A just and well-functioning society provides housing choices for people at all income levels to live in safe, diverse, walkable neighborhoods within a ten-minute walk of a commercial center serving local needs and served by good public transit. Living in proximity to transit or one’s place of work can make owning an automobile not necessary, resulting in a “Land Use Housing Subsidy” of roughly $750 per month. TDA’s work has historically been focused on the idea of proximity between residence and work. Such proximity typically takes two forms: 1) transit-oriented, mixed–use medium to high density infill buildings, and 2) true live-work, which enables the occupant to enjoy low overhead combined with the potential for incubating and pursuing entrepreneurial activity.
TDA has been fortunate to work with a number of non-profit developers on projects that are financed in part with public funds. They include artists’ live-work communities and multi-unit affordable infill housing in close proximity to transit stations. The projects shown include examples of how TDA has addressed the critical issue of building communities that are affordable to people of diverse incomes.
Live-Work Courtyard Communities
The design of a multi-unit project presents a unique opportunity to make a place that facilitates a sense of community among residents. The architect’s challenge is to create common spaces within the project that encourage interaction, invoke a sense of well-being, are comfortable, and in which one can greet a neighbor, then pause to chat or move on. As residents cross paths, opportunities to socialize arise. The “entry situation”, that transition between the moment one enters the complex and the time one enters one’s unit, provides the greatest opportunities for interaction. Designing projects whose units open onto common spaces increases the chances for such casual meetings. This is the most important role design can play in encouraging a sense of community within a project. The quality of such common spaces can make the difference between an alienating structure and a fully functioning community. This may be the great lesson of live-work courtyard communities: the rediscovery of the power of fully inhabiting a place, and the well-being that results from knowing your neighbors well.
Most cities have their share of illegal live-work buildings, whose creative residents exist under the radar in an unholy alliance with landlords who charge little for a “don’t call me” lease in exchange for lots of space and the freedom to do as one pleases in the space. Eventually, most such buildings need to be legalized; however, each stakeholder has a slightly different interest:
- If you are a property owner with an illegal live-work building, you’d like to do it as affordably as possible, with the minimum of vacant space downtime; however, once legalized, you’ll be able to refinance the building, something that is usually not possible when the building is not legal.
- If you are a city government, you’d like to see buildings become safer, although if they are relatively safe, benign neglect may be a strategy worth considering, as such buildings are the core of economic development engine transforming districts full of underutilized buildings into tax revenue producers—but usually not before they are legalized. Nevertheless, a way should be found to ferret out the most egregious life safety hazards without red-tagging every building.
- If you are a tenant, you value your very affordable space, and if it is legalized you know your rent will go up and you may have to move.
TDA has worked with building owners, government agencies, and—indirectly—tenants on legalizations of existing live-work buildings, negotiating with cities on behalf of owners in ways that preserve mutual respect for all parties and align their interests to the extent possible, as is detailed on the Services page. Live-Work Planning and Design: Zero-Commute Housing focuses on live-work codes and legalization as an important topic. TDA has been involved in numerous legalizations of live-work in Oakland, having written that city’s live-work building code in 1996.
The renovation of existing industrial or commercial buildings for live-work is one of the most common, viable building types in our urban centers, ports and railheads. Ever since the adoption of shipping containers, multi-story buildings of this type have been orphans, structures whose intended function has been supplanted by a modular technology that completely cuts them out. Artists were the first to discover such spaces, and the names of the neighborhoods they adopted are legendary: SoHo, LoDo, SoMa, Tribeca, etc. Artists have always worked where they lived, so to move their studios into spacious, well-lit former warehouses meant living there too. On the heels of the artists followed many who came to realize that working at home is a great solution aided by the inexpensive home office automation. Most of the artists have moved on to pioneer new neighborhoods, leaving behind well-heeled successors who have played important roles—as do artists—in revitalizing downtowns and outlying districts.
Live-work is a land use and building type that combines residential andcommercial use, yet is at once neither and both. TDA has been involved in a number of major live-work conversions, ranging from a former high-end department store to the largest cotton mill west of the Mississippi. Some have been historic buildings that benefitted from historic tax credits and whose essential character was important to retain. In each case, TDA has applied the basics of live-work: unit types, proximity types, and how to provide the opportunities for interaction that are essential to meet live-work’s unique needs. The firm’s experience writing and consulting on live-work codes has proven indispensable when dealing with live-work renovations: each building is unique, and understanding of the intent of the code allows TDA to solve each building’s code problems in innovative ways.
Mews, Townhouses, Compounds and Flexhouses
The above types are components of the “missing middle”—forms that fall between single family houses and larger apartment and condominium buildings. Due to the nature of our population, demand for compact missing middle building types in walkable mixed-use neighborhoods will be strong. Mews projects are typified by dual-purpose circulation space; automobiles traverse the mews but never park in it; whereas pedestrians use the mews for circulation and as interactive space. The success of a townhouse project is dependent on its being located on an activated street, where opportunities for interaction are ideally present eighteen hours a day. As Andres Duany said, “Who wants to live in a townhouse that’s not in a town?” Compounds are groupings of buildings on a single property, often defining one or more courtyards. A bungalow court is a type of compound; the author lived and worked for seventeen years in a former Italian family compound, and he presently lives and sometimes works in the James Avenue Live-Work Compound. The flexhouse, a “building that learns,” is treated as a page in this section.
Mixed use urban design
The making of town centers and mixed use urban concentrations has been a naturally evolving element of human settlement patterns for the past 5,000 years. Unfortunately, the rise of modernism early in the last century, and the “triumph” of universally imposed Euclidean Zoning has—in most of the US and Canada—segregated uses and virtually outlawed mixed use urbanism. TDA’s work over the years has always been focused on proximity, most fully expressed within individual units as live-work space. While there is some live-work in the projects that follow, this portion of the firm’s work expands the definition of proximity to mean a relatively dense, mixed use community whose variety of buildings and use types encourages an 18 hour presence of people on the street. The goal is the creation of public and semi-public spaces where residents and passersby are likely to cross paths with many people who are familiar, if not known to them. This kind of street-level serendipity within the public realm may appear and feel accidental to those who inhabit and pass through these spaces, but creating places that encourage such encounters is the fundamental skill that a good urbandesigner brings to a project. Making spaces that have meaning for their users is the true definition of Placemaking.
TDA has had the good fortune to work on several projects that areexemplars of mixed use, pedestrian oriented, and transit-friendly development. Generally located near BART stations or, in one case, an outer Bay Area BART feeder, the projects mix ground floor retail or flexhouses with upper level housing, some of which could easily be finished as office. The contexts vary from a small town annex in the Salinas Valley, to a major grayfield mixed use project immediately adjacent to a newly revitalizing main street. In all of the projects, attention is paid to the space between buildings and how they define the public realm, as well as semipublic spaces that primarily serve the residents of a particular project and their guests.
Transit-Oriented Urban Infill
TDA has been involved in the design or planning of portions of several transit villages adjacent to BART stations in Oakland, and recently completed a major affordable housing project adjacent to another BART station, which has as a transit village plan in place. Other such projects are simply urban infill on transit corridors. Important goals of transit oriented development are to create a real community through mixed use, connectivity and density. At locations where huge public investments have been made in heavy rail, light rail or rapid buses, it is essential to build at density in order to achieve both a vibrant eighteen-hour-a-day community and provide the ridership that the transit requires to be viable. Along transit corridors, one of the greatest challenges in many cities are the conflicts between often one-lot-deep commercial zones that line the corridors, and the single family houses immediately behind them. While a form based code and today’s best practices would create a zone of intermediate density between the two, in our experience such is not the case in many existing urban neighborhoods whose corridors were once served by trolleys and whose commercial fronts are now largely underutilized. Those who live in the houses behind the commercial corridors vehemently resist 4-5 story buildings looming over them; nevertheless, city plans, regional growth guidelines, smart growth practices and even global warming concerns all suggest that such density is appropriate.
On the following pages are examples in which TDA has met the challenge of this “impossible” adjacency problem, by designing buildings that step down, break up their massing, or otherwise mitigate their impact on smaller buildings, while at the same time providing a strong facade presence on the street front that defines the street as a “room,” typically at a boulevard scale. Among them are Temescal Place, which received a Gold Nugget Award for Best Workforce Housing Project in the West in 2005; and 2747 SPA, a mixed-use green project in Berkeley that incorporates stepped podium top gardens designed to attract butterflies and hummingbirds, and is designed to achieve LEED Gold status.