Courtyard at La Brea, West Hollywood
“I feel like I’m a very rich poor person. . . you live with dignity here.”
These were the words of Steven Myrick. He had spent time living with friends and did not expect, at age 70, to regain his own space. Now he was showing visitors around his new apartment in Courtyard at La Brea, a 32-unit housing complex on La Brea just north of Santa Monica whose developers invested in quality design even as they struggled to gather the funding for affordable housing.
Myrick’s new home, won in a lottery that attracted 2,500 applicants, is compact at around 575 square feet, but it is filled with light and a sense of space, open on one end to a generous balcony and at the other onto a shared courtyard.
Not only was the apartment planned to make the most of a small space, it is part of a building that is conceived by its architects John Mutlow (far left) and Patrick Tighe (near left) to give tenants a sense of connection and the sense of being somewhere architecturally special; it has a shared courtyard filled with lush plants; its corner lobby is a soaring space, wrapped on the exterior in white metal ribbons, that are intended to make a feature of its corner location on La Brea just north of Santa Monica.
Courtyard at La Brea is aimed at people on low incomes (earning 30-60 percent of the area median income) as well as target groups including transitional youth (18-26 year-olds who are transitioning out of foster care), and people with HIV-positive or mental health diagnoses. It was built by the West Hollywood Community Housing Corporation (WHCHC) and opened officially this past weekend with a party for residents, local officials, and designers who had gathered to celebrate the birth of a building that had undergone a difficult gestation.
This is the ninth affordable housing project built by WHCHC in West Hollywood but it was in process as Governor Jerry Brown closed California’s redevelopment agencies.
Hitherto these agencies served as a tool for funding affordable housing, from the tax increment (increase in taxes) from new, high-dividend projects in the development zones.
WHCHC had to cast around for new sources of funding, and the city stepped up, providing $6.25 million. “It was amazing when the city council stepped up; they took it from their general funds, their regular budget. Not a lot of jurisdictions that would do that,” said Jesse Slansky, Director of Real Estate Development for WHCHC. An additional 3.7 million came from the County of Los Angeles Community Development Commission, and the rest from The Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco and Union Bank.
Creative City Committed to High Design
Building affordable housing anywhere is tough, and not cheap, in the face of high land costs and multiple regulations. To do it with a commitment to better than standard planning can be even more costly. But says Jesse Slansky, “West Hollywood is called the creative city and we differentiate ourselves by having a commitment to design, even in affordable housing.”
Patrick Tighe had designed the Sierra Bonita apartments (see bottom of page), another affordable housing project by WHCHC; John Mutlow is a longtime designer of affordable housing and a professor at USC. Each had been invited to compete for the La Brea project but the younger, perhaps more expressive Tighe, and the older, seasoned Mutlow, decided to join forces. They brought in fabricator Andreas Froech and his company Machineous to craft the decorative metal wraparound ribbons, screens and panels. Mark Tessier Landscape Architecture landscaped and planted the courtyard.
DnA talked with the architects about the project.
DnA: The building on the one hand is about creating decent spaces to live in, and on the other hand it has this very decorative element, utilizing the digital fabrication increasingly used in buildings. Talk about your thinking? Why did you feel a housing complex needed such a strong presence on the street?
Patrick Tighe: The building has a strong presence from the intersection of Santa Monica and LA Brea and as such we wanted the building to respond to that so the big move for us was to wrap the Southeast corner, with a very specific building façade that is almost creating a fifth elevation if you will. We worked closely with probably the best fabricator in the city, Machineous, in developing the façade. We wanted to celebrate the corner which becomes a beacon of activity; it also serves as the entrance to the building, and it provides a lot of the common spaces and the circulation for the building. We wanted the building to have a bold strong presence. The people that live here are also bold and strong and we want that to be reflected in the design.
John Mutlow: The most important aspect of it was the courtyard because that’s part of the history of West Hollywood, and the courtyard was oriented north-south and the reason for that is because in the winter you get more sun and less shade than you would if it was oriented east west. It’s also off the street so it’s a quiet place. Then you have a stack of units on the street and a stack of units on the rear. Those on the street are engaged with the urban condition while the rear building is very quiet for those residents who prefer that. The front building therefore protects the courtyard and the courtyard becomes a quiet zone so it belongs to the building and not the street.
FA. You mentioned the history of courtyards in West Hollywood.
JM. In the 1930s developers built several of them; they tend to be Spanish style but each is all built around a courtyard, which provides the quiet social space of the building, and that’s where you have all the circulation systems, like the walkways around the courtyard. Then you have glass between the courtyard and the units (windows and patio doors), so you have visual relationship between them, then we have outside access balconies so natural ventilation, as we do here meaning you have an additional sustainable features.
PT: We have a solar system providing power, solar-heated water so residents get free hot water; then we have a gray water system, and the water is used for irrigation. We also have efficient building systems and materials.
FA: John, you’ve had long experience designing multifamily housing; how does this project compare?
JM: Well it compares in two ways, through history and experience I’ve learned how to get the most out of the least; when you detail and when you plan space, you maximize out of the amount of space you can provide. These are not large units but the critical thing is to open the units to the light, making them feel larger than they are. The more you can do repetitive , off the shelf things like that you can retain funds to do special design features, and that’s how we were able to put emphasis on the lobby, giving residents sense this is a wonderful place to be.
PT: Good architecture doesn’t discriminate; as architects our job is to design good spaces,whether for the 1 percent or for the underserved and I think this is an example of where design actually plays a role in improving the lives of people.
FA. You previously designed Sierra Bonita apartments in West Hollywood (below). What did you learn from that?
PT. Yes, this is our 2nd project for West Hollywood and we learned a lot and I think we improved in this project. It’s wonderful to work in this city, it is a champion of design and affordable housing and when the two come together it can create some wonderful buildings and hopefully this is an example of that.
FA: Governor Brown has got rid of redevelopment agencies; will this kind of project be harder to accomplish in the future?
JM. Financially yes, it is more difficult but you know what happens is you now put the onus more on the state and federal. That’s why we saw two state agencies involved because they have tax credits and bond tax credits and that now becomes a different posture in terms of where the financing is. But also now most cities are going to have to put up some of their own money or float bonds rather than get it through the redevelopment agency which allowed you to have tax increment, that is the increase of taxes when you did something new became the funding source for affordable housing; now you don’t have that.
Basically it is becoming more difficult and that’s unfortunately the way we are at this point in time. One hopes there are enough people around politically especially like West Hollywood, who understand the importance of a balance of different kinds of housing and are willing to put themselves out and provide financing from local sources.
FA This was an interesting pairing, Patrick Tighe and John Mutlow; how did it work out?
PT: This was originally a competition and John and I teamed up because we complemented each other in a number of ways; we thought it would be a great fit and actually it was; we brought different things to the table.
JM: Whether it was functional whether it was a detail of construction or a piece of the design, we always exchanged ideas and talked about it together.
PT: So I think the collaboration between John and I worked out really well, and I think the building benefitted from that as did the client.
Images: Clockwise from top: Exterior of Courtyard at La Brea: View up through the lobby; residents and friends gather in the courtyard for the opening of the building; DeAlana Bruce is one of the new residents; Sierra Bonita apartments, designed by Patrick Tighe, also for the West Hollywood Community Housing Corporation; View into the courtyard from the fifth level; Francisco welcomes visitors to his new apartment; View up onto the metal cladding; architects John Mutlow, left, Patrick Tighe, right.