Dallas, Texas: Congo Street Green Initiative Provides Important Lessons in Community Revitalization
The Congo Street Initiative is a resident-led revitalization effort in the Jubilee Park neighborhood of East Dallas. Inspired by concerns over redevelopment proposals for Congo Street, the initiative demonstrates the importance of resident involvement in community redevelopment efforts and the critical role sustainable housing solutions can play in empowering residents. The initiative includes the rehabilitation and reconstruction of five single-family homes (facilitated by the construction of a “holding house”) and green infrastructure improvements to address flooding and promote sustainable energy production. With this innovative approach to community revitalization, the Congo Street Initiative earned the 2010 American Institute of Architects (AIA)/HUD Secretary’s award for Excellence in Community-Informed Design.
Background and Context
Tucked away in East Dallas’s Jubilee Park neighborhood, only two miles from downtown and spanning the length of a single neighborhood block, Congo Street had long been overlooked by local officials and neglected by the landlords who owned many of the street’s 17 single-family and duplex homes. The street lacked sidewalks, and its poor drainage left it prone to flooding. Many of the tiny homes, which averaged approximately 600 square feet, were in disrepair; roofs leaked, bathrooms lacked sinks, and the wind and cold seeped through walls that lacked modern insulation.1
Despite its substandard housing and inadequate infrastructure, the narrow street lined with bungalow-style homes set close to the road has engendered a close-knit community of multigenerational families and residents who have never called anywhere else home. A long history of social and economic isolation, rooted in racial segregation, left many on the street believing that their situation would never change for the better.2
In the early 2000s, the prospect of change finally arrived at Congo Street. A newly formed nonprofit community development organization, Jubilee Park and Community Center, began investing in a 62-block area that came to be known as Jubilee Park. The organization sought to expand educational opportunities throughout the neighborhood, reduce crime, and improve housing conditions. Among the organization’s most ambitious projects was the construction of a new community resource center on a five-acre park just a block northwest of Congo Street. As properties around Congo Street were primed for revitalization, five homeowners on the street began working with the buildingcommunityWORKSHOP (bcWORKSHOP), a Dallas-based community design center. Together, they developed the Congo Street Initiative, a restoration strategy for their homes that would build on the investments being made elsewhere in the neighborhood and would reflect the strong traditions of the Congo Street families.3
The initiative centered on reconstructing or substantially rehabilitating five owner-occupied homes and investing in infrastructure to address drainage problems and promote sustainable energy production. Although residents were eager to upgrade their homes, they were concerned about being temporarily displaced — and possibly permanently relocated — from Congo Street. Close collaboration between the design team and residents resulted in the concept of a temporary residence, which the residents called a “holding house.” Built on a vacant lot donated by a Congo Street resident, the holding house would temporarily shelter households as each home was being restored.4
Sustainable Housing Solution
The process of restoring the homes on Congo Street began in April 2008 and concluded in August 2010. Following construction of the holding house, each restoration project followed the same process. Family members would relocate to the holding house while their home was carefully restored. After the renovation was complete, the family would return home and the process would begin for the next family. Each restoration project embodied the same fundamental principles: collaborate with households to create a design that meets their needs, honor the scale and architectural style of the homes on the block, promote energy and resource efficiency, and respect the residents’ economic situation to maintain their new housing.5
Although these principles served as general guidance, restoring each home required more than a one-size-fits-all approach. The architects worked closely with family members to determine how their new home could best accommodate their needs while preserving the character of the neighborhood and their family history. Deconstructing rather than demolishing the homes allowed the builders to reuse and repurpose the original building materials, preserving the strong sense of place embodied in the structures. To that end, original hardwood flooring was reused, other wood was repurposed as framing materials and exterior siding, and even working ceiling fans from one home were returned to practical use. In addition to reusing materials, the new homes on Congo Street closely follow the scale and proportion of the homes they replaced. The architects and residents improved the functionality of each living space while keeping the residences between approximately 700 and 975 square feet. Two-story volumes expand the perception of space inside many of the homes, and sleeping lofts and half second stories provide additional bedrooms and storage for larger families. One of the reconstructed homes, at 880 square feet and 1.5 stories, includes three bedrooms and two full bathrooms.6
The restoration of the Congo Street homes was coupled with investments in green infrastructure, which for this project seeks to both reduce household utility expenses and address poor drainage and street flooding. Four of the homes have photovoltaic panels for electricity generation, and one of the homes has a solar thermal system for water heating. Residents, the design team, and the Dallas Public Works Department worked closely to design the city’s first “green street.” Pervious and impervious road surfaces were engineered to convey stormwater to bioswale infiltration areas, where plants cleanse the stormwater before slowly releasing it back to the watershed. The street was improved with trees, on-street parking, and a uniform 24-foot-wide right-of-way.7
Sustainable Community Revitalization
The Congo Street Initiative would not have been possible without partners and volunteers. Residents’ collaborated with the bcWORKSHOP, the University of Texas at Arlington’s School of Architecture and Design, Southern Methodist University, AmeriCorps, other outside organizations, and hundreds of volunteers, engaging individuals and organizations from across Dallas and the entire United States. Congo Street residents were directly involved in the restoration of their homes and learned practical skills in construction, home maintenance, and energy efficiency. Financing for the reconstruction came from the city of Dallas and individual donors. Among the foundations that supported home improvements, the Sue Pope Fund provided $70,000 for the solar panels to demonstrate their benefits for low-income communities. The homes on Congo Street were reconstructed and rehabilitated at an average cost of approximately $62,000, or between $65 and $75 per square foot. The city supplied approximately $330,000 to fund the green infrastructure improvements made to the street. The total cost of restoring Congo Street was less than $1 million.8
With six sustainably designed homes lining the green street, the restoration of Congo Street provides invaluable lessons about the importance of resident engagement in community revitalization. Faced with the prospect of displacement, residents were empowered to work alongside architects and designers, contributing to the design process and mitigating the negative effects of displacement during restoration work. Through the reuse of materials and careful consideration of proportion, scale, and the vernacular architecture of Congo Street, the initiative supports a promising future for residents while leaving tradition firmly connected to place.
Project documents provided by Brent Brown; interview with Brent Brown, founding director/president buildingcommunityWORKSHOP, 25 February 2013.
Bill Minutaglio. 2010. In Search of the Blues: A Journey to the Soul of Black Texas. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 66–74.
Interview with Brent Brown.
Ibid; project documents provided by Brent Brown.
Interview with Brent Brown; email correspondence with Elizabeth Jones, buildingcommunityWORKSHOP, 14 March 2013.
Project documents provided by Brent Brown; interview with Brent Brown.
Project documents provided by Henry Nguyen, City of Dallas Public Works Department; email correspondence with Elizabeth Jones.
Project documents provided by Brent Brown.