I grew up in Castro Valley, a suburb on the fringes of the San Francisco metropolitan area about 15 miles southeast of Oakland. A trip from my home to surrounding cities usually meant a ride on BART, the area’s regional transportation system. What I remember most about the ride was the area around the tracks. For much of each ride, I spied remnants of the once thriving industrial areas of San Leandro and Oakland from my window seat: the shuttered Mother’s Cookies and Sunshine Biscuits factories, the countless powder coating warehouses, pick-n-pulls, and defunct heavy rail lines. For as long as I can remember, inactivity seemed to be the most thriving element here.
That’s where David Baker + Partners comes in. The San Francisco-based architecture firm known for its adaptive reuse and infill projects recently completed a public housing project that happens to be Northern California's first LEED Gold Certified Neighborhood Development, meaning that it bears all the hallmarks of an environmentally sustainable design from from the roads to the rooftops. Green roofs, solar panels, dual flush toilets, energy-efficient lighting and appliances, bike racks—they’re all there and then some.
"Most of the features in the development go above and beyond what's typically in affordable housing," says Daniel Simons, who was David Baker + Partners' Project Architect for the development.
Built on an Oakland Housing Authority (OHA) site in the Elmwood neighborhood of East Oakland, the Tasssafaronga Village housing project manages to squeeze nearly 180 housing units on a site that once housed about 90 units. Begun in 2006, the project fell under the scope of Hope VI, a somewhat controversial federal program that aims to replace severely distressed public housing projects with new facilities.
Originally built as military housing, the residences been continually inhabited since the 1950's but gradually fell into a state of disrepair over the decades. Bridget Galka, Senior Development Project Manager for the city of Oakland, describes the area as a magnet for crime and transients. "The day after the factory closed down, all of the electrics and copper pipes were stripped," says Galka. "People used the vacant yard next to the factory to store all kinds of junk, and at one point there was meth lab set up in the back of an 18-wheeler parked there."
Db+P worked closely with the Oakland Housing Authority on this project, and though it is aesthetically different from the surrounding 1950’s and 1960’s single-family homes, it is woven into the established neighborhood fabric. It’s streets match up with the pre-existing grid, and it opens to a recently built school and library. Pedestrians and cyclists can easily enter and exit the development through a network of foot and bike paths, making the development say “community” rather than “public housing project.”
The linkage between Tassafaronga Village and the surrounding neighborhood is a main highlight according to Galka. "I used to see children hopping fences and running through the scrap yard to get from their houses to the elementary school and now there's a wonderfully landscaped path connecting them," she says.
Creating a place that counters the stereotypes of public housing—and the negative connotations that go along with them—is something that Simons is most proud of. "There isn't one 'spectacular' moment in the project, but there's a diversity throughout the development that makes it special," he says. "There's consistency, but also variety. It doesn't necessarily feel relentless, but it's not dizzying in complexity—and it's hard to strike that balance."
The location of the site on the cusp of residential and industrial zones allowed the architects more freedom in designing the structures. "Often times designs for new developments are constricted due to surrounding architectural styles," says Galka. "Being on the border allowed us to be playful."
In addition to the site's location, the size—nearly eight acres—also afforded more creative leeway. "Having such a large site made it easier to create nice outdoor spaces for the residents," says Simons. Tassafaronga Village is anchored by a large public plaza and many of the townhouses open to pocket parks and semi-private spaces that help facilitate community gatherings. Based on the theory of "defensible space" advanced by Osacar Newman, the hope is that the design of these spaces will help keep crime at a minimum.
"The size also allowed us to do a lot more in terms of sustainability in the stormwater treatment," says Simons. "All of the water that hits the site gets treated in some capacity." For example, rainwater from the streets flows into swales and downspouts from the roofs drain into infiltration beds.
Bright colors, contemporary detailing, and plays on mass and void are seen throughout the development. The high-density apartment building on the southeastern corner of the site reflects some of the unique architectural features of the project. Though it is a singular building, the massing and coloring makes it appear to be multiple buildings staggered together. Slate gray, chartreuse, and fire-engine red paint color the exterior and vertically oriented windows slice through portions of the facade, making for a dynamic visual presence.
What's more interesting are the things you can't see from the street. Upon entering the building one is met by a double-height lobby capped by a swooping acoustic ceiling, which Simons' says is one of his favorite spaces in the entire project. Ascending to the second level via a dramatic, freestanding stairwell reveals a large rooftop courtyard with lush greenery, a jungle gym, picnic tables and benches. From the second level you can also catch glimpses of the building's undulating green roof and the dozens of solar panels perched atop the surrounding townhouses.
All of the original structures on the site were demolished, save for the 18,000 square foot Marlino & Sons pasta factory. Along the north side of the building, the old logo was repainted, reminding residents of its past life. The main entry on the east side of the building is much more contemporary, with a wave-like passive solar shade that filters through natural light and while protecting the interior from excessive heat. The building now contains supportive housing as well as an outreach center to serve the community.
The response to the completed development has been largely positive. To apply for a residence, prospective tenants had to physically pick up paper applications to be placed on a waiting list and OHA received over 6,000 completed applications over a three day period. Of the 78 households displaced due to the redevelopment (all received Section 8 vouchers from OHA to relocate and were given preference on the waiting list to move back) 10 have returned, a proportion which Galka says is typical for these types of overhauls.
"The community is really coming together and you see people taking pride and wanting to maintain what's there," says Galka. "We've given them something to build on and I'm hoping that we can help make that neighborhood as healthy and happy as it can be."
During a tour of the finished project led by David Baker himself, he remarked that one goal is that in 10 years people won't be able to tell where the development ends and the neighborhood begins. I think that in 10 years, the boundaries will surely be blurred, but the sustainable design of the buildings and detail taken in the landscape architecture will make Tassafaronga stand out for years to come. And that's a great thing.