Nord Avenue development gets new life, but retains green focus after years of dormancy
When Kevin Kramer bought Westside Place in 2008, much of the stagnated development harkened to drive-in movie theaters from his and wife Robin’s schooldays in Ohio.
Apart from a cluster of row houses and live-work spaces at the northwest end, the 20 acres along Nord Avenue (between West Eighth and West Lindo avenues) comprised mainly vacant land punctuated by row after row of utility-wire piping.
New Urban Builders started the project, which received city approval in 2004. Tom DiGiovanni and partners marketed the neighborhood as Westside Green, in reference to the eco-friendly features of their buildings, constructed in the style of their Doe Mill Neighborhood in east Chico. Construction halted thanks to the Great Recession.
Kramer sat on the property for around five years, until the economy rebounded, and worked with NorthStar Engineering to map out a development that met his specifications while staying within existing parameters. New Urban Builders had laid down interior streets, for instance, corresponding to its layout. Moreover, any significant deviation from plans approved by the city would require fresh permitting and approvals—a costly process with no guarantees.
Grafting new onto old, Kramer told the CN&R after a tour, has “been difficult because there’s these constraints. … [I]t’s kind of like doing a puzzle: What can we fit in there that works for what we want to do? We have to figure out how to make it work with tight spaces.”
Kramer built two-story apartment houses on Nord called Westside Fours; each twin building, with a courtyard between, has two dwellings upstairs and two downstairs. Their units have two bedrooms, two bathrooms, around 1,000 square feet.
The rest is called Westside Stories—not just a play on the musical, but on the multi-levels he has going up. On the northwest side of Roycroft Lane, the middle of three streets intersecting Nord, he’s building tandem housing. Three-bedroom, two-bath units, around 1,400 square feet, front Roycroft; their one-car garages face the alley behind, as do the neighboring one-car garages for the smaller units above. Those are one-bedroom, one-bath, almost 850 square feet.
All are rentals. Kramer explained he initially intended to sell, but when Chico appraisers wouldn’t factor the potential income from the smaller unit (“capitalization rate value”), leasing penciled out better.
Besides, this way, he and his family—Robin; and sons Ross, 31; and Todd, 29—preserve their project.
“You lose a little control of creating your vision [when you sell],” Robin said. “Everybody may not have the same priorities, may not have the same values of being green, the aesthetic, or cheap things out.”
Also, she added lightly, “Kevin gets emotionally attached to things.”
Sustainability matters to the Kramers. That the development once was called Westside Green and touted eco-orientation represents serendipity rather than a constraint—they say they’d have eyed such features regardless.
Chief among those features: mini-split air-conditioning/heating units, as opposed to central air. Mini-splits operate with a compressor, anywhere from a third to half the size of a typical HVAC condenser, that connects with a module in the room. These systems get a SEER (seasonal energy efficiency ratio) nearly 50 percent higher.
A “smart” thermostat—hand-held remote, in the case of Westside Stories—controls the temperature.
Kramer, a self-described “mini-split nut,” said they’re widespread in Asia, Latin America … pretty much everywhere except the U.S. (Bay Area aside). His new units here also feature tankless water heaters, large-blade ceiling fans, skylights in the windowless bathrooms, low-flow drip irrigation and drought-tolerant landscaping.
“They’re not LEED-certified,” Robin said, referring to the top green-building designation, “but we really try to be cognizant that when we have a reasonable choice, make that [choice]; spend a little bit more, make sure it’s green.”
Robin, who selects interior and exterior finishes along with colors and landscaping, traces her ecological sensibilities to her nursing days in San Francisco. After meeting Kramer in Columbus, where her parents lived and he got his master’s degree in business from Ohio State, she went west with her husband to earn her master’s at UCSF. She wound up at the university’s hospital for 33 years as a pediatric oncology nurse, caring for cancer-stricken children.
Kramer cites his father, an HVAC engineer, as his earliest inspiration for sustainability. He nodded in affirmation as Robin described their “environmentally conscious” motivation as “not being so self-absorbed, but realizing there’s a larger community [and] world around you, and your footprint has a big impact on it.”
Next up at Westside Stories will be three-story apartment buildings along the rear strip, in the style of the New Urban Builders live-work spaces that Kramer converted to “live-live” (i.e., all residential, apart from one existing commercial tenant, an accountant). Open lots across Ruskin Street will fill in similarly.
The parcel between Roycroft and Rossetti lanes will constitute the ensuing phase, featuring multifamily housing whose architecture will “transition” to the final phase of multifamily housing. For that portion, on the southern end, Kramer will seek new approvals.
All told, Kramer sees a 10-year timeline; “I’m OK with that.”