OAKLAND, Calif. — 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.