, he said.

"I'm open to any idea that's going to put us in a better position so that we can provide safe and affordable housing to all the people who need safe and affordable housing," White said. "But if this is something that's going to take a large investment, and in the long term we're going to house less people with a prettier property, I want to know what we're going to do is going to be the best for everybody."

NW News on 01/26/2018