Staying in San Francisco

A public-private partnership results in affordable LEED-certified condos

San Francisco’s Mission Bay neighborhood was created in 1998 by the city’s Board of Supervisors as a redevelopment project. It was subsequently transformed into an affluent area of luxury condos, high-end retail and biotechnology research and development.

In November 2009, a new dimension was added when the city celebrated the grand opening of Mission Walk, the first below-market-rate, for-sale homes in the neighborhood. Mission Walk is a development by Berry Street LLC—an affiliate of BRIDGE Housing Corporation—and the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency (SFRA).

“This workforce housing is for folks who earn too much to qualify for low-income housing but not enough to buy market-rate housing in San Francisco,” says Richard Stacy, FAIA, principal at Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects (LMSA), the prime architect for Mission Walk. “Our housing costs are so high here that the city’s teachers, nurses [and] law enforcement wind up moving way out into the suburbs because they can’t afford to live in San Francisco. Yet they have jobs, and they’re not particularly low-income. It’s a segment of the population that seems to be under-served. Politically, that’s been in discussion here for a while and that’s why this [SFRA Limited Equity Program] exists.”

Mission Walk provides 131 condominiums and townhouses (25 one-bedrooms, 82 two-bedrooms and 24 three-bedrooms) in two five-story buildings. The development was designed to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certifiable levels. The homes are priced to be affordable for households that earn 80 to 100 percent of the 2008 area median income (up to $94,300 for a family of four). Sales prices range from $159,000 to $303,000, in a neighborhood where market-rate condos are priced from $500,000 and up.

According to Kim Nash, project manager, BRIDGE, through a master development agreement for the Mission Bay neighborhood, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency (SFRA) had control of the two parcels that became Mission Walk. Berry Street LLC responded to an RFQ from the SFRA, which contributed the land at no cost and funded predevelopment, as well as provided $35 million of construction costs. The SFRA funding will remain in the project as subordinate fourth mortgages to the homebuyers, says Nash. Berry Street LLC was responsible for managing all day-to-day pre-construction and construction activities, as well as unit sales.

“Most of our development projects involve some form of public-private partnership,” says Nash. “The public role may include providing land or subsidy funds to make a project viable. There is also always a public approval process for design reviews and permit approvals. And the primary financing vehicles for many of our rental projects, the low-income housing tax credit and tax exempt bonds, involve applying public resources to create affordable housing opportunities.”

One of the biggest challenges, notes Nash, was bringing 131 units for first-time homebuyers into the market at a time when banks were tightening credit for home purchases and potential buyers were facing uncertainty about entering the market.  “When we started planning for Mission Walk in 2005, we expected to sell out all units through our initial lottery [very quickly],” she recalls. “What we have found is that we needed to conduct more active marketing and to spend more time with both the lenders and buyers to make sure they understand the program so that they can move forward comfortably with a purchase.”

According to Nash, BRIDGE is interested in providing quality affordable housing at all levels of the affordability spectrum. “We are open to future condominium projects in markets where there is demand for condo product. In most ways, development of a rental project and a condominium project are very similar. The differences come in the financing sources available and with the end-users.  Many of the lessons learned are about working with the redevelopment agency, monitoring construction as it progresses and working with neighbors.”

Blending in with market-rate

Mission Walk is situated on two sites on either side of Berry Street, which is the new main street of Mission Bay North. The urban context is reinforced by its proximity to a freeway ramp, across from which are train yards for San Francisco’s commuter lines. The south side of the site fronts the historic Mission Creek and a new park being developed as part of the master plan for the neighborhood.

“This is publicly funded housing, so our charge was to have the buildings look no different from any market-rate developments around them. But we certainly couldn’t be extravagant,” says Stacy, whose team selected fiber cement board and stucco for the project. However, unlike other neighboring market-rate developments, BRIDGE wanted as many units on the creek as possible, and the agency encouraged the architects to open up the courtyard in the south building to Mission Creek and the pedestrian promenade, thereby giving all the units a view of the creek.

“BRIDGE has high standards,” adds Stacy. “They expect decent closet space and rooms that can be furnished well. A lot of attention goes to that.” Stacy notes that his firm designed a market-rate condominium development down the street, and the units are comparable in terms of size. At Mission Walk, there are no fancy finishes—no granite in the bathroom. But through creative purchasing, the project team was able to score Caesarstone for the counters. By using a discontinued color, the architect got a good deal and was able to incorporate this upgrade (which also helped fulfill requirements for sustainable materials) at no additional cost.

“The best compliment we’ve had on our affordable projects is when people tell us they had no idea it wasn’t market-rate,” says Stacy. One of the challenges of multi-housing, he adds, is avoiding a cookie-cutter pattern on the exterior that looks institutional. For Mission Walk, Stacy and his team incorporated bay windows and balconies in a random pattern. “We plugged them into various locations to create more variety. So even though there had to be some regularity to the building for budget reasons, we avoided repetition as much as possible.”

Another exterior design strategy was the careful placement of color. “The agency encouraged us to be colorful so we took advantage of that,” explains Stacy. “We proposed a neutral scheme for the body with intense color at accent points. Where the lobbies are, for example, there’s a strong blue color and then where all the recesses are in the balcony, we alternated an intense yellow and orange to play off the neutral, basic box.”

Mission Walk is on track to receive LEED Silver certification. The paperwork has been submitted, and the project team is waiting to hear back from the United States Green Building Council.

Does it cost more to go for LEED? The associated architect did charge a fee to coordinate the LEED documentation. “There’s also the commissioning cost, which is always the biggest hurdle,” says Stacy. “A commissioning agent had to be hired, but in terms of our design costs, there was no impact. We didn’t design it any differently—we believe in doing sustainable design whether it’s LEED or not. Other than the photovoltaic system on the roof, the rest is just good building practices, such as observing water conservation and indoor air quality guidelines—and, in California, a lot of that is mandated by the state anyway,” says Stacy, pointing out, “You’re halfway there just by following the state’s requirements.”

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