The best thing about the complex, though, may be the tone that it sets. As this stretch of the South of Market neighborhood adds housing units to a mix that already ranges from blue-collar firms to Sixth Street's skid row, SOMA Studios says that a civil community landscape can emerge.
That belief isn't reflected in the architecture of the lofts and condominiums that sprang up in the district in the late 1990s. Judging by appearances, most view their surroundings as hostile territory.
You see this in the lofts that are SOMA Studios' counterpart on the east corner of the block. The upper floors of the complex designed by Sternberg Benjamin Architects has a sharp industrial look emphasized by the corrugated steel framing the large bay windows. But the bottom 12 feet are deadly: walls painted a stark gray, with a metallic mesh protecting the windows. The security gates to three ground-floor units are so dense you can barely see through them. The only relief comes around the corner on Seventh Street, where the lobby has a glass wall framed by yellow tile.
There's no denying the corner at Seventh and Howard streets is rough. The dark paint along the sidewalk is a recent response to persistent graffiti, and architect Mitchell Benjamin told me this week that the developer added the grating to the windows after several break-ins. When I walked by on Monday, a drunk was passed out against one young street tree.
All that said, the lofts at Seventh and Howard—like so many of their counterparts—send a message to the neighborhood. And that message is: Stay back.
But an approach like this only makes things worse. Sidewalks lined with blank walls are sidewalks where you'd rather not be.
Down the block, by contrast, colorful banners announce the presence of Urban Harvest Market and there are tables on the sidewalk outside the cafe. The plate-glass windows offer great views of organic corn and other produce. You always see people inside.
And that's just gravy on the main job at hand: providing shelter to people who couldn't necessarily afford decent housing on their own. There are 300 residents, including 22 families in three-bedroom apartments. The tenants can grab coffee or take sweets back to their private plazas set atop the retail podium and a 66-car garage for tenants tucked behind it.
The reason that SOMA Studios and Apartments works so well isn't that it has a worthy purpose. It's that there was a spirited desire to make the corner come alive—from the striking steel-and-glass entryway designed by local metalworker Larissa Sands to that infectiously exuberant mural by Jane Martin.
"It's not the vision I have for all of San Francisco, certainly," laughs Martin, founder of Shift Design Studio. "But so much of the surrounding area is dingy that we wanted to add a fresh bright spot. It's an effort to give something back to the streetscape."
The effort paid off. If the neighborhood is lucky, other developments will follow suit.