The latest architectural spectacle to land on Los Angeles’ infamous Skid Row looks like a concrete spaceship. Boxy, modular apartments rest against the concrete roof of what was once a low-rise, strip mall-style building full of wholesale Garment District shops. Its rooftop parking lot is now a launchpad for one of the most radical housing projects for the L.A.’s homeless, the Star Apartments.
The original low-rise has been retrofitted to accommodate the headquarters of L.A. County Health Services’ Housing for Health program, supportive services from the nonprofit Skid Row Housing Trust, the building’s developer, and a retail-style medical clinic run by the county and open to the surrounding community. A mass of prefebricated housing units–L.A.’s first multifamily prefab structure in decades–has been stacked above to provide permanent homes to the chronically homeless population these organizations aim to serve. A health center is available to any of the trust’s 1,600 residents, with amenities like a jogging track and a community garden.
It’s the latest in Michael Maltzan’s more than 20-year quest to reshape the quality of life for L.A.’s least fortunate residents. Maltzan, an L.A. architect and an alum of Gehry Partners, has built a career juggling sleek institutional work and luxurious private residences for the likes of Michael Ovitz with thoughtful homes for the formerly homeless. Maltzan isn’t just designing beautiful affordable housing; by pushing for developments with street-facing public uses, he’s trying to integrate people who have been pushed to the edge of society back into the working gears of the city. Of course, in a place like Skid Row, which has more than a century of history as a community of L.A.’s homeless and transient as well as a place where hospitals dump poor and mentally ill patients, that’s not necessarily easy, but it’s better than siloing the poor in affordable housing blocks elsewhere. “There are still people who think we should isolate these individuals on the outskirts of town,” he says. “What we’re doing is part of a much larger movement. Affordable housing needs to be much more integrated in the physical fabric of the city you need to integrate other supportive services in the building to help create a bridge for these individuals back into culture. You can’t just give them an apartment and expect things to work out.”
Skid Row, a 50-block area east of downtown L.A., has for decades had one of the highest concentrations of homeless people in the country–estimated at as many as 8,000-11,000 people. The city has faced a shortage of homeless shelters for decades, but a dearth of shelters isn’t the only reason people stay in the streets in Skid Row. The district first developed in the 1880s as a stopover for railroad workers, with a large number of single-occupancy hotel rooms, a cheap housing type that proliferated over the years. In the middle of the 20th century, many of these hotels were demolished, destroying some of the most affordable housing in the city and forcing already marginalized residents out onto the streets. And because of Skid Row’s long history as a place for the homeless, the mentally ill, and people with substance abuse issues, it also has many social service organizations concentrated in a small area. Paradoxically, this means that more chronically homeless, often sick individuals end up there. In fact, there are plenty of reports that hospitals and jails actually dump poor and homeless people on the streets of Skid Row–even hospitals that aren’t even in the state. Some of these chronically homeless individuals find shelter in single-occupancy hotel rooms or in shelters at night, but many sleep on the streets.
Revitalizing downtown L.A.’s seediest neighborhood has been a part of Michael Maltzan Architecture since the firm’s founding in 1993. Maltzan’s first project, Inner-City Arts campus, an arts education facility for at-risk L.A. public school students in Skid Row, caught the attention of the Skid Row Housing Trust, an organization that has been developing supportive housing for L.A.’s homeless population since 1989. Since his first project for the trust opened in 2006, the architect has worked with the organization on a total of three residential complexes for the formerly homeless, the most recent of which is the Star Apartments, which opened in October. A fourth building is on its way.
The Star Apartments are perhaps most notable for everything but the apartments. Maltzan was determined to create a mixed-use building that would include some retail component that would be accessible to the public–in the end, this became a retail medical clinic. If the building was to truly become part of the urban fabric, it had to have a public face, one that could bridge the separation between the residence and society at large, he says: The building “participates in the city in a more typical way.”
The Star Apartments also have facilities that cater more directly to Skid Row Housing Trust residents. The organization has offices and supportive services, like case workers, within the building. And most notably for this development, Housing for Health, a division of the L.A. County Department of Public Health that works to find permanent housing for the homeless, set up its headquarters in the building. The county also runs the ground-floor health clinic, which will serve both the resident and the surrounding communities. As the biggest player in public health in the region, and the Department of Public Health’s move to a pocket of the city that has long been a public health disaster is more than just symbolic–a 2012 inspection of just eight blocks of Skid Row found people living on streets infested with rats and piles of human excrement, and last year the CDC had to be brought in to help track a persistent tuberculosis outbreak in the area. It’s an area that desperately needs public health services.
As you move up through the building into the more semi-private spaces of the second floor and above, the focus shifts less to residents’ immediate needs for health care and supportive services, and more toward improving their quality of life. “As we had been doing the other projects with the Housing Trust, everybody understood more and more what amenities are powerful and useful and necessary for these communities,” Maltzan says. “One of those things is a big community garden. It’s become more and more a big expectation, a big part of the life of the building.” The wide-open roof of the original structure, once a parking lot, served as a perfect space for these amenities, including a running track, a basketball court, an exercise room, classrooms, and a community kitchen.
One of the criticisms about some of Maltzan’s previous residences for the Housing Trust was there weren’t enough laundry rooms–laundry was located all in one central location. “A lot of those things that we take for granted outside become very important, very special spaces for people who have lived on the street for so long,” he says. “In the Star Apartments, we split the laundry rooms, one for each floor, and they have these views into the city and beyond.”
Prefabricated construction was also key. Prefabrication–where entire units are built on a factory assembly line and shipped to the construction site–reduces construction waste, allows for easier construction in tight urban spaces, and, in theory, makes larger buildings cheaper to build, since all of the units are exactly the same (though architects haven’t exactly perfected the art of quick-and-easy high-rise prefab towers just yet). His office had been looking for a project to explore multi-family prefabricated housing design, hadn’t been done in L.A. in the last 50 years, according to Maltzan. When this commission came up, the architects jumped at the chance to experiment with prefab.
Prefabrication made sense for Star Apartments for many reasons, Maltzan said. For one, Skid Row, which is located in the middle of downtown L.A., doesn’t have much room for a traditional construction site. Prefab construction also allowed the architects to lift an entirely new building on top of the existing one-story structure. And because factory-made, assembly-line units are cheaper, the architects could afford to spec higher quality materials inside the apartments, meaning not only nicer places for residents to live, but more durable units that would cost the Housing Trust less in maintenance over time.*
At least that’s the theory–Maltzan calls the prefab construction process “a real learning curve” for general contractors, but he’s optimistic that things will go smoother next go-round. His firm had to work with the city upfront to create a new permitting and inspection process, which didn’t exist before. As a result, the project helped achieve “a precedent, if not a pathway, that should allow prefabrication to be done more easily in the city,” he says.
Maltzan envisioned Star Apartments not just as a new way to provide shelter and social services to the homeless, but as a new model of housing: a sustainable way to create hyper-density in a city known for its sprawl, preserving some aspect of architectural heritage in a region that tends to raze the old and build anew rather than adapt older buildings for reuse. “The history of this city is tearing down buildings like that,” he says. “If we’re really looking at how to think about more sustainable cites, then reusing buildings has to be a part of that equation.”
*The original version of this post mischaracterized the degree of cost overruns over the course of the project. The total cost of the project to the Skid Row Housing Trust was $40 million, including the acquisition of the original building, furnishings, legal fees, and other considerations, but the cost of construction was $20.5 million.