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American Society of Landscape Architects


January 2008 Issue

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

Triumph in the Tenderloin

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 issues.

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 for landscape.”

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 concrete.

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 above.

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 plot.”

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.

 Outside San 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 have.”

Tips for Working with Affordable Housing

  • Don’t compromise design standards. “Devote the same amount of design time and creativity to affordable housing as any other project,” says Elaine Shaw, Affiliate ASLA.
  • Call 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.
  • Be 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 installation issues.
  • Find an architect who recognizes and supports landscape architecture as an element of affordable housing.

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