David Baker Architects


Strengthening Connections

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by David Baker FAIA LEED AP
UrbanLand Magazine

July/August 2011

Link to ULI Urban Land web version 

In Oakland, California, the local housing authority took an aging public housing development on a blighted semi-industrial site and remade it to strengthen connections to nearby residences and community amenities.
As the number of factory jobs in the United States continues to shrink, cities increasingly find themselves with underused or abandoned industrial land. Where these sites border residential areas, the result is blight and increased crime rates. Cities that choose to convert portions of these properties for residential uses have the opportunity to strengthen connections to the rest of the city and improve security by increasing density and the sense of "eyes on the street."
There are two challenges: balancing the potential to attract returning or evolving industry with the need for housing, and handling the industrial/residential interface in a way that ensures that the housing is pleasant to live in and that the industrial space is effective and convenient.

In Oakland, California, the local housing authority took an aging public housing development on a blighted semi-industrial site and remade it to strengthen connections to nearby residences and community amenities. Significantly, the Oakland Housing Authority managed the change without HOPE VI funding.
The Tassafaronga development is located on the border between single-family residential and industrial uses. The goal of the revitalization effort was to remediate the site and the decrepit former housing and create both accessible, energy-efficient units for low- and very-low-income households and a pedestrian-friendly environment that would soften the site’s industrial border and provide safe, convenient linkages to neighborhood amenities.

The site, located in the Elmhurst neighborhood at the southern edge of the city, originally supported structures erected by the U.S. government in the 1940s to temporarily house workers who were building ships for the military. In 1955, the Oakland Housing Authority acquired the five-acre (2-ha) site and ten years later demolished the structures to build Tassafaronga Village, which included 87 federally subsidized rental units. By 2005, the housing had deteriorated significantly. In addition, the site was isolated, surrounded by largely abandoned industrial uses and bordered by unused train tracks on three sides. Across the street were single-family residences, a run-down public park that was the site of frequent criminal activity, and a community center that was difficult to reach.
The housing authority began creating a plan for revitalization in 2005, working with the residents and members of the surrounding community. The authority purchased and rezoned an adjacent two-acre (0.8-ha) parcel containing a pasta factory that was in the process of being decommissioned. Expanding the site allowed the project to create a residential edge between the industrial and residential areas. The goal was to develop a new, green neighborhood offering a diversity of affordable housing with accessible, energy-efficient units. The new neighborhood would maximize density and incorporate a pedestrian-friendly environment that softened the site’s industrial border, inserting safe, convenient linkages to two new elementary schools, a new public library, and the community center, and providing a much better neighbor for the city park. The two-and-a-half-year planning process galvanized support and raised hopes. The authority submitted two HOPE VI applications to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). When those funds did not come through, the authority chose to pursue a Section 8 project-based voucher (PBV) approach to financing. The authority submitted an application to HUD to demolish the 87 units and transfer the Tassafaronga site to a tax credit partnership managed by a wholly controlled nonprofit affiliate of the authority.

The facade of the repurposed pasta factory.

The 87 public housing units were replaced with 99 PBV units in order to continue serving very-low-income households and generate rental income to raise debt and equity from private, city, and state sources. The funding mix included $3 million in redevelopment funds, an option that future affordable housing projects will not be able to draw on if Governor Jerry Brown’s proposal to eliminate the state’s redevelopment agencies becomes reality. The authority contributed $16 million of its own local funds and raised an additional $60 million in debt and equity to complete the revitalization. All the public housing units were replaced with PBV units with the same bedroom count.

The housing authority originally planned to rebuild the Tassafaronga project in a single phase. However, in order to fill a funding gap, the project was financed in two phases but designed, constructed, and managed as one phase. Phase I of the project includes 137 units, with a mix of one to four bedrooms. Phase II is the adaptive use of the former pasta factory as a small supportive housing development. This phase includes a total of 20 supportive housing units for households that were homeless or at risk of homelessness and that have a disabled adult member requiring support services. The Phase II building also includes a 1,000-square-foot (93-sq-m) clinic. Both phases leveraged authority local funds with tax-exempt bonds, low-income housing tax credits, and city, state, and private funding.
The authority donated two land parcels to local nonprofit organization Habitat for Humanity East Bay to develop Kinsell Commons, composed of 22 new for-sale townhouses for low- and very-low-income households. These townhouses are integrated into the rest of the development in two separate sites, providing variety and allowing Habitat for Humanity to build in two phases. This approach to mixing household types applies to all of Tassafaronga Village, with residents at different income and need levels living side by side in rental and ownership units distributed throughout the community with no visible demarcation of which units are which. Of the rental units, about two-thirds are priced for households earning less than 50 percent of the area median income (AMI), and the rest are priced for those earning 50 to 80 percent of AMI. Of the Habitat for Humanity for-sale townhouses, 11 are priced for households earning 60 percent of AMI and the other 11 for those earning 80 to 100 percent of AMI.
The village is anchored by a 60-unit three-story affordable rental apartment building at the corner of the site, creating a clear residential edge and demarcation from the adjacent industrial use. The building wraps around a 75-space parking garage, concealing it from view and preserving active residential uses at the street edge. A podium courtyard, overlooked by private stoops and balconies, rests atop the garage. Seventy-seven affordable rental family townhouses in 13 buildings are placed throughout the site in rows and clusters along pathways and pocket parks to vary the look of the neighborhood. To reduce construction costs, both the townhouses and apartments are restricted to a small number of unit types. To avoid monotony, floor plans are flipped and rotated, and the townhouses, which are organized in either rows or clusters, vary in height, window design, facade materials, and color palette. This strategy maintains ease and affordability in construction while creating the feeling of organic diversity. Configuring buildings in rows and clusters throughout the site creates pocket areas for residents to claim, increasing the sense of home and ownership. The village offers a hierarchy of public/private spaces, ranging from private balconies and patios to shared townhouse yards and large open courtyards. A new central plaza, Village Square, which has community garden planters, barbecue facilities, and landscaping, provides a place for residents to socialize. Also, vegetable allotment gardens are scattered throughout the site. Plantings flank the streets and wide sidewalks, and raised traffic tables at the intersections slow cars. New landscaped footpaths and public and private roadways connect the new housing to the nearby library, schools, park, and community center. Residential stoops and porches open directly onto the streets to foster a sense of community and provide security.
In addition to the structured parking, Tassafaronga Village has permit parking along new private streets, which connect to the existing street grid. Relying on structured and street parking frees up land for additional housing, removes the safety risk of parking lots as loitering points, and allows homes to connect directly to the street. Sustainability was important from the start. An initial green charrette united all team members early in the process, allowing for early coordination of green strategies to achieve certification under the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. The project reused 93 percent of the existing pasta factory building and recycled 94 percent of demolition and construction waste. Energy efficiency measures include solar hot water systems, high levels of insulation, and photovoltaic panels. All stormwater is treated on site through biofiltration; low-water-use landscaping and use of native plant species conserve water. Secure bicycle storage rooms on each floor of the apartment building encourage use of alternative forms of transportation. The new Tassafaronga Village is the first Gold-certified LEED for Neighborhood Development plan in California.

The townhouses are arranged in rows and clusters throughout the site to create an organic neighborhood.

Security was an important issue, given the semi-industrial neighborhood. The village was designed in line with the principles of crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED), an approach that promotes positive uses of the site and surrounding amenities in order to deter and discourage criminal uses. The design team worked closely with housing authority police officers trained in CPTED to find ways to deter criminal activity in and around the development.


The site is not fenced or gated, which is atypical for this type of development and was met with concern from the management company. However, an open site serves to integrate the affordable housing into the larger community rather than isolate it, and it also has the advantage of being open to law enforcement. The Oakland Parks and Recreation Department has a standard of separating housing from parks with a tall fence, but eventually agreed to allow a low fence with gates so residents could feel a sense of connection to and ownership of the park. The park had been a known crime hotspot, but the constant foot traffic along the edge of the park has succeeded in creating an environment that feels safe, as shown by a dramatic increase in use of the park by families that live in and around the new development. Residents have also demonstrated a commitment to the community by forming a neighborhood watch association.

The authority portion of the housing was completed in July 2010 and is 100 percent occupied, housing more than 500 people. Kinsell Commons, developed by the local nonprofit organization Habitat for Humanity East Bay, welcomed its first four families—out of a total of 22—this past March. Building affordable housing in this era of straitened economic circumstances requires design strategies that keep the construction budget low. But that does not mean the result has to be cookie-cutter buildings, which bear the stigma of the housing projects of old. By varying the placement and orientation of buildings and units, mixing apartments with townhouses, organizing the housing around open spaces of different sizes, and strategically applying the color palette and facade treatments, it is possible to create a community that is cohesive and economical to build, yet diverse in appearance the way traditional neighborhoods are. Furthermore, developers can make these affordable housing communities safer, more pleasurable places to live in by integrating them into their surroundings rather than putting them behind gates, and by making a few simple design moves that increase pedestrian activity and put eyes on the street.