901 Fairfax sits on a hillside above the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in one of the city’s most rapidly changing and historically under-served neighborhoods. The development was funded by the HOPE SF project, a $2 billion initiative to create more than 4,600 new homes in southeast San Francisco. The design team identified innovative and creative approaches to a site with challenging topography, while meeting the client’s goal of achieving design efficiency to contain costs for this publicly funded project. 

A critical centerpiece of the rebuilt neighborhood, these two blocks contain 72 affordable homes, a community center, and childcare facility, with sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay. Pedestrian bridges connect floors of the housing and glass doors open out onto community courtyard space.

With a shared value to improve the quality of life for its residents, the design team saw the end users as the ultimate client. The design and development team undertook extensive outreach efforts to gain the trust of the local community. Early meetings with long-time Hunters View residents focused on identifying their hopes and concerns. The community was skeptical, having experienced broken promises in the past.

Residents expressed the desire for connection and the need for improved security. To address the need for connection, the design team focused on creating accessible and welcoming spaces that foster interaction between neighbours. The plazas and courtyards are designed to be secure and entirely visible from the street or from the nearby residences. Outdoor play areas were created within the housing block to build community and allow residents to become caretakers of their own environment.

The plaza outside the community center and childcare facility entrances serves as a fulcrum between the two disparate programs. The space is welcoming and inviting, and residents are encouraged to linger after they attend an event or drop off their child at daycare. The guitar pick shaped bench is made of steel and local reclaimed Deodar cedar and encircles a group of birch trees in the center of the plaza. The bench appears to ‘float’ above the concrete below. Several other benches with the same design language are situated throughout the space, each offering a slightly different vantage and user experience. 

As you progress from the public plaza, you enter the semi-public childcare and community center courtyards. The sinuous, guitar pick shapes in the floating bench are echoed in the sand boxes and play surfacing for the nonprofit childcare facility that sits at the heart of the project. About 70 children receive affordable care and a safe place to play at this new facility. 

Through valuable community input, certain amenities were identified for the community center courtyard. Residents voiced a desire for an outdoor space for barbecues and parties. The design team responded by creating a flexible community center space, where the doors to the multi-purpose room open wide and tables and chairs can be moved outdoors. The team included a custom concrete countertop with room for a barbeque and long enough to serve for a crowd of people. The large stair leads to the courtyard on Level Two and doubles as a podium and stage for speakers or small performances.

As you move to the podium courtyard, which is reserved exclusively for residents, the cool shade of the lower level becomes a sunny, wild hillside landscape. The landscape architects wanted users to feel they were immersed in an abundant garden, surrounded by drought-tolerant and resilient species that tolerate the serpentine hillside. Salvaged historic San Francisco granite curbs serving as low walls and casual seating further link this project to its site. 

The most striking feature of the design is a central oculus lightwell that brings sunlight down to the wellness center on the first floor. The courtyard and Oculus are also visible from the residential units and pedestrian bridges above. Early in the design process, the landscape architects proposed that the architects incorporate the same guitar pick shape used in the landscape into the shape for their lightwell. The resulting guardrail design was a collaboration that celebrated this repeated form and set up a dialogue between the interior and the exterior. The sinuous shape repeats the common design thread that ties together the series of wooden benches milled from local cedar trees and raised concrete planters. Depending on the time of day, you will find kids riding their bikes around the oculus and raised planter, or a resident enjoying a quiet moment on the hillside curbstone seats. Says one relocated resident, who shares a three-bedroom apartment with her husband and three grandchildren, “We are just across the street, but it’s totally different. It’s so relaxing, so peaceful. It’s not so stressful.”

Architecture offices involved in the design: Paulett Taggart Architects and David Baker Architects

Project location: 901 Fairfax Ave, San Francisco, CA 94124

Design year: 2014-2016

Year Built: 2017


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