Prone to please: Habitat picks green affordability

The past two years have been uncertain for 18 families in the Sunrise Trailer Court. The 2.3-acre site located in lower Belmont, aka "Hogwaller," was for sale in a neighborhood known for ever-encroaching gentrification.

Enter Jimmy Carter's favorite charity. Habitat for Humanity not only bought the site in order to preserve affordable housing, but also agreed to add something that low-cost, low-income urbanism rarely seems to offer: "a vibrant, attractive urban neighborhood."

Tipped off to the site by the Belmont Neighborhood Association, Habitat closed on the Carlton Road property for $1.2 million in November ($1 million in cash and $200,000 in guaranteed improvements). The Charlottesville Community Design Center then agree to hold an international contest to find an architect.

"Urban Habitats" was an ideas competition with more than an eye on reality. The competition– also sponsored by the Piedmont Housing Alliance, the Blue Moon Fund, and UVA's School of Architecture– sought to promote redevelopment without dislocating the 18 trailer court families.

The initial specifications for the development dictated at least 20 Habitat houses to join low-income owner-occupied housing, some rental units, and some commercial space. And borrowing an idea from Chicago's widely lauded North Town Village, the 72-unit complex will also include 36 residential condominiums to be sold at market rates.

On July 11, three finalists emerged (from nearly 100 entrants) with proposals that were feasible at the expense of flashy. Unfortunately, conceptual provocation doesn't always translate well in the domestic sphere, and the most challenging proposals garnered only honorable mentions. But even if there was a serious lack of imagination among the finalists, the measure of their success was how well they could foster a sense of place-identity.

First place awarded by the jury of architects, planners, and neighborhood advocates went to a Cambridge, Massachusetts, firm called Prone.

"This one says 'home' to me," says Marion Dudley, jury member and a current Sunrise Trailer Court resident. "It's more like our own home that we have now than any of the other entries."

"Double Wide, Triple High," as Prone dubbed its entry, incorporates private and semi-private courtyards in the site's current orientation. As some of the construction will be executed by a Habitat labor force (both skilled and unskilled), the new place will employ a combination of concrete masonry units and stick-built wood cladding.

In a statement released by the CCDC, jurors lauded Prone's design for avoiding the kind of homogeneity associated with the evils of urbanism past. However, what the buildings will look like is a different story.

Prone's design team shamelessly aped the Swiss architect Le Corbusier's "Five Points for a New Architecture," which celebrates standardized and mechanized banality. Despite this, Prone was faithful to the most important point: a green roof.

For Le Corbusier, a green roof was essential to domestic life as a healthful respite from urban chaos, an undeniable reality in 1930s Europe. While this kind of solution can ultimately reinforce us-and-them divisions in the landscape, Prone's green roof attempts to integrate urban and non-urban circumstances.

With the invasion of industry and commercial space in Belmont, this kind of integration is essential to the community aspect of sustainability­ in addition to the environmental.

By their nature, competitions have winners and losers. While Prone's proposal is not the most innovative, it helps Sunrise Trailer Court maintain its dignity as a community. Belmont will continue to change­ for better and for worse­ but "Urban Habitats" promotes a green (r)evolution that one hopes will spread to the rest of Charlottesville.

"Double Wide, Triple High" preserves the central court concept of Sunrise Court.