Will Architecture Save San Francisco?

Can architecture help solve some of San Francisco’s most chronic problems? City officials and some local organizations think it can.

Judging from three architecturally noteworthy structures that have recently opened their doors, good design is proving to be a powerful weapon in the fight to end homelessness, shrink the gap between rich and poor and keep low-income families from fleeing the city. Rivaling many of the luxury condominium towers sprouting up around them in aesthetics, materials and amenities, these brand new buildings contain housing for low-income families, support services dedicated to the formerly homeless and recreation spaces for neighborhoods in need. “Great design is not a luxury—it’s a way to make life better,” says Mayor Gavin Newsom, who has advocated for the creation of high-quality permanent housing for the city’s neediest residents. “And nobody benefits from that more than the people these organizations are helping.” 

Living in Harmony
Glide Family Housing

“In order for a place to change, you’ve got to have beautiful spaces and beautiful people to occupy them,” says the Reverend Cecil Williams, minister of Glide Memorial Church. The celebrated institution is the financial and philosophical force behind an $80 million pair of residential towers rising on Mason Street. The first tower, containing 81 units ranging from one to four bedrooms, has already welcomed its first residents—all low-income working individuals and families. Designed by Willis Architects, the spacious units are flooded with natural light, and bay windows set with floor-to-ceiling glass provide stunning views up and down the hills of Mason Street. “If you come into a place with light, color, views and a sense of repose, it says, ‘This is what we think of you.’ That has an amazing effect on people,” says architect Michael Willis. Williams’ design directive to Willis was to communicate the mission of the church: to empower and embrace people from all walks of life. “Dancing bay windows”—accented in orange, blue and yellow—jut out from the modern facade, a visual manifestation of the celebrated music of the Glide Ensemble choir. Artist Mildred Howard installed three-dimensional words of inspiration on the front entrance wall. “Our buildings are not just places for people to reside, they’re also a home for people to embrace and hold on to,” says Williams.

Growing up Green
St. Anthony Foundation Social Services Center

The brand new, soon-to-be LEED Gold–certified building designed for the St. Anthony Foundation on Golden Gate Avenue offers a major change of scenery for those involved in the 58-year-old organization. Volunteers and clients accustomed to the foundation’s former crumbling brick structure truly appreciate how much their new five-story eco-friendly building feels like home. “Environmental stewardship has always been a part of our organization’s core values,” says Francis Aviani, the foundation’s communications manager. The St. Anthony Foundation, which prepares and serves thousands of meals each day with food that would otherwise be thrown away, has long followed a strict recycling and composting program and distributes 20 tons of donated clothing and housewares each year to those in need.

Designed by Oakland’s HKIT Architects, the building contains offices, a social-work center, a technology lab and a free dental and medical clinic, including a specialized pediatric wing with a colorful waiting room filled with toys, coloring books and kid-sized furniture. The architects met the challenge of creating a high-security, heavily used structure that didn’t look institutional by using integrally colored polished-concrete floors and indoor-outdoor fabrics that can be cleaned easily. “We needed to make it tough and secure, but we didn’t want it to look bulletproof,” says Dennis Okamura, a principal at HKIT Architects. “A beautiful building gives the people who come into contact with it a greater sense of self-worth.”

The St. Anthony Foundation prioritized green building, despite the added efforts it required. “Once you get the green bug, you really start to see the possibilities,” says Okamura, who used energy-efficient lighting and appliances, low-flow plumbing fixtures and locally sourced materials. An in-house “Green Team” assesses staff practices and will implement even more sustainable elements as time goes on. “From using low-VOC paints and daylighting to choosing warm colors and stylish materials, the goal was to create a comforting and welcoming space that brings dignity to those it serves,” says Okamura. 

A Winning Combination
The Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center and Railton Place

Long lines snaking down side-walks aren’t an uncommon sight in the Tenderloin, where the wait for hot meals and nightly shelter has created a culture of queuing up. But last September, the patient crowd standing on Turk Street was made up of architecture enthusiasts waiting to get a look inside the newest building designed by Herman Coliver Locus Architecture as part of this year’s AIA SF home tours. Run by the Salvation Army, the $57 million building has a sleek silver facade punctuated by colorful windows and contains a sprawling state-of-the-art community center and more than 100 studio apartments for veterans, the formerly homeless and youth who have aged out of the foster care system. “We wanted to differentiate the units with color and pattern, to emphasize that the residents are individuals, each with unique qualities,” says Bob Herman, principal at Herman Coliver Locus Architecture.

The modern, light-filled building is worlds away from the sterile institutional environments many of the residents are used to. Exposed-concrete walls, warm lighting and soaring floor-to-ceiling windows are just a few of the details that demonstrate that this building was designed to impress—and improve the lives of—its residents. Studies in color therapy have found that light and color can actually contribute to health and recovery. The adjoining community center, which is also open to the public, offers ample activities for the new residents next door: a gymnasium with a full basketball court and a game room with a pool table, air hockey, video games and six flat-screen televisions, to name a few. One of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the city (and home to more than 3,500 children), the Tenderloin needs and deserves the amenities available at the community center, such as the after-school programs that take advantage of the children’s library and computer lab. While the new building has plenty of activity areas, it also has spaces for un-winding: An outdoor courtyard planted with trees, grass, flowers and benches is the perfect place to sit and ponder the possibilities of good design.

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