Triumph in the Tenderloin
In a tough San Francisco neighborhood, the working poor get
a handsome courtyard and a sunny roof space for their own plots.
By Susan Hines
Tourist guides and San Francisco natives warn visitors away
from the city’s infamous Tenderloin district. The people who live in this
roughly 20-square-block area between the bustling downtown and the upscale
communities of Pacific Heights and Russian Hill earn the lowest per capita
income in the city. With a large residential base of homeless, elderly,
disabled, ex-offender, and Southeast Asian immigrant populations, the
Tenderloin is widely regarded as the “worst” neighborhood in San Francisco.
Despite the problems, working-class families flock here attracted by some of
the lowest rents in a city where small studio apartments regularly go for well
above $1,000 a month.
Through the efforts of the Tenderloin Neighborhood
Development Corporation (TNDC) and Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture, the
Tenderloin is also home to a 2007 ASLA Honor Award winner in the general design
category. Since 2005, this structure, designed by architects David Baker and
Partners, provides affordable housing to low-income residents, many of whom
suffer from chronic homelessness and other problems.
“The program [at Curran House] is not unusual,” building
manager Natalie Richie explains. “We work within the limits and restrictions of
several subsidized housing programs. It is the location, the [physical]
structure, and the diverse population that are unusual.” Residents who qualify
for low-income housing under provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act,
as well as those holding Section 8 vouchers they receive through housing
programs of the federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development,
find homes in the building. And Richie notes that one program the building
serves requires eligible residents to meet at least two criteria from a list
that includes chronic homelessness, physical disability, mental disorder,
substance abuse, anger management, and domestic violence.
Colored a soft green, this streamlined modern building
contains 67 units and houses 239 people, the vast majority of whom are working
poor. “In San Francisco it’s easy enough to be working poor,” says Richie.
Although the units range from large studios to spacious three-bedroom
apartments, the different residents are mixed together, not separated by
floors. “One unit can serve the general population, while next door could be
Section 8 housing,” Richie says.
Once residents are in, they can stay as long as they wish.
“The day a resident arrives they could win the lottery the next day and still
stay,” Richie notes. “The reason behind providing affordable housing and tax
credits is to allow families to build up resources for education or for a house
while living in decent conditions.” And, in fact, during Richie’s tenure of
almost three years, four families have left Curran House for homes they
purchased, while three others moved because they outgrew their apartments. Only
four residents have been asked to leave for nonpayment or lease violation
What does award-winning low-income landscape architecture
look like? Landscape Architecture
paid a visit to the Tenderloin to find out.
Pulling up in front of Curran House, I discreetly try to
take pictures of the surroundings. These are pretty mean streets, with lots of
homeless people huddled in front of buildings and scarcely a tree to be seen.
Fortunately, the only passerby who notices the camera begs to have his picture
taken and, as I comply, he waves his beer can over his head and shouts, “It’s
an energy drink!”
In many ways, the landscape of Curran House was made
possible by architect David Baker. He sought the variance that created
opportunities for green spaces. Eliminating the parking requirement recognized
the fact that the Tenderloin is among the most public transit friendly
neighborhoods in the western United States and, anyway, few residents can
afford cars. Richie points out that only 10 families own vehicles. Without
making room for cars, the architect could house more people and provide more
amenities like increased common space, ground-level retail, and basement
offices for TNDC.
Baker and Partners also earns kudos from Andrea Cochran,
FASLA, and her firm because the architects make earnest efforts to ensure that
green space isn’t a victim of value engineering. “It’s easy to value engineer
landscape—no one sees what you have done until it’s too late,” says Peter
MacKenzie, Baker’s partner. “In an urban area like the Tenderloin, where there
is little open space and few street trees, as well as a lot of units on a small
footprint, we try very hard to make buildings simple so that money is available
Outdoor commons are also a priority for the developer.
“Green space is beginning to be seen as a critical amenity in family housing,”
says Diep Do, TNDC’s director of housing development. “It is a cost both
developers and lenders have been willing to pay in recent years.” The total
construction cost of the building was $16.5 million, according to MacKenzie.
The landscape portion of the project was $285,000, plus $175,000 for the site
Among the common spaces the building offers is one the
architect and the landscape architect call a “decompression chamber.” It’s a
very small chamber and, given the fact that it is surrounded by gates, it
didn’t seem all that decompressing. However, a bit of interesting pavement at
the door—pebbles set closely together in concrete—and a palm tree inside this gated
area do signal that this is a different kind of building.
Buzzed in by the front desk, I notice that residents of
Curran House enjoy security measures once lacking in affordable housing.
Twenty-four-hour staffing at the front desk secures the entry, and the
elevators require key cards. The key cards prevent residents from wandering
into the TNDC’s basement-level offices and from gaining access to the roof
after 10 PM.
Furnished with midcentury modern flair, the spacious lobby
with its shiny polished concrete floor includes a seating area. The focal point
of the lobby is the interior courtyard, which shares the same elevation as the
lobby. The building may lack a garage, but a glass-paned garage door that
disappears into tracks on the ceiling makes it possible to open the lobby to
the courtyard, doubling its size. Even when the garage door is closed, and
access to the courtyard is via doors on either side, the expanse of panes
frames the green space beyond, drawing eyes and feet into the outdoors.
With Curran House walls rising on three sides and other
buildings standing at the rear of the property, this sheltered outdoor space is
a potent antidote to the streets outside. Despite the low budget, the courtyard
is lush with greenery and pervaded by the sound of a fountain. The architect
insisted on this custom-built feature—an amenity Cochran admits she was willing
to forgo, given the constraints of money and the issue of ongoing maintenance.
In case the client proved unable to maintain it, the polished black concrete
water feature is designed as an integral feature of the garden. Even if it were
not functioning, the fountain would seem part of the overall scheme.
The primary gathering area is centered on the fountain.
Custom cypress benches crafted from logs salvaged from the Presidio outline the
space, adding warmth and comfort to this cool, almost bowerlike space. Nearby
tenement buildings enclose the courtyard at the rear, but rather than bringing
the space down a notch, these buildings add texture, a welcome patina, to this
spanking new space. “There have been no problems with neighbors throwing trash
or anything into the courtyard,” Cochran’s associate landscape architect Elaine
Shaw, Affiliate ASLA, says. “This project actually seems more genteel than some
in ‘better’ neighborhoods.”
The courtyard is tidy, without a cigarette butt or candy
wrapper in sight. According to Richie, keeping the place clean is not
difficult. “We ask residents not to smoke in the common areas and they comply,”
she says. But Richie, a 20-year veteran of building management who has worked
in low-income affordable housing for the past nine years, thinks there is more
to it than just establishing rules. “I think it is clean and neat because the
residents are all thankful to have decent, affordable housing in the city. Even
though we are in the Tenderloin we are just two blocks from the financial
district, and there is mass transportation all over.” Clearly, trading parking
for communal green space is a winning idea.
Leaving the courtyard, Richie uses her key card to take us
to the building’s rooftop community garden, also designed by Cochran’s firm.
This amenity was added later on in the planning stage when it became evident
that there was enough budget to support a second outdoor space. The top floor
also houses laundry facilities with big windows looking out on a roof supplied
with numbered planters made of large feed troughs. The roof is essentially the
building’s “backyard”—a place where parents can do chores such as laundry or
gardening while looking after their children.
The planters have proven so popular with residents that
every six months they are reassigned based on a lottery. Each trough has a hose
bib and is filled with a locally sourced custom soil mix of rich grape mulch
compost. It makes it easy for the residents to raise what they want on the
sunny roof. At the time of Landscape
Architecture’s early October visit, the troughs still overflowed with
greens, some ready to be harvested and others just sprouting. Many residents
grow flowers, too, and the beds are colorful, verdant, and clearly well tended.
Although the space is fairly bare bones, the vents and HVAC are screened with
two colors of Trex boards (composite boards of reclaimed wood and plastic). The
focus, though, is on the troughs, the light, and the marvelous expanse of sky
Establishing proper drainage on the roof was a technical
challenge. Due to budget constraints, the design of the roof structure only
allowed for a two-and-a-half-inch concrete topping slab over the structural
deck. A network of channels in the concrete reduced the number of drain
penetrations necessary. Each planter drains directly into a trench, eliminating
concerns about slipping on runoff from the planters. Removable perforated metal
covers were installed to make the trench lines accessible for maintenance and
allow rainwater to drain.
Cochran notes, and Richie confirms, that the community
garden serves several purposes simultaneously. One resident, who met Cochran on
the roof early one morning, ran over to thank her for the gardening space. “He
called working on his garden ‘therapy,’” she says. “It made me want to cry. We
work on a lot of projects, but it was very rewarding to bring so much happiness
to these people. It is beautifully maintained because everyone tends their own
Richie says the roof garden also builds community, bringing
different families and age groups together on a regular basis. It is a place
where teenagers hang out but not in isolation from adults. “The large families
all know each other and socialize here,” Richie points out. The only change she
would make would be to install some kind of play equipment, perhaps a
playhouse, and to that end, several less-than-successful citrus trees in pots
will probably be removed soon. The landscape architects are amenable to the
change. “A lot more children live here than we originally anticipated, and the
citrus trees require too much care on the roof,” Shaw says.
Richie, who knows everyone in the building by name, says
Curran House has been a unique experience for her despite her experience in
affordable housing. “People who are really strapped are extremely grateful to
have both a safe place to live and open space. I haven’t had a single resident
conflict issue here. I hold monthly residents meetings and there is a good
rapport between everyone.
“This building has received a lot of attention for its
design, but because of that there is greater awareness of the TNDC, and
hopefully that means we can do even more,” Richie says.
Francisco, Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture is best known for high-end
residential design, but the firm consistently takes on affordable-housing
projects because, according to Cochran, “doing low-income residential keeps you
honest. These projects have very tight budgets. Yet you can do beautiful design
for people who otherwise wouldn’t have it.”
“This type of work is always a part of our practice,”
confirms Shaw. She cites Folsom & Dore supportive apartments as another affordable-housing
project the firm recently worked on. Also a David Baker project, it is the
first new building in San Francisco to receive a LEED Silver rating. Folsom
& Dore provides 98 rental units to tenants with special needs. At the
moment, there are two similar projects on the firm’s boards.
Architect MacKenzie cautions that it is hard to get
everything you want in an affordable-housing project. “The roof garden at
Curran House was in and out, just hanging by a thread at times,” he points out.
What saved that aspect of the project? “We were able to do the rest of the
project on budget.”
Although not pro bono, these kinds of gigs commonly lose
money. “Even a developer paying market rates couldn’t afford the level of
detail that went into Curran House,” Cochran says. That’s unfortunate because
“these tiny little green spaces are all the nature most low-income residents
Tips for Working with Affordable Housing
compromise design standards. “Devote the same amount of design time and
creativity to affordable housing as any other project,” says Elaine Shaw,
in favors. Tap the talent and resources of suppliers and craftspeople you
frequently use on high-end jobs. The fountain at Curran House was made by
the same fabricator who fashioned the polished concrete walls at Cochran’s
2007 award-winning design for a private residence in Pacific Heights.
willing to go the extra mile in dealing with your fabricators. To make the
fountain in the courtyard a reality, Shaw convinced the contractor at
Curran House—a very by-the-books, commercial company—to allow her to
manage the installation of the fountain. It added a task to her list, but
otherwise the fountain might not have made it into the final project
because of the construction company’s concern about time frame and
an architect who recognizes and supports landscape architecture as an
element of affordable housing.
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