"When George shows you his water trick, be very amazed," whispers Enterprise Community Partners CEO Doris Koo. "It's his favorite." We are at High Point, a 120-acre mixed-income project in Seattle, waiting for George Nemeth of the city's housing authority. He arrives bearing charts, graphs, and a bottle of water. About 10% of the water runoff from High Point ends up in a 4-mile salmon stream called Longfellow Creek that has been stressed by overdevelopment, Nemeth tells me, and High Point was designed to be a natural-water channel and filter: "We attempted to re-create what nature has always done." Vegetated drainage channels replace gutters and curbs, and sidewalks are made of a material that allows rainwater to seep quickly into the ground. Nemeth pops open his bottle of water and dumps its contents on the sidewalk on a steep incline. The water magically disappears into the ground — and I am amazed. This single feature has saved millions in engineering costs and even more in environmental damage — and provided a template for urban development around the country. ("I plan to steal those ideas," San Francisco's enviro-mayor Gavin Newsom told me.)
It took $8.5 million from HUD and $27 million in financing from Enterprise — Bank of America was the lead tax-credit investor — along with state and private funds to transform what was once one of the grimmest housing projects in Seattle into an idyllic neighborhood. High Point is part New Urbanism, part environmentalism, and part civil-rights triumph, designed from the beginning to seamlessly mix subsidized low-income housing, Habitat for Humanity projects, apartments specially designed for the elderly, and 252 market-rate townhouses and single-family houses built by private developers to meet Enterprise's Green Communities standards. There are also 35 Breathe Easy homes designed and built with asthma and pulmonary patients in mind. Developers created new protocols — everything from no smoking on the job to airtight construction, insulated windows, hydronic heating instead of forced air, blinds instead of curtains, and HEPA vacuum filters — all for about $6,000 per unit. Six-year-old Ozie Whitfield IV hasn't had an asthma attack since his family moved in 18 months ago.
Koo, who was a housing advocate on New York's Lower East Side when she first met Enterprise founder Jim Rouse, says she feels his influence in every blueprint, financing gizmo, and clean home. "Jim knew that dignity is everything," she says. "When everyone is invested, everyone is a neighbor."
A version of this article appeared in the December/January 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.