Depot Street revival

The rooftop at 372 Depot St. in Asheville boasts an impressive view — but for two very different reasons.

From this bird’s-eye perch, you can spot trains chugging through the River Arts District and see the hills rising up on the west side of the French Broad River.

But from an environmental perspective, the roof itself tells a new story. Row upon row of solar panels (60 in all) feed the building’s hot-water system — the largest of its kind in the state for a multifamily development. And the bright white rooftop reflects heat and lowers cooling costs.

That’s just the beginning of the environmentally friendly features of the mixed-use building, part of the Glen Rock Depot project developed by Mountain Housing Opportunities, an Asheville nonprofit.

Completed in September 2010, the $10 million structure likely will be one of the first LEED-certified multi-use buildings in Asheville (the certification process is under way). Glen Rock includes 9,000 square feet of commercial space on the ground level and 60 workforce apartments on its top three floors.

“There’s an assumption that when you build affordable housing, you can’t build a beautiful building, you can’t build an energy-efficient building,” says Cindy Visnich Weeks, MHO’s manager of community investments. “We challenged a lot of assumptions in the marketplace with this project but made it a success.”

Location, location, location
The Glen Rock Depot project was launched in 2006, when MHO purchased a 3-acre tract of land along Depot Street where the River Arts District meets the city’s Southside neighborhoods.

The project was divided into three phases: renovating the 1925 Corner Market building (completed in 2007); constructing the new, multi-use building at 372 Depot St.; and renovating the historic Glen Rock Hotel for residential and commercial use (the latter is now in the fundraising stage).

The multi-use building’s first, perhaps best-known commercial anchor tenant, The Magnetic Field, opened in December 2010 as a restaurant, bar and performance space. By fall 2011, the remaining commercial spaces had been fully leased.

Sixty apartments fill out the top three floors, with the residential space centered around a welcoming private courtyard that includes a train-themed playground structure. Ranging in size from one to three bedrooms, the units rent from $350 to $750 per month. At those affordable prices, the apartments were snapped up within two months of the building’s completion.

One of the fundamental green features of 372 Depot St. is its location: It’s within a three-mile radius of the center of downtown — a “sweet spot” where nearly 50,000 people work, according to an MHO census tract study.

“We need to build near the jobs so that people don’t have to travel so far,” explains Weeks.

And, in fact, a number of Glen Rock Depot residents either walk or take public transportation to work, she says.

Apart from cutting down on greenhouse-gas emissions by providing homes close to where people work, the centralized location also makes good economic sense for residents. MHO calculates that an employee who commutes 20 miles a day spends more than $2,500 annually in auto costs.

Let the sun shine
The building’s solar-thermal system may offer the biggest wow factor of its environmentally friendly features.

With 60 solar panels (one per residential unit), the system produces 2,400 gallons of hot water daily and reduces tenants’ hot-water electricity costs by 80 to 90 percent over conventional systems. By avoiding 29 tons of carbon-dioxide emissions annually, the system is equivalent to planting 8,500 trees and taking 13 cars off the road, MHO calculates.

While it may be true that going green has become fashionable, Weeks notes that MHO has a 23-year history of building energy-efficient buildings. “We’ve always done that because we believe it’s important to pass on energy cost savings to our clients,” she says. “And saving the planet is great too.”

Weeks points out another green feature: Instead of recycling bins (which can be hard to manage in apartment buildings), each floor has a central recycling chute. Residents can toss mixed recyclables down the chute; the recycling company sorts them after pickup.

“We’ve kind of cracked that nut on this one and it works very well,” Weeks says.

The building also boasts low-flow fixtures, ENERGY STAR appliances, a high-efficiency HVAC system and low-VOC paints, carpets, sealants and other materials.

Plus, contractors were able to recycle 85 percent of the project’s construction waste.

On the exterior, the developers took care to use water-efficient landscaping and native plants. There’s even a small community garden, complete with raised beds.

The building’s stormwater design system includes a cistern for watering plants on-site, along with a detention vault that gently releases water over several days.

In yet another environmentally friendly move, the courtyard and one of the building’s parking lots uses pervious paving, while stormwater runoff from the paved parking lot drains into a bioswale rain garden.

Building a community
Weeks and MHO Resource Development Manager Lisa Keeter get downright animated when talking about the building’s aesthetics and how its design helps to foster a sense of community.

“What a beautiful place it is to live,” Weeks declares.

Largely brick on the outside, interior hallways gleam with white vinyl tiles offset by varied pops of colored tile that match each apartment door (the better for small children to remember which door is theirs). Greeson & Fast Design (which has an office just up the block) helped with the interior design, while local artists crafted the door numbers, which add a personalized touch.

Large black-and-white historic photos of the Southside neighborhoods adorn the hallway walls and offer reminders of what the area looked like before the city’s urban-renewal programs of the 1960s and ‘70s radically reshaped the nearby landscape.

The building, designed by Reinhardt Architecture of Charlotte, offers numerous opportunities for neighbors to get to know each other, Weeks adds. It boasts 6,000 square feet of community space, such as a courtyard, small fitness center, laundromat and communal kitchen, where school-age kids can use computers to do their homework.

Each floor also has a sitting area, including a kid-friendly space equipped with foam blocks for creative play, and one with Internet connections. The upper floors also have shared porches that overlook the leafy courtyard.

Bumps in the road
Bringing the project to fruition was no mean feat. Financing the multi-million-dollar building’s construction in late 2008 — when the country’s financial system neared meltdown — turned into a nail biter that forced a building redesign.

The residential part of the project received some funding through several governmental and community resources, including the city of Asheville’s Housing Trust Fund, HOME funds and grants from Buncombe County and Mission Health.

“The city and the county have been tremendously supportive of this project — both the new building and the hotel,” Weeks notes. But just as MHO was approved to receive federal housing tax credits that were to finance 80 percent of the new building’s residential construction, the banks that typically invest in tax credits began teetering. The market for tax credits plummeted, forcing MHO’s financial contacts to scramble for new investors to purchase the credits at a better rate.
The financial crisis also prompted MHO to cut costs. A redesign removed an underground parking garage in exchange for surface parking — saving $2 million in construction costs. Meanwhile, the tanking economy created a more competitive construction environment, further reducing costs.

“That was kind of how we pulled it off in a crazy economy,” Weeks explains.

Meanwhile, the commercial part of the building was financed separately, including a New Markets tax-credit loan through the Self Help Credit Union.

Apart from the financing, the project had only one major surprise. Fortunately, from an environmental perspective, it offered a silver lining.

During site preparation, workers discovered that the soil was contaminated with oil, possibly from a leaking underground storage tank that had long ago been removed. Cleaning it up meant spending $250,000 to haul away nearly 200 dump-truck loads of contaminated soil and replacing it with clean fill.

“We removed a huge environmental problem down there,” Weeks says. “It’s very clean. It’s much cleaner than it was before.”

The building took 18 months to complete, with Cox Schepp Construction of Charlotte serving as the general contractor, and Asheville’s Civil Design Concepts handling the civil engineering.

The result is a unique combination for the state. Weeks thinks 372 Depot St. is the only building in North Carolina that combines its particular financing strategy with a community solar-powered hot-water system and (imminent) LEED certification.

Two down, one to go
As a finishing touch, MHO plans to restore Town Branch, a stream located next to the building and once nicknamed Nasty Branch (perhaps due to one-time straight-piping into the stream). The nonprofit plans to remove the silt crowding the waterway and replace invasive plants with native ones, completing the property’s transformation.

A flowering of business has likewise crowned the commercial part of the mixed-use building. After the Magnetic Field opened in December 2010, West One Salon followed a month later. Vacancies remained through much of 2011, but by late fall, the remaining spaces had been leased to Desert Moon Designs Studios & Gallery, Integrative Family Medicine of Asheville, Magnificent Hair Salon and Partnership Property Management.

“The fact that we built it during an uncertain economic time and made it a complete success is a huge testament to our innovative and creative strategies on development,” Weeks says.

Only one major phase remains to complete the overall project: renovating Glen Rock Hotel, which was built in 1930 but has long been vacant. Once envisioned as commercial, retail and office space, the old hotel will incorporate commercial space on the first floor and 22 units of affordable apartments on the upper two floors.

If MHO’s track record can be used to predict the future, then the Glen Rock Hotel is destined to become the next green jewel of a building on Depot Street.

Designer: Reinhardt Architecture

Contractor: Cox Schepp Construction

Interior design: Local artists, and
Greeson & Fast Design

Solar: FLS Energy

Tracy Rose is an Asheville freelance writer and editor.