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Ideas unveiled for affordable housing

A plan to house Grass Valley’s nurses, teachers, police officers and firefighters stands to rock the tenets that have guided suburban planning for decades.

Unveiled Monday before a crowd of development insiders, the city’s work-force housing plan – based around the salaries of many civil servants – shrinks future houses, lots and streets, all in a quest for affordability.

“This is the first time we’ve taken a look at what Grass Valley wants,” said Ed Sylvester, the president of SCO Planning and Engineering. “(It offers) flexibility and creativity instead of being locked into a set of standards that don’t make any sense for this community.”



Those traditional standards strictly separated businesses and residences. They mandated a slew of seemingly technical specifications, such as wide streets, that have sparked sprawl and its host of social and economic side effects.

But with Grass Valley’s Workforce Housing Design Program and upcoming development code review, Grass Valley is on the verge of breaking free of its antiquated development standards.




The proposed changes – which include embracing the area’s tricky topography instead of leveling it, building narrow streets and vertical, not horizontal houses, and shrinking private yards to make way for public parks and paths – are “light years ahead,” said City Councilman Steve Enos.

“This is just going to make (smart development) a whole lot easier,” Enos said.

The preliminary plan the consultants presented Monday is based on the work of the city’s Workforce Housing Task Force, a group formed in 2000 to address the growing gap between Grass Valley’s average wage – now at $31,000 – and its average home price of about $300,000, according to Applied Development Economics.

The consultants developed three prototype floor plans to illustrate a minimal-cost house. The houses are two-story rectangles that range from 1,050 to 1,450 square feet. They have two or three bedrooms, one to two-and-a-half baths, and front porches. Only one of the three houses has a garage.

And they’re priced, very tentatively, from $175,000 to $315,000, consultant Alysia Nordberg said.

Architect Renner Johnston said he based the house designs on traditional Craftsman and National Folk homes in Grass Valley that task force members liked.

Then, the task force selected three sites within Grass Valley that are suited for affordable residential development – a three-acre sloped site on Dorsey Drive, a 3.5-acre site west of downtown on East Bennett Street, and a seven-acre site on South Auburn Street near Empire Mine State Park – and laid out the houses in a prototype subdivision.

Two of the projects, on Dorsey Drive and East Bennett Drive, could be built without government subsidies, the consultants said.

The key, however, is density. The Dorsey Drive plan has 12 units per acre and the East Bennett Street plan has 13. The South Auburn Street project didn’t “pencil” because of costs to build to bridges and density constraints due to the site’s steepness, Nordberg said.

The consultants found housing developments need to have at least 10 houses per acre to pay for costs and a 10 percent profit. But getting public approval for dense projects is the real challenge of affordable housing and smart development, said Phil Carville, president of Carville Sierra Inc.

He cited the “enormous ignorance” of the general public who oppose dense housing.

“Density is good,” Carville said. “All those cool places we all love … are illegal under our codes.”

The consultants will include comments in a final draft of the plan, which will be presented to the City Council, said Community Development Director Joe Heckel. Then, city leaders could make a plan to build the housing, Heckel said.


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