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Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan: A Sustainable Mixed-Income Housing Development Brings Housing Downtown
Over the past several decades, Sault Ste. Marie, a city of 13,500 in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, has been encouraging new development in its downtown. A primary goal of this effort has been to improve the connection between the commercial district near Soo Locks, a popular tourist attraction, and the locally owned businesses in the city’s older commercial corridor. Studies and community meetings had also revealed significant demand for housing in the city’s predominantly commercial downtown. In June 2021, Woda Cooper Companies addressed both issues by opening Osborn Commons, a 65-unit residential rental development between the two commercial areas. The development not only contributed to a more active city center but also furthered the city’s sustainability goals. The development’s location in a walkable urban environment and its sustainable design features earned it LEED Gold certification. Osborn Commons also won a LEED Homes Award in the Outstanding Affordable Projects category from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in 2022.
Housing for Diverse Households
Osborn Commons provides 13 units for residents who earn up to 30 percent of the area median income (AMI) and 10 and 28 units for households earning up to 50 and 60 percent of AMI, respectively. The development also includes 12 apartments for households earning up to 80 percent of AMI and 2 market-rate units. In addition to its 10 one-bedroom apartments, the affordable units can accommodate families with children in 41 two-bedroom and 12 three-bedroom units. Seven units are accessible to residents with mobility difficulties, and two units are designed to meet the needs of residents with hearing or visual impairments. Osborn Commons also offers a fitness center and two community rooms, both of which have a kitchenette for resident social events. One of the community rooms features a fourth-floor terrace overlooking Soo Locks and the Saint Marys River.
The Market on Osborn, a 2,000-square-foot store on the first floor of Osborn Commons, sells convenience items and groceries. At the time it opened, the market was the only store in the neighborhood that sold fresh produce. A service window opening into the residential lobby allows Osborn Commons residents to make purchases without going outside, a particularly convenient amenity during Michigan’s cold winters.
Osborn Commons’ development costs totaled nearly $14 million (table 1). Approximately 85 percent of the costs were paid through low-income housing tax credit equity, and a first mortgage accounted for most of the remainder. HUD Section 811 project rental assistance supports 10 units occupied by residents with disabilities.
Table 1: Osborn Commons Financing
|Low-income housing tax credits||$11,704,000|
|First mortgage (Cedar Rapids Bank and Trust)||1,950,000|
|Second mortgage (Valhalla Mortgage Company)||62,000|
|Miscellaneous (including a deferred developer fee)||217,000|
A Sustainable Design
As with all its developments, Woda Cooper Companies chose a sustainable and climate-conscious approach to the design of Osborn Commons. According to Craig Patterson, senior vice president of development at Woda Cooper Companies, constructing Osborn Commons raised challenges for the development team. Subcontractors in rural areas such as the Upper Peninsula often are not familiar with LEED requirements and must be thoroughly briefed before they submit bids to construct a LEED-certified building. Michigan’s harsh climate also required close coordination between the design team and building officials to ensure that the permitting process did not encroach upon the area’s short construction season. Despite these challenges, the project received LEED Gold certification, which at the time was the highest rating granted to any commercial property in the Upper Peninsula. Patterson reports that city officials consider Osborn Commons to be setting a “new standard of performance” for commercial and multifamily buildings in Sault Ste. Marie.
Osborn Commons’ design is largely responsible for the development’s LEED Gold certification and USGBC LEED Homes Award. The builders incorporated local aggregates and materials with recycled content. The team also used advanced framing techniques that reduced the amount of lumber needed. Paint, insulation, and other materials that emit low levels of volatile organic compounds improve the interior air quality. Several features of the units and common areas are designed to save energy, including LED lighting; ENERGY STAR® appliances; energy-efficient doors and windows; and energy-efficient heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems. An electric traction elevator consumes less energy than the more common hydraulic elevator. Low-flow water fixtures conserve water. The project’s green consultant estimates that these features could reduce annual energy costs by approximately $25,000, a savings of 21 percent.
Osborn Commons’ location also contributes to its sustainability. The infill development, built on an underused property, is within walking distance of stores, restaurants, a hospital, social services, and recreational facilities. Osborn Commons residents can use a dial-a-ride service that offers shared rides to shopping centers and other services throughout the city. Seniors and people with disabilities are eligible for discounted fares.
Promoting a More Sustainable and Livable Downtown
The area surrounding Osborn Commons has been included in several planning efforts. Maloney Alley, which abuts the site, was the focus of a 2013 placemaking initiative by the Michigan Municipal League and Michigan State Housing Authority. The placemaking plan calls for transforming the alley into a vibrant public space surrounded by properties where people live, work, and play and classifies a portion of the Osborn Commons site as mixed-use development. The Sault Ste. Marie 2018–2038 Master Plan encourages green building and improved opportunities for walking and other nonmotorized modes of transportation, and developing housing in the downtown area furthers this goal. The Market on Osborn fulfills the plan’s call for access to fresh food. Since Osborn Commons opened, several other apartment complexes have been developed in the city’s downtown. Woda Cooper Companies has incorporated lessons learned from Osborn Commons into some of its other Michigan projects. For example, Ruth Park, an affordable housing development in Traverse City, Michigan, is being built according to LEED guidelines to ensure a level of sustainability similar to that of Osborn Commons.