Unlike the typical soulless low-income housing blocks, David Baker Architects has created an eminently attractive and smart affordable alternative for the suburbs. Located in Union City, CA, in the San Francisco Bay Area, the new Station Center Family Housing merges community ethos, appealing design, and sustainable elements into a well-considered project that may well be a model for future development as part of a major transit-oriented plan.
The project sits on a former brownfield, the site of an old steel mill. Now, after a $20 million environmental cleanup and decades of negotiations, the 105-acre site has been claimed by Union City for a master plan. Called Union City Station Center, the transit-oriented development will include a multi-modal train station connecting several commuter lines, along with the creation of mixed-used housing and commercial spaces, paired with walkways, bike paths, and a pedestrian plaza. The hope is to make a thriving walkable community well-served by transit, taking cars off clogged area roads and developing a neighborhood where now there is nothing but weeds.
Station Center is part of the first stage of the plan. Bordered by a park and market-rate townhomes, with the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) commuter train and overflow parking nearby, there wasn’t much else when the architects assessed the site. “It’s a challenge to be the first thing in the neighborhood,” says project architect Daniel Simons. “In some ways, the rest of the neighborhood is going to conform to what you’ve done. There’s no context, so we’re providing it.”
The necessary programmatic elements of Station Center Family Housing helped inform the design. Outdoor decks were created as private outdoor space for residents, community space was created for in-house services such as health assessments and after-school tutoring, and retail areas for future cafés, markets, and shops were included as a way of helping integrate the building with the future bustling neighborhood.
The overall look is also more urban, primarily because as Simons notes, “We had to build 157 units on 2 acres. That density drives a lot of the decisions,” such as its tight massing and 6-story height; it also meant that the architects built a parking garage that reaches the building’s full height, wrapped within the housing, which costs less and acts as a sound buffer against train noise.
Much of the actual design reflects the architects’ renowned aesthetic. Twenty-foot ceilings soar on the ground floor, where residents gather for meetings and where a café will one day host residents and passersby. Adjacent to an outdoor pool is a capacious outdoor courtyard, with planting beds full of produce tended by residents and whimsical concrete gorillas on which kids clamber. Ample windows let sunshine flow into living spaces, and sustainable elements also abound, contributing to the project’s platinum LEED rating, including exterior sunshades and rooftop solar panels for hot water and energy, as well as rainwater catchment for irrigation and low-VOC finishes in all the apartments—benefitting both residents and the environment alike.
Indeed, the mutual benefits of attractive affordable design are not to be understated, especially in the suburbs, where many people resist having low-income projects in their backyard. Creating affordable apartments that encourage community building and foster a sense of place, paired with an appealing aesthetic, can provide anchors as well as seeds for change in any suburban community. Station Center’s nonprofit developer, MidPen Housing, aims to create housing that “makes residents proud, revitalizes [communities], wins awards, and makes great neighbors.” MidPen was established in 1970 by a coalition of community leaders, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and UC Berkeley and Stanford faculty concerned about the lack of affordable housing in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“We try to make buildings that are bold statements, and that are proud to be affordable housing,” Simons says. “We think that they should be iconic in their communities, and that people should look at them and say, “Wow, that’s an amazing building and it happens to be affordable housing.”