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Schermerhorn House rises thanks to unique supports.

Set to rise eleven stories over three subway lines in Brooklyn's Boerum Hill neighborhood, it seems there's nothing that's not unusual about Schermerhorn House. First off, it's supported from only one side, with a hefty cantilever system holding the 98,000-s/f building aloft as it juts out over the A, C and G subway tunnels by Smith and Hoyt Streets.

The Belgian-made panel glass facade, green-designed elements and the generally pleasant dimensions of the building are not features one typically associates with housing for the lowincome and homeless. And while it's true the property owners were obligated to make 30% of the housing on the formerly city-owned, two-acre site affordable, the fact that they exceeded this requirement, doubling to 60% affordable housing in a hot neighborhood, is certainly not a move one typically associates with owners.

But with construction underway on 217 units split fifty-fifty between affordable housing and housing for the homeless, along with the construction of 14 market-rate luxury townhouses, all involved in financing, development, design and construction at the improbable site hope to overcome the many challenges and achieve their goals, which for the property owners means making a profit using an unorthodox formula.

"As developers, we wanted to buy this land but we couldn't make traditional options like 80-20 work," said Abby Hamlin of Hamlin Ventures, referring to a typical forumula when dealing with affordable sites in which 80% are sold at market rate and 20% are earmarked for low income. "We started exploring other options."

Hamlin, along with Times Equities chairman and CEO Francis Greenburger purchased the land in 2002 via their joint-venture, HS Development Partners. The pair ended up in conversation with Common Ground Community, a group that works to rehabilitate and empower the homeless, and The Actors' Fund of America. The pitch: HS Development Partners would donate a portion of the site's developable area, oil which Common Ground and The Actor's Fund would build 100 affordable units, thus meeting the 30% affordable requirement of the site.

"[Common Ground] got back to us and said it wouldn't be worth their while to build so few, so they said 'how about double?'" said Hamlin. "And we went for it."

"It really is a story of Abby and Francis being committed to our success," said Rosanne Haggerty, president of Common Ground, which is the nation's largest not-for-profit developer of supportive housing, providing building management for over 1,600 people. "We reviewed that the economics of a larger building made sense. You could have a richer staffing pattern, better security--all the things that support an exceptional project. That was persuasive. In fact, [Hamlin and Greenburger] barely hesitated. They did the right thing."

Common Ground will act as building managers at Schermerhorn House while The Actors' Fund will provide on-site support services for building occupants, who will include--at the affordable end-actors, artists and entertainment professionals. A 2,000 s/f black-box theater is also being developed on the site to foster community interaction with the house.

"That was an important element, I think." said Hamlin. "Creating a community space was integral to a project like this. It's not just about the residents, but the neighborhood."

After reaching an agreement--and after accessing a mixed bag of public and private funds that included low-interest loans, the sale of low-income housing credits, tax-exempt bonds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and donations from various organization--Common Ground reached out to Polshek Partnership Architects to spearhead a complicated design and construction effort.

"Common Ground is known for demanding inspiring work." said Susan Rodriguez, the design partner for Polshek. "We've been working with them from the outset to build a sustainable housing project and to create a place that fosters dignity and pride in the residence."

Rodriguez and the Polshek-led team of architects designed accessible green areas on the roof and will install heating and cooling technologies that will make the building efficient. A facade of translucent channel glass, built largely of recycled materials, is perhaps the building's most notable feature in terms of both green design and overall aesthetic. The decision to install this complex channel glass system, however, was not made purely for a good look, or to capture plenty of sunlight. There was the building's cantilevered foundation to consider.

"Glass walls aren't as heavy as traditional masonry," said Rodriguez. "So while it's important that it be beautiful, we also had to take weight into consideration."

The building's superstructure is reinforced concrete, which will sit atop two stories of steel anchored in place by two rows of caissons. Four 26' tall steel trusses fabricated from large rolled steel I-beams support 9-stories above.

"The caissons are about two or three feet in diameter and they get drilled down about 50 feet and are reinforced with steel and concrete," said Project Executive Walter Beale of Marson Contracting Co., Inc., who is building the Schermerhorn House "It's tough with the MTA tracks right there, but it's coming along."

If all goes according to plan, Schermerhorn House will be ready for occupancy by December 2007.

With this oddball project in the works, Hamlin says she won't hesitate to try a similar approach when building on affordable sites in the future.

"I intend to see if I can do this again where affordable housing is going to be required," she said. "I don't know if the exact set of circumstances will be in place, but this project has been a model of cooperation, coordination and creativity."
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Author:Moran, Tim
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:Jun 7, 2006
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