Monterey Place, a recently developed low-income housing complex located in the Dixwell neighborhood of New Haven, is a recipient of the American Institute of Architects 2003 Housing Professional Interest Area Award.

Developers who transformed one of New Haven’s blighted neighborhoods into a respectable address have received an award for their architectural endeavor.

Monterey Place, a recently developed low-income housing complex located in the Dixwell neighborhood of New Haven, is a recipient of the American Institute of Architects 2003 Housing Professional Interest Area Award.

The AIA PIA Awards Program was established “to recognize the best in housing design and to promote the importance of good housing as a necessity of life, a sanctuary for the human spirit, and a valuable natural resource.”

The 35-acre Monterey Place is located on the site of the former Elm Haven public housing project. In 1993, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the city of New Haven a $45 million HOPE VI grant to transform the existing 848-unit Elm Haven complex into a new mixed-income community.

According to the AIA, the 30-acre site has been redefined from a place of barely livable housing “projects” into a traditional neighborhood featuring both rental and owned housing. The design of the units is reminiscent of the city’s traditional architecture and offers low- and middle-income families, many of which otherwise wouldn’t have the option of homeownership, brand new homes with contemporary amenities. The community has been designed to also attract more working-class families and create a diverse mix of income levels.

In announcing the award, the AIA said, “The change in environment is striking as the architects took an area that was suffering and gave it new life as a residential community with a family feeling. The neighborhood is further enlivened by a revitalized school and other community education facilities.”

The new Monterey Place and The Homes at Monterey total of 362 units with a combination of apartment and for-sale housing in townhomes, duplex and single-family homes. One hundred forty of the units are reserved for senior residents in two buildings: a new four-story elevator building and an existing renovated tower building. Family housing includes 200 rental units and 23 for-sale homes.

Using “New Urbanism” design principles, a street grid was reinstated on the site, and a new neighborhood was created that closely resembles other neighborhoods in New Haven. Suzanne Corcoran, spokeswoman for Corcoran Jennison, co-developer of Monterey Place, explained that the special care was taken to ensure the building blended in with the rest of New Haven and “felt like they’ve always been there.”

According to Corcoran, standard building materials like shutters, brick and different paint colors were used separately and in combination, varying from home to home, providing architectural distinction that typically evolves on a city street after a number of years. Townhomes have front and back doors and outside patios, which connect to a common area where children can play and parents can watch from the kitchen.

Great care was also taken to recreate a traditional streetscape. The tree-lined streets include grass borders and historically correct lampposts.

Building Blocks

Hugh Russell, principal of Russell Scott, Steedle & Capone Architects in Cambridge, Mass., which provided design and development services for the project, said of the Monterey Place site, “It’s basically a bunch of city blocks in an area that was that was one super-block with a 1940s housing project.”

The Elm Haven project was arguably one of the earliest of its kind, he said, noting a 1937 federal act that created federal public housing.

“We ended up tearing down the project and building new houses,” he said.

The designs were based on the surrounding elements of the neighborhood. A few blocks up from Dixwell is the Winchester Arms factory, a few blocks in the other direction is a cemetery and then Yale University, and a few more blocks in another direction yields houses that rise up a hill, with each block sporting pricier homes than the next.

“We took our cues from things a couple of blocks around us,” said Russell. “We ended up looking at wood-framed houses that were mostly two-family. Families are a lot smaller than they were 60 years ago, so the houses in the area are fairly big.”

The architects tried to make the streets look like the surrounding streets with individual houses on lots. The townhouses were also built to look as if they aren’t attached-roof homes.

Several of the streets had to be restored because they were closed in 1940 when the housing project opened.

“You can tell these streets were closed because of the trees. There are 100-year-old sycamores,” said Russell. A few cross streets were added because the older blocks were large and more frontage was needed.

“They call the style New Urbanism, but in my sense it’s actually old urbanism. This is the way cities were built 100 years ago,” said Russell.

The for-sale single-family homes are priced affordably, selling for between $75,000 and $110,000. These have become home to a mix of family types, including former Elm Haven residents, city workers and Yale University employees. An additional 30 for-sale homes are planned on the site.

According to Corcoran, the Monterey complex is double the size and density of what was formerly “pretty bad public housing.” The new complex is being privately managed.

“Before, the only people who lived there were people who had to live there as housing of last resort. Now, it’s brought people that wouldn’t normally think of that end of town as a place to live,” said Corcoran. “This development was really necessary because it’s affordable housing.”

The Monterey complex is currently 100 percent occupied, and there are plans in the works for another 30 townhouses to be built in the future.

“That new townhouse component is yet to be done, but what’s up is fully occupied and sold,” said Corcoran. She noted that the homes each come with a common area in back, and several homes wrap around to block in the common space.

“This common area makes it easier for kids to stay out there while their parents can be watching them. Parents can see if there was ever anyone who didn’t belong out there,” she said.

The Beacon Cos. formed a partnership with Corcoran Jennison Cos., called Beacon/Corcoran Jennison Partners, to privately develop and manage the facility. Each group has experience in the low-income housing market. Corcoran Jennison manages the largest rental community in Boston, a complex with 3,000 rentals units.

“That complex, located right next to the JFK Library, used to be 1,500 units of public housing. When we came in, only 350 of the units were occupied, and the rest were boarded up and condemned. Now it’s been up and running for nearly 20 years, and it’s the model that we’ve used again and again,” said Corcoran.

“We formed a partnership and decided that we should treat [Monterey Place] like any other market-rate property, and that’s the biggest key to making this stuff look good and stay good,” she said. “Just because [tenants] are at lower income levels you don’t have to manage the place like that. Some properties you can drive around and people can tell poor people live there.”

Corcoran added that the key to managing affordable housing is to treat it no differently than any other rental property in the portfolio.

“If a window is broken you get out there and fix it. If you wait too long then another window will be broken by the time you get out there. That’s the failure in a lot of housing where management is not responsive. The problem we have is that if we can’t be responsive we’re not going to keep our occupancy up,” she said.

Fletcher, Thompson Architects of Stratford are the architects of record at Monterey Place. Blades & Govern Land Group of Stratford provided site planning and landscape design services.