Mention “the projects” to San Francisco residents and they are likely to think of long rows of low-rise apartment buildings, painted pink and other pastel hues, terraced along the hills on the southern edge of the city. Despite its candy-color structures, Hunters View, a development within the city's Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood, was ranked among the worst public-housing projects in the United States, according to a 2007 survey by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Today, the 22-acre area is being completely reinvented through the city's new HOPE SF program, a public-private partnership that combines city, state, and federal funding for affordable housing and infrastructure with investments by local developers. Hunters View is the program's debut project. The three-phase redevelopment, estimated to cost upward of $500 million, notably avoids displacing residents, who stay in existing housing and move into new units as they become available. The critical first phase, begun in 2010 and completed last year for $80 million, includes 107 public-housing units, all new streets, and a public park. It gives a sense of what the future of large-scale public housing could be. “We tried to set a new standard for public housing with a development that does not look like public housing and feels like a part of San Francisco,” says architect Daniel Solomon, whose team worked on the project initially as WRT/Solomon ETC and later as Mithun | Solomon. The firm designed the master plan, aiming to increase the number of residences from 267 to as many as 800—a third of which will be market-rate. The firm also set the stage by designing the first block of affordable units and a public park at the top of the hill.
To diversify the architecture within the master plan and create the feeling of an established neighborhood, the development team, led by the John Stewart Company, tapped different architects to handle the various parcels. In addition to the Solomon-designed buildings, the first phase includes two blocks designed by local firm Paulett Taggart Architects. Notably different from what was here before, the buildings are distinguished by their reassuring, contemporary architecture and could easily pass for market-rate townhouses elsewhere in the city. Eighty units are replacements for existing public housing, for which families earning as little as 10 percent of the area median income (AMI) pay 30 percent of their income as rent. The remaining 27 apartments, rented at a fixed rate, are funded through HUD's Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program, and allocated to households making less than 45 percent of the AMI ($49,950 for a family of four).
Architect Paulett Taggart and her team were guided by the 73-page master plan, which outlines six main strategies: superimpose a uniform street grid on the uneven topography; align buildings so they face the street; use stairs and ramps to connect steep streets; articulate the buildings to give the impression of narrow parcels and avoid an institutional scale; align streets to provide view corridors; and create public parks on promontories. For the buildings themselves, a set of design guidelines within the plan promotes community and safety.
“We wanted these two new blocks to have the scale, rhythm, and texture of San Francisco,” says Taggart. “By breaking down the scale, [we make] the buildings feel accessible to the individual.” The main challenge was building on such a steep site—which has an up to 20 percent grade—and making the common spaces accessible for everyone, including those with disabilities, while at the same time controlling costs. On each block, the architects arranged a pair of L-shaped three- and four-story wood-framed buildings around a secure central courtyard; the units are designed as stacked townhouses that step down the street. Following well-established best practices in public housing, Taggart avoided double-loaded corridors and unwatched common spaces in favor of single-loaded galleries and stoop entrances. Then she gave each unit a strongly defined entryway with a metal grille canopy over the front door. No candy colors here: clad in fiber-cement siding and stucco, one block is dark olive and cream with light-green accents, and the other block is taupe and cream with red and yellow accents.
According to the architects, the courtyards were particularly tricky to design, given the sloping site and a require- ment that they be visible from the street. Taggart and her firm collaborated with landscape architect Gary Strang of GLS, strategically placing the gated entrances to the courtyards on diagonal corners in order to minimize the change in grade. On one block, the catty-corner entrances are linked by wide wheelchair-accessible ramps that double as kid-friendly spaces, interspersed with landscaped areas. Mailboxes and shared laundry facilities, painted bright hues to stand out as communal zones, are accessed from the courtyards to encourage neighborly mingling.
The only economies that distinguish these units from market-rate housing, says Taggart, are the modest interior finishes: the walls and ceilings are gypsum board, most of the flooring is vinyl plank, the baths have sheet-vinyl floors and solid-surface fixtures.
Taggart and her firm are currently working in conjunction with David Baker Architects on the design of two additional blocks and 107 more affordable public-housing units for Phase 2 of Hunters View. (Phase 3 is scheduled to begin in 2016.)
While it may be a bit too early to measure the results of the ongoing redevelopment, anecdotal evidence has been promising. According to Isaac Latchison, a 47-year-old building maintenance worker who has been living at Hunters View since he was 4 years old, the neighborhood is starting to feel like a community once again. “It feels like somebody cares,” he says. “Things are moving in the right direction.”
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67,800 square feet
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