The building had seen better days. Built in the 1960s and standing on the corner of a once-bustling commercial corridor, this five-story office building in Santa Ana, California, had gradually emptied out. Fewer than half of its offices were occupied and the ground floor commercial spaces had been vacant for years.
So it was a bit unexpected when the architects at Los Angeles- and Long Beach-based Studio One Eleven got the call that one of their clients wanted to turn the building into housing. “We took a quick look at it and it actually laid out pretty well,” says Michael Bohn, Studio One Eleven’s senior principal. “The bones worked really well.”
After an extensive gutting and renovation, that building has just been reborn as a 58-unit affordable housing complex, including 10 new affordable townhomes that replaced a former surface parking lot. Developed by Meta Housing Corporation, it’s the first project built under the city of Santa Ana’s new adaptive reuse ordinance, which streamlines the regulatory process for converting nonresidential buildings into housing. With office buildings across the country emptied as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it could serve as a model for how office buildings can find new life.
Developed with state and local affordable housing tax credits, the project has a 55-year clause guaranteeing its units are set aside for residents who earn no more than 60% of the area’s median monthly income. The office building has been converted into studios and one-, two-, and three-bedroom live-work lofts, and the entire project is intended to house working artists. Rents start at just $448 and go up to around $2,000 for the largest units.
Bohn says the 1965 building was a good candidate for adaptive reuse, with its 13-foot-high ceilings, polished concrete floors and large windows on all four sides. “Some office buildings . . . are so long that the units become uncomfortably deep, and the deeper the units the less natural light you get into them,” says Bohn. “But this one had a tight floor plate, which made it much nicer.”
Because it was an office building with underground parking, it also exceeded the amount of parking required for residential use, which meant that its additional surface parking lot was no longer necessary. Studio One Eleven tore out the parking and filled that space with 10 two- and three-bedroom townhomes that enclose a new courtyard and playground on the side of the original building.
The 58 new homes range from 512 to 1,300 square feet, with a mix of working artists and families. There’s a community gallery on the ground floor, which also includes art studio space, a dance studio and two music rooms.
For an area that’s struggled in recent years, Bohn says this project can be a first step toward rejuvenation through more investment. That can be risky in terms of changing the character of the neighborhood, he says, but starting with affordable housing will hopefully make any transition smoother.
“Many times, for better or worse, these types of developments can help uplift an area and to some extent gentrify an area,” he says. “And I think the most economical way, if an area is going to gentrify, is to get the affordable housing in there first so that the affordable housing developers aren’t competing at higher land costs and there’s already an embedded affordable housing population there.”
Other office building conversions are likely to follow. “Just in Santa Ana itself, there’s at least a dozen of these types of buildings that are even larger than this that are fairly idle and could accommodate hundreds of units of housing in a very unique way,” Bohn says. His firm is already working with another developer on a market-rate conversion of an 11-story building nearby that will add about 200 new units of housing. He says that kind of private investment would have been unlikely without the affordable project proving that the adaptive reuse could work. “So it’s definitely a pioneer model in Santa Ana.”
Hundreds of people applied to live in the 58 new affordable housing units, and the project is now fully occupied. Bohn says that compared to a teardown or building up from scratch, these kinds of conversions can be both cheaper and faster to complete, bringing what were once dying office buildings back to life. “I’m sure when it was originally full of office workers, it was full of life, so it’s nice to see it as a needed building again,” he says.