Placemakers


Envision. Design. Finance. Build. Sustain.

PLACE is a nonprofit organization with a mission baked right into our acronymic name: Projects Linking Art, Community & Environment. We exist to create affordable living and working for people of all income levels and backgrounds within sustainable, mixed-use, transit-oriented communities. Our team and board of directors possess many decades worth of development experience. 

“With its mix of uses, focus on sustainability and housing for all income levels, PLACE is an innovative project that pushes transit oriented development to a new level.” — Hennepin County Commissioner Marion Greene

The first complete community PLACE has developed and continues to own and manage as a nonprofit is WAV (Working Artists Ventura) – a mixed-income creative community in Ventura, CA. Completed in 2009 and thriving today, WAV is the country’s first sustainable arts community. Developed hand-in-hand with the local community over the course of 142 public meetings, WAV is a landmark project in southern California, providing affordable live/work homes for hundreds of artists and their families, along with permanent homes for families transitioning out of homelessness. Because PLACE owns and manages WAV, it will remain an affordable artist community forever. It is a hub for the arts, a tourist attraction, and a vibrant, 24/7 neighborhood. 

"They’re literally bringing dreams to life before our eyes." — Nick Goodenough, WAV Community Member

Today, PLACE is working in St. Louis Park, MN to create a community unlike any in the world. Hundreds of mixed-income apartments will provide affordable live/work units for creatives, luxury housing, and permanent supportive housing for lower-income families. A boutique hotel will cater to travelers who need easy access to downtown Minneapolis without the high prices. An urban forest will provide crucial green space and stormwater management. Perhaps most significantly, PLACE’s patent-pending E-Generation technology will power the entire community with 100% renewable energy, significantly lowering utility bills and lowering our impact on the surrounding environment. The entire project is positioned on the regional bike trail and future light rail line, making mass transit and car-free options available for all.

"We went after everything that was new, and then we went a step further." — Sid White, Former Economic Dev. Head, City of Ventura

To achieve this ambitious vision, PLACE has partnered with several public agencies and for-profit businesses to create a unified team with the right combination of financial assets and public benefit expertise. Charting new territory and confronting difficult challenges is part of our organizational DNA. PLACE continually seeks new ways to challenge the status quo, and ultimately to create beautiful, visionary places in which people from all walks of life can live, work, play, and create.

 

"PLACE is an excellent project, for the city and the region. Turning vacant, unused property into a community space with alternative energy features, that is connected to other uses, like transit, is just the kind of investment the Council wants to make toward a livable communities and a prosperous region” – Erin Heelan, TOD Grants Coordinator, Metropolitan Council Livable Communities.


  • Latest from the blog

    Why We Need Affordable Housing If We Want A Strong Economy

    America has an affordable housing crisis. You might not know it from our national dialogue. We don't like to talk about poverty, and homelessness and lack of opportunity. It seems we would much rather talk about how to make more millionaires than how to make fewer poor children. When we do talk about poverty, it often comes with judgements and stereotypes that are repugnant, yet difficult to confront; that affordable housing will diminish your property values (the data indicate it's not true), that poor people commit more crimes (also not true), that poor people are lazy (not even close), or that affordable housing is heavily subsidized (homes in wealthy neighborhoods receive far, far more subsidies). Here is the state of things. Since 2000, income has either declined or stagnated for all but the very highest income households. The households with the lowest incomes experienced the greatest change, a change that was all downward. This happened at the same time as housing costs have risen precipitously. These facts are not in debate. As a result, the number of households that are "Housing-Cost Burdened" (paying more than 30% of their income for housing) has ballooned, plunging more lower-income households into homeless, and causing middle-income households to slip down to lower-income status. For the lowest wage earners, their housing cost over 80% of their income in 2014. Can you imagine? That means that if you're working hard—full time—at minimum wage, earning $15,000 per year, your housing costs you $12,000. The actual data show that the lowest twenty-five percent of wage earners in America have just $423 per month to spend on everything else, food, transportation, health care, child care, etc., and that paltry sum has been going down. Compare that to the upper twenty-five percent who have nearly $9,000 a month to spend, and that number has been going up.  This is the reason we need more affordable housing to have a strong economy. A significant portion of Americans are putting nearly all their money into housing, leaving no more money to feed the rest of our economy, let alone to feed themselves. The rich cannot go it alone. They still eat just three meals a day. They still take one body to the doctor. They simply cannot purchase as many goods and/or services as the bottom seventy-five percent of the economy. This is "what-you-see-is-what-you-get" economics. Too many low-wage earners means a bad economy. And that's what we're seeing. We cannot fix the problem by creating more millionaires.  Of course, this discussion ignores the question of morality, the morality of letting millions of our fellow Americans—including children and seniors—endure squalor and deprivation and the fear that accompanies them both. Because we don't want to talk about those things. We're only discussing economic self interest here. However, if you believe that we need to do the right thing, because we are a moral people, because we care, then this is one of those beautiful instances where we can do the right thing and benefit our economy and therefore ourselves at the same time. 
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    Seven Kinds of Sustainable

    Originally published May, 2013 What is “Sustainability?” Sustainability is a difficult word to define, or more precisely, is difficult to reduce to a single definition. American Heritage defines the term as “capable of being continued without long-term effect on the environment.” This definition certainly does not solidify the linguistic ground beneath our feet. It is a sort of negative definition, partially defined by the absence of “long-term effect.” I don’t know exactly what “long-term effect” means. Everything that exists has a long-term effect on the environment. For that matter, everything that stops existing, or goes extinct has a long-term effect on the environment.  Sustainability as a construct owes a great deal to the Brundt Commission report to the United Nations in 1987, entitled, Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. The report establishes three pillars of sustainability: Ecology, Economy and Equity (often referred to as the Three Es). You can also find the three pillars at work in the notion of the triple bottom line business, with the three bottom lines being People, Planet, Profit, as attributed to John Elkington.  The work I do for the nonprofit PLACE promotes the Three Es. We’re community builders, known for developing sustainable places for the arts and economic development. PLACE often uses the shorthand, “we build sustainable communities,” prompting questions like “what is sustainable?” and “what is community?” Even as an organization actively engaged in “sustainability,” we throw the term around as though everyone agrees on its meaning. It’s almost as if the term has come to be defined by its very absence of definition; like Justice Potter Stewarts’ definition of pornography, “I know it when I see it.” I’ve come to see the lack of a strong definition for  the term “sustainable” as a structural impediment to our work as a society to prevent environmental degradation, habitat destruction, pollution of our air and water, mass extinction of species and global climate disruption (and the disruptions in economy and equity that follow). Yet, those of us working on a more sustainable future for society tend to assume that at the very least, we professionals know what we mean by “sustainability,” right? We know it when we see it.  PLACE often uses its own negative definition. Instead of defining “sustainable,” we jump to define the word “unsustainable,” as “that which destroys the very resources on which it depends.” Therefore, we know what is unsustainable and we’re not going to do “that.” But, without a strong, understandable definition for sustainability, and a good story to go with it, we create a crack in the pavement through which opportunistic weeds can grow.  Organic Melt™ ice remover advertises itself as being "environmentally safe" and an "agricultural-based product" using sugar beets. When CBC Marketplace contacted the company, they discovered that only 3% of Organic Melt™ is sugar beets by weight, and the rest is ordinary rock salt — even though the ingredient list puts beets first. It’s hard to see how this product is advancing ecology, let alone equity. As for economy, I’m not sure profiting from your disingenuous eco-claim counts.  There are many such specious claims for the “eco-ness” of products and companies that strain credibility. These sorts of misrepresentations, often referred to as “greenwashing,” make people cynical about sustainability efforts, and by association, sustainability professionals. Do we need new terms that support the work we champion? In my experience, we need a more inclusive approach to addressing our most pressing challenges. Rilke said, “I live my life in widening circles,” and so must we, if we are to live sustainably. Everything we do touches on something else, and we must consider to the extent possible all of the adjacencies. We must widen the circle. The built environment impacts the natural environment. That is unavoidable. To build and live sustainably, we cannot focus exclusively on being environmentally sustainable— which often grabs all the headlines. Each new place must be seven kinds of sustainable: Environmentally Sustainable Environmental sustainability is the first thing we think of when we think of sustainability. We are not maintaining our environment. Those who study the rate of consumption of the Earth’s natural resources estimate that we are using them up faster than they are being replenished. We’re spending down our reserves. The know-how exists to reverse this trend, but it is not widely distributed; a well-known market failure. We can design buildings that waste far less without costing any more. Yet, only a fraction of buildings are being built to these standards. Sustainable building techniques have been advanced by the network of professionals working with the U.S. Green Building Council, the BREEAM assessment, the International Living Futures Institute, The EPA’s Energy Star Program, and many more. Not only are there serviceable road maps to environmental design, but protocols for the measurement, tracking and evaluation necessary for the ongoing process that is environmentally sustainable buildings.  Economically Sustainable Often assumed to be mutually exclusive, PLACE believes that a development must be economically sustainable to be sustainable. Indeed, in developed nations, the economy is held up as a sine qua non for everything: “sine qua non, stupid!” Although it is true that sustainable design will improve your long-term operating costs, projects without balanced economic models may find themselves empty, sold, repurposed, or even demolished. In my experience, you’ll know that you’re on the right track when you find that careful mix of uses that improves your project’s sustainability and its economic resilience at the same time. For-profit businesses will play a leading role in the shift to economic sustainability, and so will nonprofits and NGOs.  Politically Sustainable Sustainable developments must find a way to appeal to both sides of the political aisle. PLACE is a fiercely nonpartisan organization, and we receive invitations to build our communities from both major parties. We begin each project with a collaborative, community-driven process of development, and that process lays the political groundwork for support from both sides. Despite the current rhetoric, I believe that nearly all of us recognize the need to prevent the wasting of resources, the spoiling of the Earth, and the proliferation of poverty and desperation. We want to be inspired. It is merely the means to move forward about which we argue. Bring your sustainable development to the community in a spirit of high-performance design, strong economic fundamentals, and a collaborative process, and you will find support across party lines, and more importantly, a more balanced and enduring support.  Psychologically Sustainable  A very small percentage of the population wishes to live in a spirit of long-term sacrifice and deprivation — I’m guessing roughly similar to the number of people who choose to wear hair shirts. People who can afford it tend to seek comfort, safety and convenience. Thus it is that the richest places in the world also consume the most resources. Sustainability cannot disregard psychology. We ignore the need for comfort, ease of use, and pride of ownership at our peril. But can we all live in eco-hedonism? This is a design problem. Our design must incorporate our intent to produce inspiring places for people without wasting anything, and if possible, create abundance. At the very least, we must design our built environments to be psychologically sustainable, or our best efforts will regress into waste and inefficiency. Interactively Sustainable  The built environment is, by definition, built for people. Yet the design of communities is driven by economics, vehicle parking, and many other things to which people often take the back seat. Communities are often designed to isolate people in a misguided attempt to provide privacy. When PLACE was designing its WĀV community in Ventura, California, we asked MIT’s Adele Santos, Lead Designer, to create the opportunity for people to have privacy, but also to foster interaction – the buildings should not get in the way. The end result is a model community for facilitating meaningful connections between community members. The bonds of trust and friendship, and the opportunity to share resources and inspiration may prove to be the most important factor in the sustainability of the community. In my experience, happiness does not come from having things; it comes from being a part of things. Has it not always been this way? Like many of our techniques for sustainability, the importance of meaningful human relationships for a sustainable future is the remembering of forgotten wisdom.  Aesthetically Sustainable Great design must occupy that improbable intersection between purpose and aesthetics. Ugly places breed ugly habits. Beauty is an even more potent influence, with the capacity to elevate our actions, inspire us and even heal us. If beauty, in its deepest sense, is not a basic human right, than it is certainly a basic human need. While many will cry foul at the idea of including something as subjective as aesthetics in our prerequisites for sustainability, we must make it essential nevertheless, in much the same way as we do ethics in our leadership, or social responsibility in our businesses. It may be difficult to stipulate how aesthetics may manifest, but it must be our goal. Certainly, that which we have undertaken to make beautiful will be cared for and preserved, even as the reality of its beauty nourishes us.  Adaptively Sustainable Our cities are changing dramatically, along with our buildings. In turn, our buildings will change our cities. Developments designed to be adaptive will be sustainable in a changing ecosystem. Can components be removed and replaced when necessary, or reconfigured for a different use? Can housing become office, and office become light manufacturing or assembly? Increasingly sophisticated tools for life-cycle analysis can assess the costs and impacts of the manufacture of a product, from its maintenance and useful life through to its eventual demolition or recycling. Soon we may have modeling tools that can look at the labor standards and working conditions of the workers who make the product, and the mining and transport of each of its raw materials. However, the flexibility of the building’s original design may determine its reuse or destruction. I have been involved in the reclamation of schools, warehouses and department stores, all of which had been originally designed for durability and flexibility. Reusing these buildings prevented the release of their embodied carbon, and their transportation to landfills and recycling centers. We probably know we need to be adaptable to survive. We must build our buildings with that in mind.  Conclusion I acknowledge that these seven ways of looking at sustainability constitute an imperfect lens through which to view a complex subject. Moreover, the limitations of the word “sustainability” are far exceeded by the limitations of sustainability as a concept. Architect William McDonough once clearly summarized this notion when he said “less bad is not good.” Sustainability is not enough. Ultimately, we must work toward development that is beyond sustainable, that seeks not merely to be less damaging, but to repair. PLACE is working on what we call “Restorative Development:” development that seeks to restore vital resources, both human and planetary. Restorative development must ultimately generate more energy than it consumes, be open and affordable to everyone, demonstrate universal design, produce its own food, offer multiple transit options, create places to live, work, create, learn, and play, celebrate its historical and cultural resources, empower people to participate in its creation, use waste as a resource, facilitate interconnectedness, and be healthy, beautiful and inspiring. We must build buildings that give back.   Chris Velasco is Co-founder & Executive Director of PLACE, a community builder specializing in sustainable places for the arts and economic development.
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    Take our 1-Question Survey

    We have joined a Princeton project, All Our Ideas, to generate data that we can use to build better communities. Just take our one-question survey. Answer as many times as often as you like, and see the results in real time. It's fun, and it will help us improve our important work.  Share it with everybody, because everybody's opinion about community is valuable.  Thanks in advance.  Chris www.allourideas.org/placecommunities
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