Veridian, At Last?
"We will reveal the completed designs in June and pre-sales will begin shortly after."
From the June, 2021 issue
So says Matt Grocoff, the lawyer-turned-environmental evangelist behind Veridian at County Farm Park, a 110-unit development that the city approved last year for the former county juvenile justice center on Platt Rd. Based on the Latin word for "green," the name reflects the project's environmental ambitions: according to its website, Veridian is "targeted to be one of the nation's first mixed-income net zero energy communities."
In 2016, that promise led the county to pick Veridian out of half a dozen proposals for the site, even though Grocoff's THRIVE Collaborative offered only $500,000. Others said they'd pay as much as $3.45 million, but "Matt was the one who was most enthusiastic about incorporating environmentalism into the design," recalls former county commissioner Conan Smith.
In fact, Veridian was custom-tailored to suggestions from board members. As Grocoff remembers it, his involvement grew out of a chance meeting with Smith at Argus Farm Stop, near his own net-zero energy home on the Old West Side. Grocoff says Smith told him that it would be "great" to have a net-zero energy proposal for the site, and he upped the ante by suggesting that it should also be mixed income and incorporate "urban agriculture."
That's not quite how Smith recalls it. "I scheduled that meeting," says Smith, now CEO of the Michigan Environmental Council. And low-income housing and green features were part of the first discussions about how to redevelop the site a decade ago.
Yousef Rabhi, now Ann Arbor's state representative, was previously a county commissioner. Since the juvenile center was in his district, in 2011 he convened a "visioning session" on its future. "Not everybody agreed, but there was broad agreement on a few principles," he recalls. "There was a desire to see something that was sustainable, that could help us move off of our reliance on fossil fuels. There was a desire to have trees and a green space. There was a desire to address the need in the community for low-income housing."
neighbors, though, hoped to see the site annexed to County Farm Park next door. Commissioner Andy LaBarre, who represents the area now, recalls "a public meeting in 2014 with neighbors, particularly neighbors who had expressed that they were not pleased with the project. I wanted to give them a time and space, frankly, just to tell me that. And in some cases, they did so with great vigor."
Nonetheless, in 2016, the board voted unanimously to sell the site to Grocoff's group. It's developing the market-rate housing, while Avalon Housing is responsible for the fifty subsidized units.
"The whole site was a little big for us," says Wendy Carty-Saxon, Avalon's real estate development director. "Connecting with Thrive was really exciting because then there was this vision for the entire site-the opportunity to have a really nice cohesive development that blended both affordability with market rate housing."
Though it's a single vision, "Avalon and Thrive have our own distinct site plans," Carty-Saxon adds. "Our timing can be way different-we don't have to wait for the other one." The county is donating Avalon's 4.7-acre portion, where the nonprofit will build one- to four-bedroom townhouses and flats. Thirty will be reserved for tenants making less than 30 percent of the area median income (AMI) supported by housing vouchers; twenty will be rented to households earning up to 60 percent of the AMI at an anticipated $675-$1,000 a month.
Avalon's project is estimated to cost $12.8 million, and the nonprofit aims to raise 90 percent through the sale of low-income housing tax credits. They will learn this month or next if they've been awarded the credits this year; "if we don't get them, then we would apply in the next round," Carty-Saxon says.
Despite the intense demand for housing locally (see "Exiled from Ann Arbor, p. 23), the market-rate portion has been harder to move forward, because Grocoff first had to persuade investors and lenders to finance its construction, then find buyers for his townhomes, one-bedroom flats, and "nest flats," tiny studios with access to shared living and kitchen areas.
Combining affordability and sustainability "is both what excites a lot of people [and] what's going to make it really difficult," says former city councilmember and affordable housing advocate Chuck Warpehoski. "The finance industry, they like their cookie cutters.
"This is not a cookie cutter. Matt and the Veridian team [are] challenging a lot of the status quo about how buildings get designed, constructed, and approved. And because they're challenging those assumptions, they're running into a lot of roadblocks."
Verdian's website previously said site development and sales reservations would start last fall; in May, it said they would start this spring. But Grocoff emails that all the funding for the $10 million site development is now in hand, and "we plan to break ground this summer."
"Matt's job doesn't stop when the development's developed," Smith adds. "They need his marketing prowess to sell those units."
Grocoff says it's already happening. Though pricing had not yet been determined, "The response has been overwhelming and we expect them to pre-sell quickly," he emails. "We have over 130 people who have completed the homebuyer questionnaire."
[Originally published in June, 2021.]
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