Seniors affordable housing project wins unique design award

LOS ANGELES: An affordable housing project for seniors has taken social and supported housing design to a new level.

Snuggled into a tight lot next to one of San Francisco’s historic passageways is an affordable senior housing community utilizing every inch of space

But despite its compact footprint, the community — called Casa de la Mision — is environmentally efficient and pays homage to the rich history that surrounds it.

That is exemplified in the way the property’s designers with HKIT Architects worked to incorporate it into the fabric of the city’s historic Mission District. For example, the community pays homage to nearby thoroughfare Balmy Alley and its renowned murals, according to HKIT Principal Paul McElwee.

“The building that was there previously had murals on it,” he told Senior Housing News.

HKIT, along with collaborators Y.A. Studio and Roberts-Obayashi Corp., incorporated some of the murals previously on the building while adding some new ones to the mosaic.

On the inside of the community, 45 units of affordable senior housing are operated by Mercy Housing CA, the nation’s largest nonprofit affordable housing developer.

The journey from concept to completion had its fair share of challenges — such as a “Tetris-like” urban construction process. But in the endCasa de la Mision triumphed and earned the top spot in the most recent Senior Housing News Architecture and Design Awards’ Best Affordable Senior Housing category.

The Concept

The site where the affordable senior housing community stands today has been home to a variety of purposes. Mercy Housing first bought the site in 2019 with the intention of creating much-needed affordable housing for older adults.

The project team, which included HKIT Architects, ran into some early challenges with the location — namely a tight footprint to work within. Another initial challenge was getting the buy-in of the local community, which was skeptical of new development in the area.

“The neighbors were very direct with us in saying they did not want another loft made of all glass and steel,” McElwee said. “Folks in the Mission are really triggered by that, given the history in the last few decades,” he said, referring to the rise of high-end luxury housing and retail in the area despite the neighborhood’s working-class roots.

The design team first tackled that challenge by figuring out how to get that many units into the site while also accommodating space for support offices, community space and a small retail element out front.

“It was a tall order,” McElwee said.

As a result, Casa de la Mision was designed in an L-shape for a footprint just over 28,000 square feet.

It was important to the project’s designers that the community pay homage to the Mission District, both its status as a historic neighborhood and its more modern reputation for being a hub for art, shopping and dining.

The site is located in the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District of San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood, and the project planners sought to reflect that in the design with motifs including motifs inspired by Mexican paper cut-outs. The design also includes shimmering tiles lining the building’s base.

The team also designed the building with elements like traditional San Francisco bay windows seen in the iconic architecture of homes in the area. Some of the windows have sunshades to regulate temperature and provide residents with an element of privacy on the side of the building that faces the main thoroughfare.

“Some of the imagery and iconographic choices we made in the building were drawn from the Mission – not so much a historic recreation, but what’s in the Mission now,” McElwee said.

The Construction

At slightly more than one-tenth of an acre, the land parcel on which Casa de la Misión is built is small. And while the small footprint created tight design parameters for the team, it created an even bigger challenge for building the community.

“It was a real Tetris-like exercise trying to fit all of these things into a compact footprint,” McElwee said. “There was hardly a place to stage.”

And the age and compact fit of the plot made building an exercise in city planning because once the contractors broke ground, they found “a ton of pipes and things that come off the old houses that weren’t on record and they crossed the property line,” McElwee said.

In addition to the tight footprint, the existing building was covered in graffiti, which had to be cleaned up.

“The building got completed and then it got completely tagged all over the floor like you’ve never seen before,” McElwee said. “That was just another week of cleaning.”

Graffiti wasn’t the only issue, McElwee said there was also some theft on the construction site.

So, the contractor, Roberts-Obayashi Corp.​, ended up renting the basement of an adjacent house to set up shop and run the operation.

HKIT kept the building below 60 feet in height, which is the size at which builders in the state of California need to have an on-site elevator hoist, a design and construction strategy that saved about $1 million, according to McElwee.

The Completion

Today, Casa de la Mision stands as a testament to careful planning and local community input.

That shines through in a particular 3-D mural on the building’s western side. The mural, called The Five Sacred Colors of Corn, was recreated by Precita Eyes Muralists Association, a San Francisco-based non-profit.

It pays homage to the connection between people and nature and acts as a “gateway” to Balmy Alley.

On the ground floor of the community are two retail spaces that face the main street. It also includes a common space that includes a kitchen and seating area where Mercy Housing offers on-site education and referrals to community-based programs.

Atop the building, a garden terrace includes potted native plants and views of the hills of California’s Bay Area. The second and third floors house 45 units with a mix of studio and one-bedroom options available to seniors in need of affordable housing.

Merlino Design Partnership President Bruce Hurowitz noted how well the building is integrated into the community and called the interiors vibrant and enticing.

“It’s not just an affordable apartment, Mercy also has an on-site services provider which means there are social services, activities, and events for the residents,” McElwee said.

McElwee’s biggest source of pride on this project came in the days following construction when a woman in a stroller walked past. He heard the woman comment on how well the building fit in, and he said they would now have known he was involved with the project.

“For us to build a building that they’re happy with and fits into the neighborhood, I think that is mission accomplished.