Yes, In Your Backyard

August 2008

When the new Midnight Mission homeless center opened a year ago in the heart of skid row, a flurry of media coverage suggested that the building was, well, just too attractive. The Christian Science Monitor reported that the $17-million center, designed by the local firm Gin Wong Associates, looked like “a new museum or corporate headquarters.” National Public Radio called it “the rock star of the local shelters” and sent a reporter to spend the night – to check the thread count, as it were.

Such stories seem unlikely to reappear as the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors begins to implement a new $100-million homeless plan, passed last week with considerable fanfare. (Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky called it “absolutely historic.”) The package calls for a new center for homeless families downtown plus five new regional homeless centers spread across the county.

In the most likely scenario, officials will choose five building from a list of 14 existing drop-in centers, which now operate only during the day, and expand them into overnight facilities with 30 to 40 beds and a broader array of services. The budget for those conversions is a rather meager $1.4 million per building. Nobody, in other words, is going to complain that the new centers are overly posh, and none will be showing up on the cover of a glossy design magazine.

Still, now that the measure has been approved, the story is no longer simply a political one; in a number of crucial aspects, it has become architectural as well. In fact, without unusually creative and cost-effective design, the regional centers will be remembered as historic for all the wrong reasons. Like the disappointing Los Angeles Unified School District building campaign or the forthcoming civic park downtown, which Eli Broad promises will become our Champ Elysées despite a Pico Boulevard budget, the measure could wind up as the latest example of L.A.’s unfortunate tendency to put more hype than money or planning behind high-stakes public projects.

Already, the measure has attracted significant opposition. In a sort of NIMBYist preemptive strike, the mayor of West Covina, Steve Herfert, told The Times last week that he’d oppose any effort to expand the West Covina Access Center, which sits next to a Bank of the West on a nondescript commercial strip, into an overnight facility.

One reason the skid row quagmire has deepened over the years is that as more homeless people congregated – or were dumped – in the area, the easier it became to locate service centers there, avoiding the political headaches that accompany getting them approved elsewhere in the county. There were questions about the Midnight Mission’s price tag, that is to say, but none about its location.

That has begun to change in the last few months. A sharp irony of this story is that the same fears surfacing in West Covina are responsible for the urgency of this year’s push to move the homeless out of downtown. Echoing a national trend, as downtown L.A. becomes more residential, it is drawing empty-nesters and suburbanites to the city center. And, as the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas pointed out at a recent lecture in Los Angeles, the new downtown residents are bringing with them their suburban values, which include not only a taste for stainless-steel appliances and walk-in closets but also an aversion to visible signs of crime and poverty.

It’s no coincidence that as new residential projects have edged closer to skid row, the effort to clean up the area has gathered political momentum. The homeless now face NIMBY-ism not just where they’re going but where they are.

Even as the new regional centers deal with such anxieties, they will also have to present a welcoming and reassuring face to homeless men, women and children. Many of the clients for these centers, after all, will be people picked up on the street – in Santa Monica, or Glendale, or Pasadena – by local police, who now have few places to take them except skid row. By law, officers won’t be able to compel them to stay the night in the new centers. These aren’t jails.

Their architecture will have to signal a kind of openness that would seem at odds with the way Mayor Herfert would seem to want them to appear, which is to say either invisible or locked down. That may sound like an impossible challenge for architects. But as it turns out, Los Angeles is home to some of the best-designed homeless centers in the country, and their architecture suggests that a few basic design choices could go a long way toward helping the regional centers succeed.

The PATH, or People Assisting the Homeless, facility in the shadow of the Hollywood Freeway, designed on a very tight budget by Jeffrey M. Kalban & Associates and completed four years ago, is a case in point. A converted industrial building, it has a bright color scheme and extensive signage – in part to increase its visibility to drivers who pass it every day but also to make it more of a neighborhood beacon than an eyesore. Kalban has designed a new three-story, 20-unit transitional housing facility for PATH in Inglewood, due to break ground this fall, that stresses openness and visibility in much the same way.

That effort goes hand in hand with PATH’s strategy, every time it opens a new facility, to convince neighbors that its presence will make the area better and safer. Joel John Roberts, PATH’s executive director, says that in the case of the facility near the Hollywood Freeway, he lobbied the city to repave surrounding streets and has allowed police to use the building’s security cameras and its rooftop for surveillance.

According to Sam Davis, a San Francisco architect and the author of “Designing for the Homeless: Architecture That Works,” good design is among the most effective antidotes to NIMBYism. He suggests buildings homeless centers that look brightly optimistic and meticulously clean, rather than cloaked or institutional, and that provide courtyards, alleys or other space for people to line up for services or smoke a cigarette, so they don’t loiter out front. Indeed, when county officials are selecting sites for the five regional centers, they should give preference to those buildings that already include such areas. There’s probably not room in the budget, after all, to create them from scratch.

Davis adds that county officials should be thinking about ways to compensate the neighborhoods that accept the new centers. That could mean deeding county land elsewhere in the host city for a new park, or centering a new community policing effort in or near the center, to diminish fears of lawlessness.

The key for the L.A. County effort will be an integrated approach that from the outset ties together planning, architecture and community outreach. Officials should include architects and designers in the process of working with neighbors and local politicians to reassure them about the presence of facilities near their homes and businesses. And officials should make clear that the architecture of homeless centers has come a long way from armories and warehouses crowded with bunks, images of which still crowd the NIMBY imagination.

The homeless crisis also presents a measuring stick of sorts for L.A. architects. The resourcefulness that will be required to make the family building downtown and the regional centers works was once a hallmark of local firms that used low-budget jobs to build their reputations.

But the lure of glamorous cultural projects and high-end condos, which make up an increasing percentage of successful architects’ portfolios, has dulled those skills. And in recent years, many young firms here have revived the spare forms of Modernism in their residential designs while dispensing with the commitment to social housing that was once at the core of that architectural movement.

Architects don’t get to choose their commissions, of course. But it would be encouraging to see talented firms lining up to offer their services to the county. This is a case where smart architecture can save public money – and maybe help buildings serving the homeless shake off the stigma they still carry.

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