Star Apartments

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - People in Downtown Los Angeles care a lot about architecture. As the community booms, there is ample public discourse on the design of buildings and how they fit into the community. One frequently hears excitement about the coming Broad art museum, the $140 million Grand Avenue attraction with a web-like exterior designed by the New York firm Diller, Scofidio + Renfro. Another eagerly awaited development is the replacement for the Wilshire Grand Hotel, a 73-story tower that will add visual variety to the skyline.

Talk spins the other way as well, with questions and concerns about new residential buildings that don’t contribute much, at least aesthetically, to the landscape. There is a lot of clucking, and rightfully so, over a series of six- and seven-story apartment complexes that are not much more than rectangular boxes with an occasional wall splashed in a bright color and a few jutting balconies. Such structures reflect an aesthetic from an earlier era Downtown, one that experimented with how to attract residents. 

That challenge has been quite well met, and the thinking about the future of the heart of the city has taken a sharp turn. Well-planned density is now the theme, one emerging from population growth projections plus the realization that Downtown is running out of parcels on which to accommodate that growth.

There is another, less-noticed but also important theme: the ability of low-income housing to raise the design bar. It comes, most recently, in the form of the Star Apartments, which is not just one of the most impressive new buildings in Skid Row, but one of the most impressive new buildings in all of Los Angeles. 

Move-ins at the permanent supportive housing complex at 240 E. Sixth St. began late last year, and Los Angeles Downtown News reported on the structure again last week. The $21 million project was developed by Skid Row Housing Trust and designed by Silver Lake-based Michael Maltzan, a prominent architect who has made his name on market-rate buildings, but who also has several low-income residential complexes on his resume.

One reason the project stands out is because the design at this location is so unexpected. The Star opened across the street from the dispiriting, fortress-like headquarters of LAPD’s Central Division. Additionally, with the Star’s focus on housing people literally just off the streets, one might expect cost to be the driving factor; that concern, of course, often propels bland and cookie-cutter type design.

Fortunately, SRHT and Maltzan refused to be confined by tradition. Instead, they orchestrated a dynamic building that sits atop an old one-story edifice that was reinforced with a concrete super-structure. The 102 residential units rest upon thick slanted support columns. Certain portions of the building appear to float in mid-air.

The look of the building is not the only thing that is unique. The Star utilized prefabricated housing units, something never before undertaken in Skid Row. The 350-square-foot homes were assembled in Idaho complete with toilets, cabinets and appliances installed. They were then trucked to Los Angeles and placed individually by crane on the complex. Operating in this manner brought the price down, and with the “experiment” having proved successful, the prefab model could be repeated in the future.

The building contains other elements that are counter to the bare-bones offerings one might expect in low-income housing. The Star is an energy-efficient complex with 15,000 square feet of community space including a garden and, soon, a running track. As with other permanent supportive housing complexes, it contains in-house services such as counseling, a medical clinic and job training. The goal is to give those just off the streets all the help required to turn their lives around.

The Star is a project worthy of praise, though it is not the only low-income housing development in Downtown to stand out architecturally. Another example came in 2009, when SRHT and Maltzan worked together on the New Carver Apartments, a 97-unit complex at 17th and Hope streets; the circular edifice with a large interior courtyard also is the kind of building that, at first glance, one might expect to house market-rate occupants. Both the Star and the New Carver, of course, have a psychological along with a physical function — they communicate the idea that the residents are as important as anyone in any other building, that their travails with money, addiction or mental illness don’t mean they should lack the pride or sense of ownership that other people have in their homes. It’s a basic and valued model of enhancing self-worth.

We’re pleased that SRHT and Maltzan went this route, and hope that the Star reminds other developers and the greater community that low-income housing does not need to be shoehorned into a box of existing expectations. Creating a new-look building enhances life for its inhabitants. It also makes for a more varied and impressive Downtown.

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2014