North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness

A dilapidated gem will yield to housing

The News & Observer
BY JOSH SHAFFER AND SARAH OVASKA - Staff Writers
 
RALEIGH -- In its time, the Water Garden stood as a shrine to modern design: a complex of low-slung, hill-hugging offices surrounded by tall, ivy-covered pine trees and ponds topped with lily pads.
You'd never guess from the car dealerships and furniture warehouses that such a gem stood hidden off Glenwood Avenue. And for the last three years, the complex has slowly rotted and gathered squatters' trash.
 
But now the site of the 11-acre Water Garden campus, home and life's work of master landscape architect Dick Bell, is being put to use. Starting next spring, its lush and rolling hills will be converted to low-income housing in a northwest Raleigh neighborhood where it is sorely needed.
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The roughly $6.1 million project by Downtown Housing Improvement Corp. includes 60 one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments renting to households making 60 percent or less of the median income, or about $46,500 for a family of four. Rents will range from $332 to $675, depending on apartment size.
 
When finished in 2012, the Water Garden Village project will add another 80 to 100 units for low-income senior citizens and will provide easy access to groceries and drug stores, hopefully with a bus stop.
 
"There's a shortage of affordable housing in northwest Raleigh and land that isn't already developed," said Sam Eyre, project manager with DHIC. "From here, Cornerstone shopping center is in walking distance."
When Bell began Water Garden in the 1950s, the land on Glenwood Avenue was surrounded by unpopulated forest. Bell used to joke about the time his car rolled backward down the driveway and into the road, never encountering another vehicle for a quarter-mile.
 
He fashioned his campus as an inspiration to young designers, modeled on Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright's summer home and architectural laboratory in Wisconsin. The idea for Bell was always to have landscape and building woven together, and his offices fit snugly into the wetlands, shaded by both native trees and the greenery he added. His wife, Mary Jo, ran a successful art gallery there.
 
Bell's blessing
 
Over his career, Bell gained fame for projects such as the Brickyard at N.C. State University, the amphitheater at Meredith College and Pullen Park. But ultimately, Bell left Water Garden for Atlantic Beach, unable to find anyone to take up his own plans for the property, which included a condominium development he described as a "retirement center for yuppies."
 
Before he moved, Bell also decried wasteful, low-density development and flimsy throw-away buildings, describing the development of U.S. 70 as "rape and scrape."
 
Reached last week, Bell said, "We tried to save it any way. I think we tried nine different schemes." Of DHIC's plans, he offered, "I think it's admirably suited if it's low-income. Maybe I'll move into one myself."
 
A Raleigh nonprofit, DHIC owns more than two dozen apartment communities in Wake County and other parts of the state, most of them reserved for tenants earning incomes below the median.
Most working families get priced out of northwest Raleigh, said Gregg Warren, DHIC's president. With the Brier Creek shopping center and its dozens of retail shops and restaurants 4 miles to the north, the area has jobs for new Water Garden families.
 
With a project cost estimated at $6.1 million, the Water Garden Village has a $1.3 million loan from Raleigh, a second $720,000 loan from Wake County and a third from the N.C. Housing Finance Agency for $614,000. The housing finance agency has also allowed an annual $870,000 tax credit to attract private investors.
 
When it's finished, the apartments will bear little resemblance to the campus Bell built. The windows have been smashed and the insulation torn out of the offices he designed, leaving the buildings open to squatters and the elements. They will not be saved, Eyre said, though DHIC will work to keep as many of the trees as it can. The new residents will have a wetlands buffer roughly a 10th of a mile thick between them and busy Glenwood Avenue.
 
Though the Bell buildings can't be saved, DHIC plans to make the project as green as possible as a nod to the environmentalist designer, recycling its construction waste, using eco-friendly carpeting and paint and making the apartments energy-efficient.
 
With the traffic shooting by between Raleigh and Durham, Water Garden isn't as tranquil as it was in 1956. But Bell and anyone else who dislikes waste will appreciate knowing that the place will soon draw new footsteps.
 
josh.shaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818
 
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