Local Art Helps Multifamily Differentiate Itself in the Marketplace

What makes an apartment community feel like home to potential tenants?

What makes an apartment community feel like home to potential tenants? Art and graphics can add interest to otherwise blank walls in common areas. Installing artwork that comes from local artists can go even further to enliven spaces and root a development in its specific community.

About seven years ago, AvalonBay Communities asked me to select art for the second phase of a new 313-unit apartment community in the city, Avalon at Mission Bay North, as part of our overall interior design of the public amenity and circulation areas. The head of AvalonBay’s residential services had just happened to visit Creativity Explored (www.creativityexplored.org), a San Francisco nonprofit visual arts center that helps artists with developmental disabilities create, exhibit, and sell their art. He recommended that the project’s development director, Meg Spriggs, and I visit the organization. The artwork was perfect—it was diverse and of high quality, it was colorful, and it expressed the idiosyncratic character of San Francisco.

Subsequently, AvalonBay Communities commissioned 27 artists from Creativity Explored to create 95 pieces of artwork for installation in the public spaces at the new residential community, which opened in 2006. In the lobby connecting the buildings, Tom Eliot Fisch designed an armature for a rotating art exhibit; each quarter, a different subset of the collection is installed. Other amenity spaces, such as lobbies, vestibules, elevator alcoves, and corridors, feature permanent art from the collection.

Since then, Creativity Explored has been providing art for multifamily developments all over the Bay Area. For the public spaces of the 260-unit third phase, Avalon at Mission Bay III, which opened in 2009, AvalonBay took a more targeted approach in response to the challenging economy, commissioning 15 works of art from several Creativity Explored artists for placement in the highest-profile public spaces.

Some of these works focus on the theme of sustainable transportation, a topic that’s particularly popular among San Francisco residents; this strategy highlights the development’s advantageous location across from the San Francisco Caltrain Station and a Muni light rail stop. Supergraphics enliven the walls of the less prominent common areas, also designed to reflect the character of the city and appeal to the target tenant base of young professionals.

Depending on the budget, art selection can be done in a number of ways. For Avalon at Mission Bay North, I served as curator, working with the artists and their mentors as they created their commissioned pieces and determining where they would be located. Local nonprofit affordable housing developers such as Bridge Housing and Mercy Housing  have also incorporated artwork from Creativity Explored in their communities. In those cases, with a more limited budget, the interior designer selected artwork from the organization’s existing portfolio.

Although using works from a diverse array of artists is valuable in adding variety, sometimes it makes sense to choose works from just one artist. David Baker + Partners Architects chose to go this route, selecting paintings by the Creativity Explored artist Evelyn Reyes for the recently completed Drs. Julian and Raye Richardson Apartments in San Francisco. Reyes exclusively makes series; the Richardson Apartments contains a number of her “Carrot” paintings, concentrated in the community room areas. The five-story building provides permanent supportive housing for a very-low-income, formerly homeless population. Just as its design responds to the existing fabric of the neighborhood by varying colors, materials and heights on its facade, creating a non-institutional image, the art helps personalize the building and give it a more intimate, residential character. Reyes’ restrained, abstracted shapes meld well with the clean modernism of the design.

Partnering with local arts organizations lends distinctiveness and connectedness to a community. For owners/investors of multifamily housing, one of the biggest challenges in the development of new communities is how to retain the advantages of new construction—which tenants and buyers like in general—without making residents feel that they are in a generic cookie-cutter building, or that they are paying rent to an abstract corporation that has not really invested in the place that residents will call home. Installing art from an organization such as Creativity Explored and even partnering with such an organization over the long term creates a positive image in the minds of prospective renters/buyers and helps these properties stand out in the marketplace.

Amy Eliot, AIA, is a principal of Tom Eliot Fisch in San Francisco and immediate past-president of the Creativity Explored board of directors.

Photo Credit: Bruce Damonte courtesy David Baker + Partners Architects.