What Makes the Right Location for Development?

6 min read

‘Looking for the sweet spot’ in site selection 

It’s rare that a site for a housing development is perfect. Besides the constraints of working with existing lots that are often less than ideal, there are many other factors in play: zoning, soil conditions, solar orientation, ease of entry and access to transportation and amenities, just to name a few. In general, though, there are a few handy tips that can help developers and architects seek out a good site for affordable housing.

“The most flexible sites to design are the ones that allow for the greatest density and minimize the amount of required open space,” says Peter Bafitis, managing principal of New York City-based RKTB Architects. “Sites that are ‘easy’ to build on, good soil conditions, low water table, no encroachments from adjacent properties, are desirable and will reduce construction costs.”

He also cites factors, such as “context, energy optimization, view corridors, proximity to road access, positioning of open space, and subsurface conditions” that should be considered when judging a site.

In addition, a development’s surroundings can add to or detract from site desirability. “A location near services and transportation or near a public amenity, such as a park or waterfront, will be more valuable to both an owner and a future occupant,” Bafitis says.

Tenant behaviors often come into play when considering how best to select a site, he adds.

Siting to Suit
“Family housing might work best as a low- or mid-rise building so children can more easily walk down to outdoor play areas and parents can monitor them from their apartments. This solution might yield a building complex that is more sprawling on a site. Conversely, in an effort to limit long corridors, a senior housing building might elect to build higher and save an elderly person a long walk from the elevator to their front door.”

The architect is currently working on two projects that illustrate the pluses and minuses of housing sites in a densely crowded space, like New York.

One is a 69-unit affordable senior housing/community facility project in the works at 1416 Franklin Ave. in the NYC borough of The Bronx. RKTB has designed it for nonprofit affordable housing developer STEL. With properties on either side of it, the 10,000 square foot lot size is inflexible. And the site sits atop rock—lots and lots of rock. There is ten to 15 feet of schist, a very hard rock akin to granite, below the 50-foot frontage lot.

Stating the obvious, Bafitis says, “Rock you have to blast away adds considerable costs.”

But another project his firm is consulting on is relatively unconstrained land, more flexible to work with. It is a New York City Housing and Preservation Department (HPD) project in Brooklyn that features a lot of open land within a New York City Housing Authority “campus” that was built decades ago using the “tower in a park” model. Now, those open park spaces can be developed and a mixed-use affordable housing/market rate project is in the works.

The open land would allow for 200 units of affordable senior housing to be built on a 25,000 square foot site at HPD/NYCHA’s Kingsborough Houses Campus.

The Sweet Spot
Another New York architect, Eugene Flotteron, principal and director of architecture at CetraRuddy, advises seeking out the most efficient residential considerations to hit a siting “sweet spot” consisting of minimum unit and room sizes and considering six essential factors: “safety, security, trust, choice, collaboration and aesthetics.”

But he also thinks good sitings put tenant wellness high in the mix, with “sites and architectural solutions that help people be healthier and to engage with their communities. This means activating the sites, such as courtyards and terraces and rooftops, and more access to light and open space.”

“We see quality affordable housing as a basic human right, and that is a big part of our firm’s philosophy when approaching affordable housing projects,” Flotteron says.

Developers and architects sometimes have to play it on the bounce, finding opportunities within constraints and regulations into good locations for affordable housing.

“Efficiencies are also driven by floor area ratio (FAR), and since most sites are limited by an allowable FAR, it’s important to make best use of that. The goal is to design floor plans within the allowed FAR that are efficient and allow the maximum daylight and fresh air access within those limitations. Getting the most units within those constraints, to help address need, is vital to doing our part in meeting the greater need for affordable homes.”

Looking for Cost Efficiencies
As for cost efficiencies, Flotteron looks at which positives can be maximized at a particular site. “Sites should be evaluated for allowing housing unit designs that can be stacked layouts, repeating from floor to floor, with back-to-back plumbing risers, for example.

“Cost is also affected by the construction approach that is allowed or best suited to the given sites. Block-and-plank construction, for example, maxes out at 14 stories in many markets, while insulating concrete form (ICF) and plank buildings can rise to 21 stories,” he points out.

As examples of favorable siting, Flotteron points to two projects his firm has worked on, 350 Clarkson, a 250-unit housing complex in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood, and 535W43, both mixed-income projects in Manhattan.

At 350 Clarkson, CetraRuddy points out these favorable siting factors:

  • The site allows efficient residential layouts in a budget-minded building and façade design complementary to existing neighborhood fabric;
  • It includes roof terraces and outdoor play areas to promote biophilia; and
  • It has space for bicycle parking and LEED for Homes for resident health and also meets NYSERDA’s Multifamily Performance Program.

And at 535W43, which is 20 percent affordable housing:

  • Siting allowed for two ground-up multifamily residential rental buildings situated on a through-block parcel that are connected above/below grade for shared amenities.

This added 24,000 square feet of amenity space below grade, which allowed for more units above;

  • It is a through-block site for multiple access points/community connections;
  • This connecting space allowed the project to have one main entry with lobby and mail room for residents, bringing down overall operating costs; and
  • The courtyard maximizes daylight, ventilation and outdoor access, as well as community connections among residents.

Ultimately, according to Flotteron, “The goal for any site is to create that sense of home and sanctuary while also giving residents generous access to sun, the outdoors, the neighborhood and the community.”

Mark Fogarty has covered housing and mortgages for more than 30 years. A former editor at National Mortgage News, he has written extensively about tax credits.