Green buildings grow on Skid Row

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Molly Peterson/KPCC

The original address of the New Carver apartments was on 17th street. City leaders worked with the Skid Row Housing Trust to put the residence for formerly homeless, disabled and elderly folks on Hope Street instead.

Near the Los Angeles Convention Center, a curved white building rises along the 10 freeway. The New Carver apartments will fill with disabled and recently homeless residents. The building's one of several green projects for people who live in and around downtown L.A.’s Skid Row. KPCC's Molly Peterson checked it out before the new tenants move in.

From above, it sort of looks like a machine gear. The radial points form efficiencies where close to a hundred people will live. The shape serves another purpose – it buffers against the noise of the freeway nearby.

The architecture firm behind this place is Michael Maltzan – acclaimed for high profile, high end projects like the Kidspace Children's Museum and the Hammer Museum/Billy Wilder Theater. The work here is inspiring to Theresa Hwang, a recent graduate of Harvard's architecture school. She finds an atmosphere at 17th and Hope Streets more common in expensive properties. "The fact that the courtyard opens up to the sky just makes you look up," Hwang enthuses. "It's about open, it's about air, it's an amazing view."

The New Carver apartments are a project of the Skid Row Housing Trust. Hwang works for the trust, funded by the Rose fellowship, itself funded by Enterprise Community Partners. That’s a Maryland-based nonprofit that develops low-income housing.

Enterprise's Katie Swenson says both groups value energy-efficient design for city dwellers at every income level. "We all pay the same amount per kilowatt," she says, "but it has a disproportionate effect on our monthly bills. So that when energy bills are high in the homes of low-income people it adds to the real cost of their housing in a dramatic way."

A light-colored roof reflects the sun's heat away from the building. Cross-ventilation naturally controls its internal temperature. Those and other features help the New Carver Apartments exceed state energy efficiency standards by 15 percent. Energy efficiency saves the housing trust operating costs in this building and others on Skid Row, including the Abbey Apartments, designed by KoeningEizenberg Architecture, opened 6 months ago.

The Abbey’s builders cut back toxic chemicals in its paint and flooring. Rainwater flows into catch basins; a massive tank on-site filters it. Bamboo planted on a roof will shade some rooms when it's grown.

Hwang says she used to regard a building's good looks as a bonus – suitable for Disney Hall, or a museum. "I just thought beauty – that's useless," she says. "But for the population that we're serving it really has a value to it because people really start to take pride in where they live, it becomes more than that beautiful box."

Inside those boxes are vulnerable people, and services to support them: substance abuse counseling, mental and physical medical care. Hwang says that walking through Skid Row and nearby neighborhoods is helping to change her view of urban landscapes. "There are these kind of in-between spaces between the actual neighborhoods that I think are places of interest in L.A. because it's like this blurring between different cultures, different attitudes, a lot to learn from the city. I'm excited!"

Hwang expects to learn from L.A. during her 3-year fellowship with the Skid Row Housing Trust. She says she hopes to pay back her lesson by creating something of value for some of the area's poorest residents.

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