David Baker Architects

BLUE STAR CORNER

New Urban Mews PDF IconDbp-12'07-urban-land-bsc


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William P. Macht
Urban Land
November/December 2007

Private garages provide embedded parking spaces for 20 of the tall, modem rowhouses. Custom garage doors, each with a unique pattern of translucent glass and solid metal panels, create a varied facade on the auto court.

    Developing densities that are high enough to pay for expensive urban land is a challenge for developers, particularly for projects on small urban infill sites. Maintaining plentiful light, air, and open space on these sites is still more difficult. In addition, provision of private parking garages with enough spaces can complicate design and economic problems. These challenges were met at the Blue Star Corner project in Erneryville, in the San Francisco Bay Area, through the integration of the design of an English mews with the Dutch model for tall, narrow, modern rowhouses. The design achieves a density of units per acre (109 units per ha) while preserving over 27 percent of the property as open space.
    Emeryville-based Holliday Developrnent LLC had acquired a half-acre (0.2-ha), flat, 222-foot- (68-rn-) long by 99-foot- (3o-rn-) wide parcel when the company redeveloped the 220,000-square-foot (20,400-sq-rn), four-story concrete furniture factory next door into the 141-unit Emeryville Warehouse Lofts. The factory project pioneered flexible spaces that were partially divided by double-sided casework cabinetry and shelflike bonus living spaces. Building on the site to its east the solid four-story podium project that had previously received the city’s study session approval would have blocked the views, light, and air of 30 of the adjoining loft units.
    Coincidentally, previous projects of Rick Holliday and Kevin Wakelin, two of the developrnent principals, along with San Francisco architect David Baker had come to the attention of Dutch developers, led by De Principaal and the De Lijn Office for Urban Development. The firms invited the trio to tour the islands of Java and Borneo Sporenberg in Arnsterdam, which had been revitalized by the construction of rnore 18,000 housing units on land reclaimed from shipyards.     The tall, narrow rowhouses in Amsterdam, designed by many different architects, inspired the three to formulate a different solution for their half-acre site. Englishman Wakelin was familiar with the British concept of mews—narrow courtyards lined with buildings that were originally private stables and later remodeled as dwellings. Building four rows of tall, narrow townhouses separated by 24-foot- (7.3-rn-) wide rnews-type courtyards perpendicular to the Emeryville Warehouse Lofts would preserve light, air, and views for the lofts while creating intimate, semiprivate entry courtyards for the town houses.
    But that left the parking conundrum. The Erneryville city code requires one space per one-bedroom dwelling, 1.5 spaces per two-bedroom unit, and 0.25 of a guest parking space per dwelling, with no possibility provided for seeking a parking-reduction variance. The problem was partially solved by building two narrow auto courtyards, aLong with using the existing Sherwin Avenue, to allow access to private garages that provide one embedded parking space in i6 of the townhouses and two side-by- side spaces in the four largest units.
    But even with 24 spaces, Blue Star Corner was still short three spaces. In response, project architect Kevin Wilcock, a principal at David Baker & Partners, moved the entire site program to the north, shortened the buildings and the mews—each by one foot (0.3 m)— and added three parallel parking spaces along the border landscaping at the foot of the warehouse concrete wall. After careful inspection of the city’s planning code, Wilcock then discovered that one space could be exchanged for six bicycle stalls, which the developer built along with a wood slat—clad mailbox structure at the entry of one auto court.
The urban infill site is divided into four rows of tall, narrow townhouses separated by mews-type courtyards to preserve light, air, and views for an adjacent loft building while creating semiprivate entry areas for the townhouses. The three- and four-level townhouses are mixed and recessed, and projecting bays vary the depth of the buildings. A sliver park separates the loft building from the urban mews, providing both green open space and a passage for pedestrians.

    While creation of the two auto courts resolved the intrusion of internal garage facades, placement of garages on Sherwin Avenue challenged the pedestrian scale of the street. The solution entailed designing custom glass-and-metal garage doors, each with a unique pattem of translucent glass panels and solid metal panels. In addition, the sides of the entry to each garage were landscaped with low-lying grasses and trees were planted between each driveway curb cut to extend the rhythm of the existing trees along the warehouse streetscape. Between each townhouse, stainless-steel cable trellises extend 20 feet (6.1 rn) high to hold vines, creating walls filled with greenery.
    The parking solution left most of the rowhouses only 15 feet (4.6 rn) wide, except for four larger units that were 24 feet (y. rn) wide and 30 feet (9.1 m) deep. To preserve views from the Warehouse Lofts, the architects placed 33-foot- (iom-) tall, three-level townhouses adjacent to the warehouse, and 38- foot (12-rn), four-level townhouses farther away. Each end unit adjacent to the warehouse was oriented to the rnews in front and the auto court at back rather than directly into the windows of the existing lofts. Simple pop-outs were created to provide oblique views down courtyards instead of directly into the homes of the opposite units. Each rowhouse is personalized with its own address, facade, mix of materials, patio, and garage.
    Next to each unit entry is a room intended to maximize flexibility. A half bath serves what is intended to be an office and guest bedroom. A wall bed in a shelving system and a fold-down or rolling desk maximize the space. Sliding glass doors lead to a patio on the courtyard mews.
    On the second floor, an under- counter refrigerator and an under- counter freezer replace typical big-box refrigerators in the small urban kitchen. “There’s nothing like convincing your market with something new and innovative when they’re also free Sub-Zeros,” says Wakelin.
    This move freed up more counter workspace, created clean uninterrupted countertop lines visible from the open-plan kitchen, and made appliances look built in rather than intrusive for the living space. A dining table is attached to a shelving system between the kitchen and the living room. Inside a kitchen cabinet is a charging station for cellphones and cameras and a built-in iPod music docking station that connects to wireless speakers throughout the house. Inside each garage is a dog washing station that offers both hot and cold water faucets and a flip- down workstation with outlets and data jacks above and pegboard to the side.
    To gain area within the townhouses, mezzanines—code restricted to one-third of the net area below—are built within two- story living rooms. Holliday had discovered during marketing and move-in at the loft project that tall ceilings above bathrooms were disquieting to buyers, so he covered them with eight-foot (2.4-m) ceilings, above which is storage space. To create a similar storage platform for the mezzanine in the rowhouses, the kitchen ceiling is three feet (0.9 m) higher than the dining area ceiling, creating a three- foot-high platform on the upper portion of the mezzanine. Rather than design the space for storage alone, the developer added a window, recessed lighting, and cushions so residents can use the platform as a reading nook, an entertainment pod, or bonus space.
Two-story living rooms with mezzanines enlarge the spaciousness of the units. The kitchens receive light both from a clerestory window and a glass door to a small balcony over the auto court.

    Tall, narrow rowhouses require many stairs that could appear foreboding— a problem avoided at Blue Star Comer through use of a variety of stair plans that ensure one never sees past the current run. A straight- run stair leads from the entry door to the second- floor living room, punctuating the space with a metal handrail with clear glass inserts to maximize porosity. A short double-back stair leads up to the mezzanine, creating space for a large closet and a nook to the side of the half landing under which is installed a built-in kitchen oven, relieving under-counter storage space. Another short double-back stair that continues up to the fourth-level bedroom suite uses open Douglas fir treads and metal stringers. A skylight atop each stair tower floods the staircase with natural light.
    Blue Star Corner’s 20 three- and four-level townhouses range in size from 1,300 to 1,700 square feet (120 to i6o sq m) and are priced from $600,000 to $900,000. Despite use of expensive materials both inside and out—including Italian Bisazza glass mosaic tiles, CeasarStone counters, Sub-Zero under-counter refrigerators and freezers, and Ann Sacks tiled Japanese soaking tubs— the cost of production has been comparable to that of other Bay Area market-rate projects of similar size and scale with traditional specifications, finishes, and materials. The all-inclusive hard costs are about $230 per gross square foot ($2,475 per sq m) despite skyrocketing construction costs due to energy, labor, and materials increases, which contributed to cost overruns and delays, necessitating refinancing.
    The project was one of nine California projects chosen to be part of the U.S. Green Building Council’s national pilot program for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Homes certification. The decision to use sustainable elements—including bamboo flooring, low-flow plumbing fixtures, Energy Star appliances, fly ash content in concrete boosted from 15 to 30 percent, extra insulation, landscaping that requires minimal watering—added less than $33,000 to the entire $12 million project.
    “There’s absolutely no reason not to go green,” Wakelin maintains. “Despite the macroeconomics, capital markets, commodity pricing, labor rates, and market forces that directly impacted the project that can’t be controlled by any individual, reasonable costs were achieved by working with a local family-owned builder, managing the process and procurement securing specifications in-house, and being a hands-on developer.” As urban infill developers seek increase density without losing kind of amenities many potential buyers expect in less dense residential areas, they can look to Star Comer to see the marriage of English mews with tall modem Dutch rowhouses adapted to American predilections. Emeryville city manager Patrick O’Keeffe Blue Star Corner a “good, creative use of space that is consistent the city’s general plan for redevelopment: urban infill, dense (without feeling that way), and green.”