An exhibition of project models and drawings for a plan to improve livability at the Willow Heights housing complex will be on display through July 10 at the Fayetteville Public Library.

The "Livability Improvement Plan for Willow Heights Housing" in Fayetteville was commissioned by the Endeavor Foundation in December 2017.

The University of Arkansas Community Design Center, with assistance from the University of Arkansas Resiliency Center, prepared the scenario planning study. Both are outreach centers of the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design at the university.

 The Willow Heights public housing complex is located in a historically diverse downtown neighborhood on the southwest slope of Mount Sequoyah. The Fayetteville Housing Authority owns and manages this complex within the federal public housing portfolio administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

This study offers an unconsidered development option that supplements the Fayetteville Housing Authority's pending plan to sell the downtown Willow Heights complex and relocate its residents to the Morgan Manor complex south of downtown. 

The planning study proposes to transform the 5-acre downtown Willow Heights public housing complex into a blended-income neighborhood that flattens social distinctions between proposed market-rate units and refurbished low-income housing. Site proposals articulate a new housing landscape that supports healthy neighborhood functioning, including safe, modernized and appropriately scaled mixed-market housing.

Three planning scenarios were prepared, ranging in cost and level of difficulty to construct. Scenario planning is intended to facilitate more robust decision making among an expanded community of stakeholders in partnership with the Fayetteville Housing Authority, including the city of Fayetteville, housing residents, local and regional civic groups, and policy leaders with an interest in housing.

Most public housing agencies are cash-strapped and pressured to sell legacy downtown properties, which have unexpectedly accrued value from the comeback of downtowns nationwide, said Steve Luoni, director of the Community Design Center. He is also a Distinguished Professor and the Steven L. Anderson Chair in Architecture and Urban Studies in the Fay Jones School.

The sale of Willow Heights fits the FHA's current business model and potentially fills funding gaps. However, the decision to sell the downtown property has sparked a larger community conversation about social justice issues, including projected transportation cost burdens on relocated residents.

Among the low-income populations living in public housing, many are single-parent families who don't own cars. The location of Willow Heights suits this population because the complex is close to a local elementary school, the Fayetteville Public Library, the downtown farmer's market, a community center that supports families, and local government agencies. Notably, Willow Heights is adjacent to the Yvonne Richardson Community Center, an important child development center and community hub used by residents citywide.

The Willow Heights study signals new possibilities in combining affordable housing with market-rate housing that creates new revenue streams in support of the public housing component. The more progressive housing agencies nationally now see the city as an integrated housing market — a "ladder," Luoni said.

Some public housing agencies are not only delivering public housing assistance, but also other forms of affordable housing such as attainable workforce housing and market-rate housing. Solving for one area provides solutions for the others, he said.

"We are very pleased with our stakeholder collaborations toward developing new directions in housing and placemaking that solve for social and environmental challenges," Luoni said. "More than ever, we need holistic solutions that capture niche skillsets in both the public and private sectors, while involving a wider cross-section of public agency input. Though not easy, Willow Heights could be a model solution if the political process wills it."

Several Fay Jones School architecture students contributed to this scenario planning report, including Kyle Adams, Kyle Beard, Amy Larson, Michelle Mace, Evan McMinn and Thomas Wise-Ehlers. Specialized Real Estate Group provided cost estimating assistance for this project.

The full report is available on the UACDC's website.

The Fayetteville Public Library is open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Thursday; from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and from 1-5 p.m. Sunday. It will be closed for the July 4 holiday. 

AuthorLinda Komlos