Bringing Good Design to Affordable Housing
Bay Area architects see their affordable housing work as part of a long tradition of progressive culture and urbanism.
High-profile buildings by big names aside, new buildings in San Francisco and the Bay Area tend to be nondescript—especially the infill housing projects that often look like nothing so much as interchangeable product wrapped in unimaginative garb.
In one field of design, though, the region shows real innovation: affordable housing. The architecture is more likely to be adventurous, the layouts more imaginative. There’s a sense of public engagement as buildings provide not just shelter for residents, but engaging spaces for neighborhood shops or community services.
The factors at work include government planners who emphasize the role of such projects as potential catalysts, and nonprofit developers with the track records and confidence to take a chance on less conventional designs. With median home prices in San Francisco still near $700,000 despite the recent housing slump, there’s a political imperative to deliver as many affordable projects as possible.
But a key reason that quantity translates to quality stems from the region’s progressive cultural tradition. For many Bay Area architects, the design of such housing is an integral part of their craft.
“We’re an affordable-housing architect first,” says David Baker, founder of David Baker + Partners (DB+P). “Being a business-owning socialist, I enjoy the mission. It’s much more satisfying—people need you. They’re the world’s best clients.”
The San Francisco firm has made a mark with projects ranging from the subdued refinement of Hotel Healdsburg in Sonoma County’s wine country to the conversion of a printing factory into now-desirable lofts in San Francisco’s South of Market district. That same neighborhood contains two recent DB+P projects that are exclusively for low-income residents—each complex a bright accent amid a landscape that elsewhere is a drab procession of low-rise service buildings and crudely detailed “contemporary” lofts that meet the sidewalk with bare walls and iron-barred windows.
At Folsom and Dore Streets, Baker kept the brick facade of a former garage as an artifact and then inserted an emphatic procession of stacked stucco volumes behind it, warmed by balconies clad in horizontal slats of ipé wood and containing 98 apartments for tenants with disabilities or transitioning from homelessness. Nearby, at 8th and Howard Streets, the six-story complex known as SOMA Studios and Family Apartments has a color scheme that’s a pastel circuit board of lime green and yellow, orange, and sky blue; on an alley, there’s a wavy black stucco wall. And while the upper floors contain 166 housing units, the neighborhood at large benefits from the high-ceilinged corner storefront devoted to a locally owned grocery.
That same formula of strong design and street-level presence is on display two blocks down Howard at Sixth Street, where the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency hired Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects and Paulett Taggart Architects to design Plaza Apartments with 106 single-room occupancy units and in-house social services. A simple cube in shape—80 feet wide and 85 feet high—the Plaza makes a visual mark through the contrast of the gridlike concrete frame with resin-impregnated panels that enclose the units and suggest weathered wood. At sidewalk level, there’s an entrance to basement space for a community theater and two storefronts, one for a credit union that will offer the only access to legitimate banking on San Francisco’s version of Skid Row.
For nearly a decade, the redevelopment agency has emphasized affordable housing as its core goal, rather than economic renewal. It sees such housing as a means to a more rounded community.
“We try to create neighborhood infrastructure through our affordable housing,” says Olson Lee, a deputy executive director at the agency. This translates to the credit union on Sixth Street and the branch library that occupies the ground floor of a senior housing complex in the Mission Bay redevelopment district.
But infrastructure can also be buildings that use distinctive design to establish a sense of place. During the competition procession for a senior complex at the corner of Turk and Gough Streets in fashionable Hayes Valley, the agency stressed its desire for a landmark building. The winning team—developers A.F. Evans and Chinatown Community Development Center—included as its consulting architect Anne Fougeron, whose work has received local and national AIA awards. The result, Parkview Terraces [record, October 2008, page 200], designed with Kwan Henmi, opened last year with rippling bays and a glassy Modern look.
“The public subsidies involved give us a great say,” Lee says. “It’s a partnership with the developer, so we can push them further. All it takes is one ugly subsidized building and people point at it for the next 50 years.”