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Part 2

The Builder


Those economic trends were just beginning in 1971 when Somanath joined the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority. At the time the RRHA, like most agencies of its sort, considered its goal to be building housing complexes as cheaply as possible. That typically meant bulldozing the existing houses, forcing their occupants to find somewhere else to live, and then constructing on the site the most inexpensive housing units possible. Many of them were low-slung warrens of undifferentiated apartments, their identical front doors strung along endless stretches of hallway. The fact that this approach destroyed existing neighborhoods to create eyesores was considered a reasonable price to pay for cheap housing. The fact that this cheap housing often degenerated quickly into chaotic dens of drug dealing and violence was considered an unfortunate but unavoidable fact of life. At first, Somanath worked diligently to fulfill this long-understood mission. His job was to create new public housing, and he kept his projects dutifully on budget and according to plan. "He had to work within the existing bureaucracy, and he was great at it," recalls Rob Robinson, who worked at RRHA with Somanath in the 1970s. "He has this sort of photographic memory that allows him to remember all the housing regulations and all the aspects of construction and design. And he had this will that was incredibly persistent and just unstoppable." But after a while, Somanath started to have doubts. Why, he asked, did the designs have to be so dispiriting? Why did the projects have to be built on the rubble of neighborhoods? "He was beginning to talk about more global contexts," Robinson says. "What happens when you take a step back? What about the form, the character of the buildings?" Then Somanath was handed his biggest project yet: the redevelopment of Randolph, a destitute, 300-acre neighborhood of about 2,500 families. The revitalization project had begun in 1968, and the existing plan was to create dense clusters of cheap, hunched-style houses and massive hives of subsidized apartments. Suddenly, Somanath began to balk at the plan. "He started to question what would happen to this community 25 years from now," Robinson says. "He stepped back and questioned the core mission: Is this really the right thing to do? There was so much subsidized housing, in such density, it was really going to tip the scales of not just the neighborhood but the whole region. It was clear that this project was going to really make things worse. "So he put the brakes on it." The way Somanath tells it, the sheer size of the Randolph project shocked him into seeing things differently. "I did not want to make the same kinds of redevelopment mistakes that usually happen in this town," he says. He started walking the streets of Randolph, talking to residents and listening to their ideas, their shared history of the neighborhood. "They knew the right way of doing things," he says. He convinced the housing authority to stop demolishing houses and to hire a market analyst. The analyst concluded what Somanath had come to suspect: Such high-density, low-income development would drive out most of the area's homeowners, causing property values to plummet. Absentee landlords would take over, driving values even lower. That downward spiral had already started. Somanath began a long fight to change the Randolph development. He wanted to bring in ideas from the current residents; he wanted to create a neighborhood of less densely packed houses; he wanted to create homes that would face the streets rather than face inward toward central courtyards. In other words, he wanted to rethink everything. He wanted to build a community people wanted to live in, not one they had to. That much change to a plan already in progress wasn't easy to achieve. "When institutions come with top-down plans it is sometimes hard to change them," Somanath says dryly. "There was a lot of heartburns and hiccups, to say the least." "It was difficult for everyone," Robinson says, "and it was incredibly difficult for T.K. It was an incredible uphill battle." In the end, Somanath's view prevailed. He says he reached an agreeable consensus with everyone involved - RRHA, the residents, the various federal and state agencies. The Randolph project showed the housing authority that adding a level of humanity to the construction of housing developments could pay off. But Robinson says Somanath paid a price for his battle for Randolph: "I don't think he ever got to work at that scale again. People backed up and started to protect their flanks. He really upset all the political alliances." By 1990, Somanath had gained a reputation as an innovator in his field, and had a comfortable, reasonably challenging job. But he was becoming frustrated by working within the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the housing authority. He was ready for a change. That's when he got the call from Mary Tyler McClenahan, then Mary Tyler Cheek, a local activist with an old Richmond accent and exquisite connections. She and Carter McDowell, a recent graduate student in urban planning, were co-founders of a group that aimed to coordinate all the area's housing nonprofits. For the first few years, McDowell had run the group, which they had named the Richmond Better Housing Coalition. But the board - including McClenahan - agreed with McDowell that the coalition could do more. McDowell, who had met Somanath while she worked on her graduate degree, suggested they hire him. [image-1](Chad Hunt / Style Weekly)Once a drug-infested housing project called Park Lee, this remade neighborhood — now called Winchester Greens — offers its residents a sense of ownership and community. They made an offer. Somanath accepted. From being a veteran at a well-entrenched public body, he became the head of a nonprofit organization that barely existed. "It was the best piracy we could have done," McClenahan says gleefully. The Better Housing Coalition had a little money - McClenahan's influence ensured that the coalition's board was well-staffed with some of Richmond's most affluent and well-connected people - but had no clear purpose. Around the time it hired Somanath, the board decided the city needed a group that would work actively to create developments, not just coordinate others' efforts. Somanath soon found himself back in the neighborhood-building business. The coalition's first big project was a collection of dilapidated houses on the corner of Cary and Meadow streets. When the seven townhouses that made up the first phase of the Cary Street 2000 project opened in 1994, they received attention far out of proportion to their size. City Council members and local dignitaries arrived for the ribbon-cutting. Somanath, it seemed, hadn't lost his talent for making people happy to work with him. After the Cary Street project, the coalition was up and running. Cary Street 2000 expanded to include 86 low- or moderate-price townhouses and eight single-family homes, at a total cost of $7.3 million. Other projects were in the works: putting 21 rental townhouses and 24 single-family homes for sale in a blasted neighborhood of Church Hill; Rockwood Village, a $4.8 million development with 62 apartments for the elderly in western Chesterfield County; St. Andrew's Townhouses, a conversion of nine buildings in Oregon Hill to 22 apartments, at a cost of $1.9 million. And everywhere, Somanath put to work his formula of community involvement and careful design. Some projects simply didn't pan out. One plan to create 290 low-income apartments in high-dollar Short Pump collapsed, though the coalition had purchased options on the property. In the end, Somanath couldn't get funding after Henrico County's board of supervisors declined to endorse the plan. The loss clearly still stings: "They're worried about those people coming to their back yards," Somanath says with rare exasperation. Perhaps Somanath's proudest achievement is Winchester Greens. Before Somanath and the Housing Coalition got to it, Winchester Greens was called Park Lee Apartments, and it was a mess. It sat like an ulcer along Jefferson Davis Highway in eastern Chesterfield County. Park Lee was 80 acres of drug-infested housing projects of the sort Somanath had come to detest: row after row of identical boxes surrounded by huge parking lots. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development had taken the development from its previous owner, and Somanath wanted to fix it. He made his pitch to HUD, which agreed to let him try - if he could get enough outside funding. Among other financing feats, Somanath convinced the county Industrial Development Authority to approve a $6.5 million bond, and convinced the Standard & Poor's bond-rating agency to give the bond an "A" rating, though not a single unit had been built. With the funding in hand, Somanath began the slow process of building a community. He held focus groups, he met with an endless stream of residents and project managers, and government agencies. Now, almost four years and $22 million later, Somanath walks the streets of what used to be called Park Lee and proudly points out its features. The residents voted to change the name to Winchester Greens - the old name held too many unhappy memories. The streets are narrower now, to encourage interaction - "Transportation people hate it," Somanath says cheerfully, "but it's better for the community" - and are lined with parked cars. The enormous parking lots and their drug dealers are gone. Each block of townhouses has a different fa‚Ä°ade, so they evade the old Park Lee's numbing uniformity. Most of the styles are lifted from different parts of Richmond, so houses like those on the Boulevard nuzzle against brick-fronted homes like those in the Fan. All the houses have five-star energy ratings, so residents' savings on utility bills can be used for other purposes. Recycled materials are used throughout the project. Everywhere you look, the houses are designed to foster a sense of ownership and community. Every house has its own porch, with its own porch railing; every house has a backyard to cultivate and nurture. Pocket parks blossom around every corner. A local day care, the Mary Tyler McClenahan Child Care Center, recently opened. It can serve 140 children in its bright, sunny rooms. The next phase will be an apartment building for low-income elderly people, right across the street from the child-care center. "So the grandmothers can sit on the porch and keep an eye on the babies," Somanath says. Most of the drug dealers left, residents say, after they became tired of Somanath's newly strict rules about paying rent, about noise and about loitering. About half the previous residents stayed on through the construction, shifting into other homes as the coalition tore down the original houses and built new ones. The homes filled as quickly as they went up: There's a waiting list for new ones. The community still looks a bit raw — mud and dust peek out around unplanted medians. But Somanath's work seems to be having its effect. Since the rebuilding started in 1997, according to the coalition's statistics, average income for the 191 families at Winchester Greens has increased from about $8,000 to about $15,000. Meanwhile, the mix of incomes has improved: About 8 percent of residents earn more than $40,000, while fewer than 33 percent earn less than $10,000. Since 1997, the coalition says, calls to police from Winchester Greens have fallen 77 percent, from 300 to 70, while reported violent offenses have dropped almost 100 percent. Wherever Somanath walks in Winchester Greens, people walk up to him, ask his advice, say thank you. A flock of children rushes by on bikes, trailing laughter. "Look at the kids playing," says Niles Carter, a 35-year-old Winchester Greens resident who works at Johnston-Willis Hospital. "At one time you wouldn't let your kids out to ride bikes by themselves. There were too many drug dealers. You wouldn't know what would happen — you'd be afraid they'd get shot. "Now — it's lovely. It's lovely to be able to go out in the evening time and see the night sky." He looks at Somanath. "It's just lovely, T.K. Just like you promised." Jump to Part 1, 2

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