Design as Balm for a Community’s Soul [NYT]

Michael Kimmelman [New York Times]
October 12, 2012
Elevation of zinc and hardwood bay at Richardson Apartments in San Francisco.

Fulton Street elevation.

Image Credit
Matthew Millman

When Tassafaronga Village, a mixed-income development, opened in East Oakland two years ago, it replaced a compound of grim, crumbling, low-rise concrete buildings penned in by a gated fence. The complex was a typical, segregated 1960s housing project, on contaminated land between an industrial belt and a gritty stretch of single-family houses, notoriously dangerous.

Even Bridget Galka, the project manager for Tassafaronga from the Oakland Housing Authority, had her doubts that tearing down the old project and putting up new architecture would make much difference.

“This was a really tough neighborhood, and we’ve built other new developments where the bad guys just moved back in,” she told me one recent afternoon. “That has not happened this time.” We were standing on the leafy deck of the main apartment building at Tassafaronga, painted canary yellow, white and gray. Twin girls on pink tricycles trailed their mother past boxed lemon trees on the way to the laundry room.

Across the bay in San Francisco, there was also skepticism about the Drs. Julian and Raye Richardson Apartments. A five-story residence for formerly homeless people that opened last year, it is a block or so from the city’s ballet and opera companies, and on the edge of the up-and-coming Hayes Valley neighborhood, which used to be among the seediest parts of town until the freeway that ran through it was demolished. Now luxury apartments and fancy chocolate shops are moving in. Community groups overwhelmingly backed Richardson, although some of the inevitable wealthy condo owners next door demanded more space for parking as a way to protest a homeless residence rising on an empty lot left by the deconstructed freeway.

But that was then. Richardson has come to be widely embraced as a boon to the neighborhood, its street-level retail (including a nonprofit bakery and a Vietnamese sandwich shop) bringing commerce and activity to a long-deserted corner. “Healing the scar of the freeway,” is how David Baker, Richardson’s architect, described the building’s effect.

Mr. Baker, who runs David Baker + Partners, also oversaw Tassafaronga Village. His firm has a reputation in and around the Bay Area for doing first-class housing for the poor and elderly, for mixed-income residences and for innovative green designs. When I said I had come to town to check out Mr. Baker’s work, everyone responded the same way.

His firm has won many awards. He is a kind of local hero, with projects that represent what I think is a shift of priorities in the architectural profession.

With Richardson, his design goes beyond housing some of a wealthy city’s poorest citizens. It entails healthy urbanism, including features that open the building to the neighborhood instead of making it a fortress, like pedestrian-friendly remade sidewalks and a glassed and landscaped ground floor. Inside as well as out, the place feels open. The shape is a U, constructed around a garden court (gained by dispensing with on-site parking, which also saved money). The garden faces a 2003 public mural of dancers covering the back of a parking garage next door, ready-made art above a scrim of palms.

When I visited, tenants were clustered in the garden, chatting around tables and chairs. They checked mail in the sleek wood-and-glass lobby. An open-air stairway led from the apartments to the courtyard, providing terraces to sit outside, encouraging walking and community, as does the roof, with its shared gardens and knockout views. Maybe most important, the apartments — all 120 of them for singles — get natural light, which in residences for the poor is a rare commodity.

As for the big aesthetic moves, on the outside of Richardson Mr. Baker painted a wall lime-green, so that the building proudly announces itself to passers-by from trendy Hayes Street. And a zinc-and-wood facade — its swooping bay, folding and rising to a peak on the corner — gives the building a little swagger and scale to acknowledge City Hall two blocks away. At the same time the mix of materials and window placements break up the long wall, nodding to Richardson’s Victorian-walk-up neighbors. In a city so guarded about its architecture, that often stymies innovation through its planning process, moves likes these have an outsize effect even as they remain attentive to their surroundings.

“The building respects the neighborhood, the residents, and all this is reciprocated,” as Brian Quinn, who manages the apartments for Community Housing Partnership, put it to me. The organization worked with Mercy Housing, a nonprofit developer, to construct Richardson.

The cost? $27 million.

The value?

As with any subsidized housing project that spends a little extra for quality architecture, some advocates for the homeless questioned whether the money might have been better spent on more units. But health and safety go hand in hand with pride of place and a sense of dignity. San Francisco’s public health department said the city saves up to $29,000 a year on former homeless residents in supportive housing, and in general nearly $10,000 per resident a year, which jibes with Community Housing Partnership’s numbers at Richardson. That’s not counting the contribution Mr. Baker’s work has made to rising real estate prices in the area.

As for Tassafaronga, the Oakland Police Department last year recorded a 25 percent drop in crime compared with 2007 in the old housing complex. The new village is a dense, colorful, environmentally friendly mix of 157 rental apartments and 22 single-family town houses, the latter Habitat for Humanity homes for families that put in up to 500 hours of sweat equity to purchase them.

Everything faces onto sidewalks, playgrounds or paths. Residents barbecue and sunbathe outdoors. Where speeding cars once made walking dangerous, narrow streets and raised intersections slow traffic to a crawl, knitting Tassafaronga into the surrounding neighborhoods and bringing more eyes onto streets by encouraging pedestrians.

A variety of housing types makes the site feel urban and each home a little more distinct. This includes a defunct pasta factory, converted by Mr. Baker’s firm into residential lofts with a medical clinic on the ground floor. The factory building cleverly incorporates the industrial border at Tassafaronga, while the centerpiece of the village, the apartment building where I found the tricyclists, has what Mr. Baker calls a “dragon’s back” facade, a wavy, multicolored flourish that acts like a flag for the community.

The Tassafaronga project was completed in 24 months, on time, and, at $54 million, $1.45 million under budget.

Like Richardson, it has been a pebble in a pond. I bumped into Kelly Carlisle. She’s the director of Acta Non Verba, a community garden program. Ms. Carlisle said she could have chosen any green spot in Oakland to cultivate. Having grown up near the old Tassafaronga, she recalled when this area was “the scariest place around.” Seeing the new village, she picked the scruffy public park next to it to start a garden for children.

Where gangs sold drugs, now elementary school students from Tassafaronga grow tomatillos, collard greens, corn and squash, and sell what they harvest to neighbors, the proceeds deposited into savings accounts for the children’s education.

We stood in the garden near a sculptured pizza oven still warm from a block party the day before. “Things aren’t perfect — there’s still some crime — but people didn’t used to want to leave their houses in the old days,” Ms. Carlisle said. “Now parents feel safe dropping off their kids in the garden, and seniors help maintain the streets.”

She told me she had been thinking of moving to Tassafaronga with her young daughter.

That’s the multiplier effect of good design.

View the full article: Design as Balm for a Community’s Soul which appeared in The New York Times on October 12, 2012.