Saturday, January 23, 2010

from the Post-Dispatch

Tight credit market threatens 'green' U. City project
By Tim Bryant
Friday, Jan. 22 2010
The tight credit market is threatening to delay a project by some of the area's "green" experts to build nearly two dozen highly energy-efficient custom houses in a tired corner of University City.
Plans for the project, called uHome U City, began three years ago and were firmed up last fall. But no bank has been willing to make loans to build houses on two streets in the Sutter Heights neighborhood.
"We knew this was going to be a very difficult project to finance from a buyer's perspective," said Petree Eastman, the assistant city manager and a driving force behind uHome. "But like any urban pioneer, you've got to start somewhere.
"Joining the city in the project are Green Space Construction Co., consultant Richard Reilly, Washington University's Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts and Arcturis, the architecture firm that is providing space for students to design the houses.
The program has some unusual characteristics:
— All the design work will be done by graduate students.
— No private developer will be involved.
— Buyers will pay nothing for a house site and will get substantial financial incentives, including eight years of property tax abatement.
— Washington University and University City employees will get additional buyer subsidies totaling thousands of dollars.— The houses will be loaded with "green" features but top out in price at $200,000.
Eastman said she hopes a lender will step forward and allow construction and sale of five to seven uHomes this year. The biggest hurdle is that banks are balking at making $200,000 mortgages in a neighborhood where houses typically sell for between $50,000 and $150,000.
UHome leaders are trying to convince banks that Sutter Heights is worthy of new investment. They cite that the neighborhood is near the Loop, the Wellston MetroLink station, the $36 million Kingsland Walk development and parks. Eastman points out that buyer subsidies and the energy savings built into the project's houses would free money that owners could use to stay current on their mortgages. Through St. Louis County, the city already has obtained five vacant lots for potential uHome buyers. The city spent about $2,000 on each lot to get clear titles and might later obtain as many as 23 lots for the uHome project.
"The first five will be the hardest," Eastman said. "The second five will be easier. The third five will be even easier.
"Thirteen graduate students at the Sam Fox school signed up this week as uHome designers. With faculty oversight, they will draw plans for two- and three-bedroom houses of about 1,300 square feet. "Crazy spaceship" and bland "cookie cutter" designs are forbidden, uHome leaders said. Approved designs will be contemporary but compatible with the early 20th century bungalows, Dutch colonials and other homes in Sutter Heights.
Buyers of uHomes will be allowed to "tweak" the designs before the houses are built, said Don Koster, a senior lecturer at the Sam Fox school and a uHome leader.
"In terms of aesthetics, we hope that they will fit into the neighborhood in a formal sense and in a proportional sense," he said. "We hope they will be forward-looking and progressive in their design aesthetic.
"Recycled brick, concrete, interior doors and other items could be used in the uHomes, project leaders said. Geothermal heating and cooling, solar power and even wind power might also be incorporated. The plan is for the houses to achieve LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum status from the U.S. Green Building Council.
"We'll also be looking toward using modern materials that can be sourced locally," Koster said. "The value for the students is to get hands-on, real-life experience."
Reilly, director of operations for Trumpet LLC, a green builder and engineering firm based in Festus, said he hopes that finding a large number of potential uHome buyers will persuade banks to finance house loans in Sutter Heights.
"If there are enough buyers interested in participating in the project, that might be the proof needed right there," he said. "This project has so much potential to deliver something satisfactory in a neighborhood so close to so many amenities."
UHome leaders said the program could eventually spread to more than 100 vacant lots in University City. Megan Nasrallah, the Arcturis architect leading the firm's uHome effort, said designs for the first five houses should be ready in time for construction to begin in June.
In addition to tax abatements and energy-savings tax credits, uHome buyers also could qualify for tax credits, awarded by lottery, from Missouri's Neighborhood Preservation Act. In addition, Washington University employees would get $6,000 in forgivable loans for buying houses in the city's northeast quadrant. City employees would get $4,000 grants.
"Our dream buyer is a Washington University faculty member married to a city employee, and they win the Missouri preservation act lottery," Eastman said.