Northern News

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A publication of the American Planning Association, California Chapter, Northern Section

Making great communities happen

Affordable housing in Silicon Valley puts focus on sustainability

From HUD User, PD&R Edge, August 3, 2020

Named in honor of the first woman to serve as mayor of a California town, the development adds 66 units of affordable housing in Sunnyvale. Credit: Keith Baker

Edwina Benner Plaza in Sunnyvale is providing much-needed affordable housing while advancing sustainability-minded design. A combination of on and offsite renewable energy sources are meeting all of the building’s electricity needs and work with other design elements to achieve net-zero operating emissions. Edwina Benner Plaza is also notable for its efforts to address another urgent issue in California: housing for individuals and families with a history of, or at risk for experiencing, homelessness. (Endnote 1)

Bringing affordability to the heart of the Technology Sector

Developed by MidPen Housing, the project consists of 30 one-bedroom, 18 two-bedroom, and 18 three-bedroom apartments, plus amenities such as a community room with kitchen, computer lab, fitness center, children’s playground, and secured bike parking. Funding for the $44 million development came primarily from equity generated from the sale of 9 percent low-income housing tax credits. Additional funding sources included the city of Sunnyvale; Santa Clara County, where Sunnyvale is located; and HUD’s HOME Investment Partnerships Program. To qualify, residents must earn no more than 60 percent of the area median income, and preference for most of the units is given to people living or working in Sunnyvale. Property income funds programming onsite — such as youth afterschool and summer programs, financial literacy courses, vocational training, health and wellness programs, computer assistance, and help accessing other local resources and services — that is available to all residents. (Endnote 2)

In addition to providing affordable workforce housing, Edwina Benner Plaza is helping to address homelessness in the heart of Silicon Valley. The area’s high cost of housing has been an ongoing and severe challenge, and decreases in housing affordability correlate with an increased risk of homelessness. This finding is borne out in Santa Clara County, where, at the time Edwina Benner Plaza opened, an estimated 7,500 men, women, and children experienced homelessness on any given night. The development, supported by project-based vouchers, reserves 13 units for formerly homeless households referred by the county’s Office of Supportive Housing and 10 units for families at risk of homelessness. Peninsula Healthcare Connection provides additional supportive services and case management for formerly homeless residents. (Endnote 3)

Edwina Benner Plaza is the second MidPen Housing project in Sunnyvale to target residents who are currently homeless or at risk of homelessness. (The developer opened the nearby Onizuka Crossing Apartments in 2016. Half of the 58 units there are reserved for formerly homeless individuals.)

Advancing Green Building

Sustainability played a major role in the design, including the landscaping and the photovoltaic panels that provide half of the building’s electricity needs. Credit: Bruce Damonte

Solar rooftop panels generate approximately 50 percent of Edwina Benner Plaza’s electricity requirements. Community-based provider Silicon Valley Clean Energy supplies the remaining 50 percent from renewable sources. These efforts, combined with the development’s electric, rather than gas-powered, hot water heater — and a high-efficiency heat pump for cooling — mean the development produces zero operating emissions, earning it Platinum certification under the GreenPoint Rated system. According to Matthew Lewis, senior project manager at MidPen Housing, the value realized through energy efficiency is passed on to residents, albeit indirectly, in the form of increased funding for onsite services.

Edwina Benner Plaza residents also receive free Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority passes to encourage them to use more sustainable transportation options. And the landscape uses native plants and includes a stormwater planter to help control storm runoff. (Endnote 4)

Project designer David Baker Architects sought to ensure that the development would support not only the well-being of the environment but also the well-being of residents. As an aid, the development’s layout pushes service and storage spaces toward the side of the building fronting a highway. This arrangement shields the living spaces of the building from noise, enhancing the enjoyment and use of private balconies and the shared outdoor space. To further enhance the appeal of being active in the building’s courtyard play area, landscape architect Fletcher Studio used bold colors and patterns to make the confined space feel more expansive and create visual dynamism. (Endnote 5)

Bold colors help activate the shared courtyard space, encouraging active use of the communal amenities. Credit: Bruce Damonte

Edwina Benner Plaza’s name honors the first woman to serve as mayor of a California town. During her 28 years on the Sunnyvale City Council, Edwina Benner, who began her working life in a cannery, held the mayoral office twice, from 1924 to 1926 and again from 1938 to 1940. Nearly a century later, her life and impact are being honored through a series of memorial plaques donated by the Sunnyvale Historical Society. Mr. Lewis reports that the success of Edwina Benner Plaza demonstrates to other developers the feasibility of all-electric affordable housing projects. It also is influencing MidPen Housing’s ongoing and planned projects.

Endnote 1: California Tax Credit Allocation Committee. n.d. “2018 & 2019 Sustainable Building Method and Minimum Construction Standards for Energy Efficiency.” Accessed 17 June 2020; Correspondence with Matthew Lewis, senior project manager, MidPen Housing. 11 June 2020; MidPen Housing. n.d. “Affordable All-Electric Workforce Housing Opens in Sunnyvale near Jobs and Transit.” Accessed 17 June 2020; City of Sunnyvale. 2017. “Approve Loan and Regulatory Agreements with MP Edwina Benner Associates, LP for a Loan of $7.43 Million in Housing Mitigation Funds and a Loan of $600,000 in HOME Funds for Edwina Benner Plaza Affordable Housing Development at 460 Persian Drive,” 28 February. Accessed 17 June 2020; San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association. 2020. “What It Will Really Take to Create an Affordable Bay Area.” Accessed 18 June 2020.
Endnote 2: MidPen Housing. n.d. “Affordable All-Electric Workforce Housing Opens in Sunnyvale near Jobs and Transit.” Accessed 17 June 2020; Correspondence with Matthew Lewis, senior project manager, MidPen Housing, 11 June 2020; County of Santa Clara. n.d. “About the County.” Accessed 17 June 2020; City of Sunnyvale. 2017. “Approve Loan and Regulatory Agreements with MP Edwina Benner Associates, LP for a Loan of $7.43 Million in Housing Mitigation Funds and a Loan of $600,000 in HOME Funds for Edwina Benner Plaza Affordable Housing Development at 460 Persian Drive,” 28 February. Accessed 17 June 2020.
Endnote 3: City of Sunnyvale. 2014. “Housing Element of the General Plan, January 31, 2015 – January 31, 2023.” Accessed 17 June 2020; United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. 2019. “The Importance of Housing Affordability and Stability for Preventing and Ending Homelessness.” Accessed 17 June 2020; MidPen Housing. n.d. “Affordable All-Electric Workforce Housing Opens in Sunnyvale near Jobs and Transit.” Accessed 17 June 2020; City of Sunnyvale. 2017. “Approve Loan and Regulatory Agreements with MP Edwina Benner Associates, LP for a Loan of $7.43 Million in Housing Mitigation Funds and a Loan of $600,000 in HOME Funds for Edwina Benner Plaza Affordable Housing Development at 460 Persian Drive,” 28 February. Accessed 17 June 2020; County of Santa Clara Office of Supportive Housing. n.d. “Mission Statement.” Accessed 17 June 2020; Victoria Kezra. 2016. “Low-income housing project has grand opening in Sunnyvale.” Mercury News, 13 October. Accessed 17 June 2020.
Endnote 4: Correspondence with Matthew Lewis, 11 June 2020; MidPen Housing. n.d. “Affordable All-Electric Workforce Housing Opens in Sunnyvale near Jobs and Transit.” Accessed 17 June 2020; Fletcher Studio. n.d. “Edwina Benner Plaza: Integrating Play and History.” Accessed 17 June 2020.
Endnote 5: David Baker Architects. n.d. “Edwina Benner Plaza.” Accessed 17 June 2020; Correspondence with Matthew Lewis, 11 June 2020; Fletcher Studio. n.d. “Edwina Benner Plaza: Integrating Play and History.” Accessed 17 June 2020.

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