ARCCA Archives, Specialist|

arcCA 01.2, “Housing Complex.”] Author Morris Newman is a senior contributor to California Planning & Development Report and writes regularly for The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. He is currently writing a book about urban infill housing with Johannes Van Tilburg, FAIA. __________ The notion that housing belongs on Main Street seems universally accepted in the design and building communities. Architects and planners have long since embraced the concept that housing is a crucial element for vital city areas that are full of people on foot, shopping, going to work, going to sporting events and concerts, and socializing. Throughout California, homebuilders are proposing projects on infill sites, and many of these projects are comparatively new types of housing, such as mixed-use, transit-oriented developments and live-work projects. A number of cities have demonstrated a strong commitment to new downtown housing. In Oakland, Mayor Jerry Brown has promised 10,000 new housing units in the downtown-Lake Merritt area, while the Mission Bay development in San Francisco is alone expected to provide 6,000 units. If the design profession is in love with urban housing, the general public does not always appear equally enthralled. A number of downtown projects, particularly in Southern California, have experienced difficulty finding tenants. Other projects find themselves opposed by surrounding homeowners and commercial property owners, as if housing were a NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) land use. People seem particularly galvanized by apartment complexes and projects for low-income renters. Although I do not agree with these attitudes, I find them understandable. The act of bringing housing downtown, especially at a large scale, means that downtown will be a new and unfamiliar kind of place. The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno once said that people invent the future by imagining an idealized past. Yet the truth is we are creating, perhaps improvising, a new kind of urban neighborhood built atop the fossilized bones of the old industrial city. As it turns out, housing can be an awkward fit on Main Street. The downtowns that we built in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, with their wide streets, tall buildings, and vast parking lots, were not designed with housing in mind. Downtown areas often lack the amenities we associate with housing—wide sidewalks, landscaping, neighborhood-serving retail, 24-hour businesses. The new push for urban housing means that downtowns are changing in meaning, from being solely centers of government and business to being neighborhoods, as well. No wonder the transition has been awkward: we have been unsure of the best way to create neighborhoods, or, more accurately, to add a residential layer to existing areas. This transition has put local government in the difficult role—never relished by government—of experimentation and innovation, sometimes at great financial cost. Redevelopment authorities find themselves attempting to introduce housing in areas that have little or no previous market acceptance, and then are criticized when projects flounder. In the 1980s and early 1990s, for example, projects in Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Jose were slow to fill up, and several were costly failures. Today, fashions have changed, because parts of the public, such as Web-related businesses and their employees, are comfortable in “creative” buildings in downtown areas. Further, housing has become so expensive that people have become much more open-minded about living in unconventional neighborhoods. And commuting has become so tortuous that in-town housing has become attractive—and increasingly expensive. If timing and fashion figure into the success of projects, so too do well-conceived urban planning ideas. Success also relies on good planning. If some of the following principles seem unremarkable, even commonplace, they are far from being universally applied. One principle, not always easy to achieve in the early days of redevelopment projects, is avoiding what might be called “outpost housing.” It is hard to be the first in anything, and damnably hard to be the first housing development in an area that has no other residential projects. A case in point is South Park, a redevelopment-sponsored attempt to create a residential neighborhood ex nihilo in downtown Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency has sponsored at least three large, not-so-friendly looking apartment buildings, in the attempt to create some “critical mass” of residential units. The project might be called a modest success: after years of mediocre leasing, these drive-in, drive-out buildings are fully tenanted, and the agency has created a public park in the area. Yet South Park remains cold and inert, with few people on the sidewalk and no discernable street scene. Urban design, at least urban design that encourages pedestrian activity, is lacking. One way to avoid the outpost phenomenon is to develop several projects simultaneously, in a cluster. This is the lesson taught by developer Tom Gilmore, who has purchased several old office buildings in a neighborhood that is off the radar of most of the suit-and-tie crowd in the Central Business District. He has rehabbed the buildings more or less at the same time and marketed them under a single name as the “Old Bank District.” The fact that the buildings are clustered together suggests neighborhood, or potential neighborhood, and relieves the tenant of the fear of isolation in a tough urban environment. The first building to open for leasing is reportedly nearly full. For housing to flourish and blossom in downtown areas, we need more than housing; we need functional neighborhoods. In the rush to build “entertainment centers” anchored by multiplexes and chain bookstores, city officials sometimes forget that neighborhoods need to have their own life and their own merchants—the grocer, the dry cleaner, the florist, and the newsstand. One project that has struck a balance is Brea Town Center, in the Orange County city of Brea, particularly the retail-and-housing portion known as Birch Street Promenade developed by CIM Group. The project features everyday uses such as a drugstore and a storefront for post office boxes, as well as glitzy, “national credit” retailers. The project has been well accepted: 20 townhouse units atop a storefront retail strip, designed by Koning Eisenberg of Santa Monica, leased out almost automatically, even though loft housing was an untried product in quasi-suburban Brea. Another unremarkable principle is that urban housing must not close itself off entirely from the street and pedestrians. Defensibility must be balanced with sociability; windows, not blank walls, should face the street. Buildings should not appear to be fortresses or jails, depressing and even antagonizing pedestrians by sending a message of exclusion. Suburban-type projects, with their high walls, cheap finishes, and defensive landscaping, are anathema. Also out of place are traditional “housing projects,” whose oddity screams out that the residents live in subsidized housing and are thus to be feared. One notably social building is 101 San Fernando, a high-density project in downtown San Jose. The architect, Daniel Solomon, provided seven separate entrances to the building, each with its own small courtyard. In this way, the large building resembles a row of smaller courtyard apartment buildings. This design feature humanizes the mass of the building and makes it more attractive and less oppressive to passers-by. Another virtue of 101 San Fernando is that it is located near an existing retail center, giving residents the motivation to walk the neighborhood and patronize local stores. Here, retail and housing support each other in an environment where they would likely fail in isolation. At the risk of sounding glib, the single most important factor that will change attitudes about urban housing is success. People, in general, cannot imagine living in ways they have not lived before. They will not be intrigued by the possibility and promises of urban living until they see actual, functional urban neighborhoods with their own eyes. And that is entirely fair . I f projects are well – designed—that is, if they are livable, attractive and safe—they will gain acceptance, and the humanization of the city will take a step forward. __________ Photos by Supreeya Pongkasem. __________]]>

AIA California
AIA California
Celebrating over 75 years of service, the AIA California actively promotes the value of design and advocates for the architectural profession. AIA CA is an association of 11,000 dedicated and passionate members who share a commitment to design excellence and livability in California’s natural and built environments.

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