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Home > Best Practices > East Greenwich, Rhode Island: Cottages on Greene’s Innovative Approach to Infill

 

East Greenwich, Rhode Island: Cottages on Greene’s Innovative Approach to Infill

 

Cottages on Greene is a privately financed infill development composed of mixed income housing located in the historic downtown of East Greenwich, Rhode Island. Prior to construction, Cottages on Greene’s nearly one-acre site had sat derelict for several years. In early 2009, as the recession slowed development, a team led by 620 Main Street Associates responded by providing a project concept that leveraged the site’s walkable location and an emerging demand for scaled-down, urban-style living. As a 15-unit “cottage” development, a style influenced by the preserved cottage on the site, Cottages on Greene has contributed five deed-restricted units to the community’s supply of affordable housing. The Congress for the New Urbanism awarded the project an Honorable Mention in its 2011 Charter Awards program, which recognizes projects for excellence in walkable and sustainable design.1 Completed in November 2010, Cottages on Greene demonstrates how innovative housing solutions can succeed, even in challenging economic times.

Project Context and History

Originally settled in the late 17th century, East Greenwich is a picturesque New England town with a population of approximately 13,000. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the downtown and waterfront areas were largely developed around the prevailing maritime and railroad-based trades. The lower-density residential areas that dominate much of the town’s present land area were built during the latter half of the 20th century, during the rise of the automobile era.2 This development history is still visible today, with the 18th century street grid emerging from the waterfront to form the backbone of the town’s thriving historic district.3

The town’s historic and cultural assets, combined with its proximity to the cities of Providence and Boston, help make East Greenwich a desirable community for middle- and upper-income households.4 House values in East Greenwich are among the highest in Rhode Island.5 In 2010, the median value of a single-family house in East Greenwich was $433,750, while the median value in all of Rhode Island was $210,000. The average monthly cost of a two-bedroom apartment in both East Greenwich and the state was $1,165 in 2010.6 East Greenwich’s housing values are, in part, affected by the low-density development trends, with most of the town’s land dedicated to single-family houses on lots of two acres or fewer.7 There is also a limited supply of land available for future residential development.8 Together, these factors have contributed to a shortage of affordable housing in East Greenwich.

Rhode Island’s Low and Moderate Income Housing Act of 1991 states that at least 10 percent of a jurisdiction’s housing units should be affordable for households with low- or moderate-incomes. In 2004, East Greenwich’s officials determined that only about 4 percent of the town’s total housing units qualified as affordable for low- and moderate-income households, amounting to a shortage of 292 affordable housing units.9 In response, the town adopted an affordable housing plan that identified goals for affordable housing production, strategies — such as density bonuses — to facilitate this production, and sites where potential development could be accommodated.10

At this time, local leaders viewed the lot at 46 Greene Street – the site of a six-bay automotive service garage – as an optimal location for infill development.11 The site is located one block from the downtown commercial area and is bordered by residential neighborhoods to the north, south, and west. Although the recession stalled the site’s redevelopment, it did not stop the development team from creating a project that can serve as a model for future infill developments across the country.

Planning and Design

The 620 Main Street development team sought to create an economically feasible project that would include affordable units and incorporate a sustainable design. Although 620 Main Street has experience in low-density subdivision development, that approach would not be a good fit for this project’s site, nor would it serve the developer’s objectives. The developers instead used Cottages on Greene’s desirable location in the historic downtown and an original, cottage-style house design to attract homeowners who value a walkable, urban lifestyle.12 The development team emphasized high-quality design over volume of living space to help align this project with the historic architecture of the surrounding neighborhood.

The development team’s vision for the project was achieved through a partnership with town officials. Due to design elements and the proposed housing density, the proposal did not comply with several of the town’s existing codes, including zoning and fire and life safety. However, early in the development process, local planning officials supported the project concept because five units (33 percent of the total number of units proposed) would have deed restrictions for low-income households. These affordable units met state and local zoning requirements and helped qualify it as a comprehensive project, which expedites the approval process based on the project’s capacity to address a range of socioeconomic needs. The affordable units also qualified Cottages on Greene for a density bonus, making it economically viable.

Although planning department support for the project was important, the project faced other barriers to approval. Early in the planning process, the development team communicated their vision to local officials and the public. The project's architects, Union Studio, and engineering designers, Morris Beacon Design, used detailed renderings and site plans to illustrate how the project would fit within the existing fabric and architectural traditions of the surrounding historic neighborhood. By collaborating with local officials, the development team was able to proactively address potential hurdles, such as the fire and life safety code compliance issues. The development team conducted research on fire and life safety solutions and proposed a fire suppression sprinkler system for the cottages with entry doors that were beyond the required 50 feet distance to an emergency apparatus. This proposed alternative effectively demonstrated conformance with the underlying intent of the codes.

In the neighborhood context, Cottages on Greene's design is well integrated with the surrounding area. The eastern boundary is Greene Street, which runs northwest to southeast. Low-density residential areas line the northern and western borders, and commercial areas are along the eastern and southern borders. The parking lot, located on the property's southeastern edge, provides a buffer between the cottages and the more intense commercial uses nearby. The cottages are arranged in two rows around community spaces, and the preserved cottage sits on the property's easternmost edge. The duplexes that front Greene Street were built to conform to traditional building setbacks along the road, with one façade facing Greene Street and the other facing the community green. The property maintains a sight line that cuts through the rows of cottages from Greene Street to Olson Way, an adjacent cul-de-sac.

The developers also focused on designing high-quality living spaces. The size of the site required a design that would balance community spaces with private spaces. The 15 cottages are styled in the form of a triplex, three duplexes, and six single-detached houses, with floor areas ranging from 851 to 1,094 square feet. To foster privacy, the floor plans are designed to minimize sight lines between cottages. The low- and moderate-income units are scattered throughout the site and are indistinguishable from the market-rate units. To help foster community, there are communal vegetable and cutting gardens. The gardens are part of a larger, environmentally sustainable development strategy, which includes a system of bioretention and bioswales, permeable pavement, and an underground stormwater recharge system.

This detailed, context-sensitive design played a key role in getting the project approved and attracting buyers. After an expedited approval process, the East Greenwich planning board granted final approval for the project in November 2009.

Sustainable by Design

Several elements of the Cottages on Greene development make it a model solution for sustainable development. The only subsidy the project received was a density bonus, which was granted for incorporating affordable units in the development. The density bonus helped make the project economically viable. Of the project's five affordable units, two were sold to households with incomes below 80 percent of the area median income (AMI) and three were sold to households with incomes below 120 percent of AMI.

Sustainable elements of this project include its application of infill development to a walkable location and its innovative use of cottages, a housing style that increases the supply of smaller homes and encourages reduced energy consumption.13 The development is located one block from the downtown commercial area, where there are numerous restaurants, cafés, and parks, as well as banks and a pharmacy. The website WalkScore.com rates Cottages on Greene as very walkable, with a "walkability" rating of 82 out of 100, which places it in the top 85th percentile among all locations in the website's database.

In addition to the development’s attractive location, Cottages on Greene enhances the area’s supply of alternative housing types. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of Construction, the average size of a single-family house constructed in the United States in 2011 was 2,480 square feet, more than twice the size of the largest units in the Cottages on Greene development.14 In this project, the smaller housing units — which are associated with households that consume less energy15 — are combined with energy-efficient technologies such as Energy Star®-rated appliances, doubled-paned windows, and high-efficiency heating and air conditioning systems. These design elements reflect the growing trend of building residential and commercial buildings with energy efficiency in mind.16

Experience Gained

Cottages on Greene offers important development and construction process lessons. A unique component of the project is the development partnership that formed between 620 Main Street Associates and Union Studio. Rather than a typical fee-for-service arrangement, Union Studio requested an equity stake in the project. As equity partners, the designers were able to provide input throughout the construction process and help make cost decisions related to construction which helped ensure that the architectural vision was carried out. This type of partnership is believed to have improved the design quality of the built project.17

The developers were also presented with logistical challenges that are associated with constructing nine buildings on a mere acre of land. A site area of this size is normally not considered large enough to accommodate the number of builders and tradesmen that were required for the Cottages on Greene project. In addition, the minimal site area complicated the process of excavating and pouring foundations for the cottages. To address this problem, the development team used precast foundations that could be set expeditiously, one after the other, resulting in a more efficient use of the construction workspace.

Within a year of the project’s completion, nearly all of the cottages had sold. This project demonstrates that even in a region where large lots and residences are the norm, there can be a demand for housing units with smaller floor areas. The success of this project represents the confluence of many factors, from the inclusion of affordable units in the project concept, which provided the developers with a density bonus and an expedited permitting process, to the close working relationship between the development team and local officials. The Cottages on Greene project provides a valuable lesson in how to use infill development to build high-quality, mixed-income housing that is sustainable and fits within the neighborhood context.


  1. Congress for the New Urbanism. "2011 Recipients." Accessed 12 June 2012.

  2. East Greenwich Historic Preservation Society. 2006. Images of America: East Greenwich. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 9-29; Town of East Greenwich. November 2004. "Town of East Greenwich Comprehensive Community Plan: Housing Element Year 2025 Affordable Housing Plan," 6-13. Accessed 12 June 2012.

  3. East Greenwich Historic Preservation Society. 2006, 9-29.

  4. Town of East Greenwich, Rhode Island. 2003. "Comprehensive Community Plan 2003 Update," 3–10. Accessed 12 June 2012.

  5. HousingWorks RI. 2011. "2011 Fact Book." Accessed 12 June 2012.

  6. Ibid., 4,14, 23.

  7. Town of East Greenwich, Rhode Island. 2003, 3–9.

  8. In the town’s “Comprehensive Community Plan 2003 Update” (pp. 4–16, 5–3), the most recent analysis of the town’s land supply and housing capacity projected that, of the 10,438 acres of total land area, approximately 2,855 acres were available for residential development, with the ability to accommodate 1,638 additional housing units. At the time of this projection the town had 5,157 housing units; also see Town of East Greenwich. 2004, 6, 12–13.

  9. Town of East Greenwich, Rhode Island. 2004, 5.

  10. Ibid., 5-29.

  11. Internal documents provided by the American Planning Association Rhode Island Chapter.

  12. Christopher B. Leinberger and Mariela Alfonzo. May 2012. "Walk this Way: The Economic Promise of Walkable Places in Metropolitan Washington, D.C." Prepared for the Brookings Institution, Metropolitan Policy Program. Accessed 16 June 2012.

  13. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "Kirkland, Washington: Cottage Housing Ordinance." Accessed 12 June 2012.

  14. U.S. Census Bureau. "Characteristics of New Housing, 2011: Highlights of Annual 2011 Characteristics of New Housing." Accessed 16 June 2012.

  15. Alex Wilson and Jessica Boehland. 2005. "Small Is Beautiful: U.S. House Size, Resource Use, and the Environment," Journal of Industrial Ecology 9:1–2.

  16. McGraw-Hill Construction. August 2010. "Energy Efficiency Trends in Residential and Commercial Buildings." Prepared for the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Accessed 16 June 2012.

  17. Internal documents provided by the American Planning Association Rhode Island Chapter.

 
 
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