Affordable by Design
Skid Row Housing Trust Executive Director Mike Alvidrez at the Rainbow Apartments. The building by architect Michael Maltzan drew praise for its sleek, modern design.Photo by Gary Leonard.

Low-income housing and architectural innovation might seem mutually exclusive. But in Downtown Los Angeles, a handful of forward-thinking affordable housing developers are teaming with some prominent architects to prove that serving economically disadvantaged residents does not mean poor design.

In 2005, for-profit developer Thomas Safran & Associates praise earned with its Skyline Village, a striking $14 million City West development designed by Withee Malcolm Architects, which has worked on numerous residential and commercial projects. The following year, Skid Row Housing Trust pushed the envelope with the Rainbow Apartments, a sleekly modern, red-accented 89-unit building on San Pedro Street designed by acclaimed architect Michael Maltzan.

Now, SRHT is continuing the momentum, with four Skid Row projects on the books that together will bring nearly 400 new affordable units to Downtown. The total construction costs will top $83 million. Each utilizes an architecture firm that made its name in the private sector.

"The Trust has always been interested in producing the best-designed buildings possible in the belief that it does two things," said Mike Alvidrez, executive director of SRHT. "One, it's an attractive addition to the community. Two, it helps facilitate a connection to the community by the people who live in these buildings."

Some, however, question SRHT's approach, wondering if it gets the most bang for scarce bucks.

Joseph Corcoran, director of planning and housing development for Single Room Occupancy Housing Corp., another Skid Row area developer, said that incorporating design beyond "normal standards" can drive up construction costs. That, in turn, can hurt affordable housing developers across the board, he said.

"There's a perception out there that it's costing too much as it is politically, which could harm our ability to garner support for such projects," said Corcoran. Minimizing development costs, he added, "frees up more money for more projects in the long run."

SRO Housing Corp. is currently building the James M. Wood Apartments on San Julian Street in Skid Row. The $10 million development will create 53 efficiency apartments at a cost of about $190,000 per unit.

By comparison, one of SRHT's quartet of projects, the Charles Cobb Apartments at 521 S. San Pedro St., will cost $20 million. Designed by the four-year-old Kivotos Montenegro Partners Inc., which has worked on multifamily projects throughout L.A. as well as hotel and medical projects including the Ocean Park Surgery Center, the 76 efficiency apartments will pencil out to $263,000 per unit.

Despite the cost, Alvidrez disputes the notion that pricier developments drain public resources.

"All of our buildings have been involved in a competitive process for funding," he said. "There is not one agency that says, 'We'll give you more money.' We don't have any sweetheart deals."

Each of SRHT's upcoming projects is approximately 40% funded by tax credit equity, a system by which investors receive a tax credit for money given toward affordable housing. The remainder comes from a mix of public local, state and federal funds, as well as private sources.

Ninth District Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district includes much of Skid Row, describes the developer as a trailblazer. "They have provided amenities that in the past were not provided to people," said Perry. With regard to the Rainbow Apartments, she continued, "Michael Maltzan grasped the direction this community is taking, and he understood the need to provide permanent supportive housing in a way that is urban and uplifting, not depressive."

In the Pipeline

Over the past 19 years, Skid Row Housing Trust has rehabilitated 15 single-room occupancy buildings in Downtown Los Angeles and developed five new projects aimed at providing permanent homes to chronically homeless tenants. The properties all offer some level of supportive services, with case managers and coordinators available to connect residents to healthcare, mental health treatment, addiction recovery programs and other needs.

Yet many have praised the developer for the look of the buildings. To that effect, SRHT is once again tapping Maltzan. The Silver Lake-based architect, known for high-profile single-family homes and projects including the Bill Wilder Theater at UCLA's Hammer Museum and the Kidspace Children's Museum in Pasadena, is now designing the Trust's $35 million, 53,000-square-foot New Carver Apartments at 325 W. 17th St. The project, scheduled to break ground next month, with completion expected in June 2009, will include 95 efficiency units for low-income older and disabled adults.

"Progressive cities are not made from one project type," said Maltzan, explaining what drew him to the project. "The affordable housing that we're doing, I see as an incredibly essential component to the life and sustainability of a metropolis. For me, these projects are not necessarily any different or less important than market-rate work or institutional projects."

Maltzan's design includes a walking circuit in and around the building, a combined TV and laundry room and a round shape to help minimize noise from the nearby 10 Freeway. The exterior will feature colorful serrated panels, said Maltzan, so that "as you move around the building, that color emerges in one direction and in the other direction seems to disappear."

The design helped convince neighbors in South Park to support the project despite initial concerns, said Teresa Hillery, former president of the Grand Lofts Homeowners Association.

"The design was very impressive," said Hillery. "It blended in and was very creative. They left us with a good feeling that this was not a project they were going to put up and forget about."

Also coming from SRHT is the Abbey Apartments, a $27.7 million, 51,000-square-foot project with 113 efficiency units at 625 and 633 S. San Pedro St. The development, which broke ground last April and is slated to open in September, is rising next to the Rainbow Apartments and will house chronically homeless men and women suffering from mental illness and substance abuse issues. Like its neighbor, the project will feature a modern look and an outdoor courtyard.

The Abbey is designed by Santa Monica-based Koning Eizenberg Architecture. The firm also designed the Standard Downtown L.A. and Linear City's Biscuit Lofts in the Arts District.

The $20 million, 32,000-square-foot Charles Cobb Apartments, breaking ground in June with expected completion in August 2009, will include 74 efficiency units.

Another Trust project, New Genesis Apartments, is still in the planning stage. But it stands out by virtue of being designed by one of Downtown's most active and best known architects.

The Genesis is architect Wade Killefer's fifth collaboration with the Trust. Most Downtowners know him, however, for his market-rate adaptive reuse developments, including the Eastern Columbia Building and Tom Gilmore's Old Bank District.

Killefer said he is drawn to the low-income projects for social and practical reasons.

"Frankly, it's good business," he said. "The nonprofit clients tend to be highly professional, respectful of the architects and fun to work with, and they put together adequate budgets."

More Local, Better Designs

An impressive design has practical as well as aesthetic benefits for affordable buildings, said Alvidrez.

"It is easy to make your case when you're bringing a beautifully designed building to the table," he said. "It helps reduce some of the negative perceptions that people have or gaps in knowledge. It helps move the process forward."

Alvidrez said that more affordable developers are taking a similar approach. Thomas Safran agrees, observing that modern low-income design is a significant step up from the bland buildings of the 1970s.

"Now, people are using more good architects and creative design," said Safran. "There's understanding by cities and sponsors that if you want to do your next project, you better not do one that people hate or dislike or criticize."

In part, he said, that is because a decline in federal funding for affordable projects over the years has forced cities to become involved in low-income housing development, creating new opportunity and incentive for developers to be creative.

"The result is it's local," he said. "Being more local, people are paying attention and they want it to be better. They want it indistinguishable. Because it's also so competitive, in some cases hopefully the cream rises to the top."

Mixed-income projects - a growing trend Downtown - have also increased local awareness of the need for affordable housing, said Safran.

Ultimately, Alvidrez believes, building design-forward affordable properties will encourage others to follow suit, possibly making it easier to get low-income projects green lit.

"It stands as a model for other communities that may not have experience with supportive housing," he said, noting that since they opened, SRHT's Rainbow and the St. George buildings have attracted a steady flow of private individuals, civic groups, architecture students and others for tours. "Supportive housing projects can take different forms, but they can all be attractive and beneficial to the larger community."

Contact Anna Scott at anna@downtownnews.com.

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