Solid Buildings Last: A tale of public housing, reborn

Earlier this month, as Hazel mentioned in her city-as-running-buddy post last week, our travels took us to Wilmington, North Carolina, where we were doing some long-term master planning for a neighboring town. Part of that job involved a tour around the area, scoping out different models and precedents, and that’s when we stumbled into South Front, the subject for today’s post.

I don’t typically gush on things simply because they’re cool but, in this case, I’m going to make an exception because South Front, as best I can tell, embodies a litany of things we tend to advocate in the course of our work. Here’s the basics, mixing anecdotal history from both our client and from Chuck, our host at The Verandas Bed and Breakfast where we stayed:

In 1940, the newly-formed Wilmington Housing Authority built Nesbitt Court, a 216-unit housing complex on 13 acres, to meet a rapidly increasing demand for housing brought about by new wartime jobs and the workers arriving to fill them. Very consistent with housing authority projects of that era, it served originally as whites-only workers housing and then for many decades thereafter as your typical subsidized public housing — suffering all the challenges and dysfunctions such places bring to mind and falling further and further into decline until it was ultimately shut down in 2007. With no funds for renovation, the WHA chose to sell the property to private interests, securing a deal to sell it several years later as-is to Tribute Properties for $1.62 million.

Cool thing number one: Federal stimulus funding was available to scrape the site clean, making it more marketable as a redevelopment site. Despite this, the new owner/developer chose to embrace the historic structures and give them new life. “Other developers may have looked at the site as suitable only to tear down and rebuild from scratch,” marketing director Kellie Morris has been quoted as saying, “but our perspective viewed the project differently and we recognized that the foundation was already here for a successful rental community.”

Rooftop garden.

Cool thing number two: It’s green. On top of its Original Green cred of sticking with buildings already built — 22 in total, all constructed of solid concrete and masonry — it’s also LEED Silver which, among other green attributes spread around the grounds, includes programmable, split-HVAC systems in each unit, Energy Star appliances, and groovy interior finishes like concrete countertops.

Cool thing number three: It’s cool. Sure, maybe I’m flashing my Gen-X credentials a little freely here but — from the honest materials, to the design choices, to the guiding philosophy — it’s just, well, cool, and cool brings new life and new investment to downtrodden places. Accordingly, in just the past few years, new neighborhood businesses have indeed popped up, reassured and inspired by Tribute’s work.

I love this project because it proves that conventional wisdom isn’t always so wise. For those with the right vision, there’s often money to be made working with existing built assets. Granted, if it was ultimately just an effort to displace one population with a more desirable one, I’d evaluate it differently. But that’s not the case, as the death of the project’s first incarnation, and the birth of its second, were unrelated events separated my multiple years. Today, the site is known as South Front and features 216 one and two-bedroom apartments, ranging in rent from $885 to $1,135. And by all outward appearances, it is a success.

Below are a number of photos to give you a better feel, and there’s some great before and afters in this post. Also, if you’re a local with any inside-baseball knowledge of the project, please share in the comments.

Final image courtesy of

Scott Doyon

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  1. Wow, those buildings look eerily close to the ones they tore down a mile from my house in Uptown New Orleans. It was so sad to see all those all torn down — especially with the sticks and twigs constructions the out of town experts ave us as replacements.
    and (link edited by Admin, as commenter’s original link didn’t work)

    Have learned much post Katrina and can see through all the “experts” BS.
    Good job Wilmington…
    Best from Freret,
    Andy Brott

  2. I like the idea in theory, but I am concerned that they are too similar to what they were before, especially on the exterior. Also, the rents are on the higher end of Wilmington apartment rentals. Are there issues with people feeling as if they were displaced? Are there mixed-income options?

    • PlaceMakers says

      Looks like Simon covered some of the issues below, Kristen. As to their similarity to what they were before, I think it’s a nuanced issue. On the one hand, you’re correct that they still present with the simplicity of 40s-era public housing. However, I think this is perceived as a negative only because we’ve been culturally trained to view “the projects” this way. If you try to strip away the baggage and look at them solely in terms of architecture, they’re really not altogether different from the simple but dignified row houses of working class London. Which is something I actually like, from a sustainability standpoint.

      If anything, I’d lament the fact that, in keeping the buildings, you also keep the site plan, which reflects certain “garden apartments in an urban block structure” ideas that have long been discredited as a planning ideal. Of course, many of these can be corrected over time with increased connections to and through the site. However, the site is currently gated (presumably for leasing viability reasons), so I don’t anticipate such changes anytime soon.

      You win a few, you lose a few. Such is the work of urban advocates.

      • I grew up in Nesbitt Courts as a child never forget it address then was 6-H Nesbitt Court used to be such a cool place to live as a kid the radiator heat awesome was always warm just sad it got so bad thru the yrs it was in the late 60s i lived there an early 70s

  3. Nice article and thanks for the feedback.

    The people were provided alternate housing and were gone long before Tribute Properties expressed an interest. The place had been used as an exercise and training area for Wilmington Fire Department and was derelict. Tribute Properties did an excellent job of renovating the development and giving an area of downtown Wilmington a much needed face lift. FYI, I don’t work for Tribute just in case you were wondering.

    • Ok, good. Also, for the proximity to downtown, that’s not a bad rate. Likewise, for it to have a been a fire training ground and still have enough good stock to be used for future luxury housing is also amazing. We have a similar success story here in Greensboro with Willow Oaks. By and large property values were not shifted to the point of complete displacement, but a growing amount of new higher end student housing has helped too. The more stock we can rehab, the better on all counts.

      • They don’t build them like that anymore, the ceilings are 5″ of concrete…

        • Simon,
          people can and still do build “them” like that.. maybe not 5″ floors, but my walls are 11″ wide of ICF.

          Granted I am a full time visual Artist, not formally trained in these UP or “S” (sustainable) issues, but learned by doing Post Katrina, so take what I say for what it’s worth…
          + My passionate axe to grind is why do we continue to build wood stick frame, when ICF (or as we liked to say “SCIPS,SIPS, and Cheese Nips”) and other new technologies could hit the same price/sqft if we let it.
          My big question- Is it subsidies from the US and Canadian Governments to the wood/timber industry that keeps us building this way?
          or are we just too stupid and short short term thinking to learn from what works and lasts?
          Sorry for the ramble, I’m just jealous seeing these building when ours got crushed…
          Best from Freret-
          Andy Brott

  4. Ray Gindroz did something similar but much better decades ago, I believe in St. Louis. He started with a housing project that looked like this one – a typical failed housing project with a high crime rate and gangs wandering around the grounds. He kept the buildings. He added a street grid around the buildings and added porches and picket fences in front of the buildings, to show that the area in front of each building belonged to the building residents, not to anyone in the project who wanted to hang out there. The result was a dramatic improvement in the sense of community and a drop in crime, without relocating residents.

    You might want to track down Ray Gindroz and do an article about that project. He says it was the first New Urbanist project – before Seaside – but I don’t think anyone has written about it.

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