Location: San Francisco, California. Low and Moderate Income Neighborhood
Britton Courts is a 92-unit project offering housing to low-income residents. It replaces Geneva Towers, which was once considered to be one of San Francisco's most troubled public housing projects. The project integrates low-income, mostly African-American former public housing residents into the mixed-income and racially mixed neighborhood from which they were formerly isolated. Britton Courts is an outstanding model for well designed, safe, low- and moderate- income housing. Pedestrian-oriented streets link to the surrounding thoroughfares, and human-scaled, secure eight-plexes border shared courtyards.
Originally built as high-rise housing for airport workers, Geneva Towers later deteriorated largely due to the strains of poverty and poor design. When the project was demolished in 1998, Britton Courts was built to relieve the area’s new need for low-income housing. The new development establishes a series of human-scaled streets which are physically and socially woven into the surrounding area’s fabric.
Juror Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk calls this project, “An achievement deserving recognition for its success both for the quality of architecture and street design, and for its social ambition to reunite a community severed by its predecessor.”
The worst deficiencies of the high-rise housing this project replaces were not the buildings, but the undifferentiated and unsupervised spaces around them that became a locus for crime and drug dealing. In Britton Courts, all open space takes the form of secured courtyards, private gardens or public streets with the surveillance of units and many entrances along them. The only completely public spaces are the neighborhood streets lined with windowed homes and doorways. They are consistently defined by buildings and are safe and pleasant places. The street grid has been extended through the project, and these public thoroughfares are overseen by a series of dwelling clusters that house multiple families and share common courtyards. The courts are gated and provide access from parking to units through common open space. One courtyard contains a daycare facility used by the neighborhood at large and a community meeting room.
The design of the project integrates homes into the surrounding street grid and allows residents to walk to local services, churches and retail. Initially, residents to the north objected to the connection of their streets to the project, both because they wanted no through traffic and because they feared the former public housing residents. The final site design was agreed to through many community meetings. It provides the extension of streets through the project, but allows automobile access only from a major street on the south. The northern boundary of the development is permeable visually and to pedestrians, but not to through traffic.
The contextual neighborhood architecture consists of 1940s speculative houses of mixed and undistinguishable ancestry. Britton Courts matches the scale of these buildings at approximately twice their density, but makes no attempt to mimic them stylistically. Instead, bay windowed facades, simple materials and vertical proportions of the dwellings are related to the traditions of San Francisco row houses. The challenges were to build very inexpensively in a way that would link these denser buildings to the surroundings, and to give dignified expression to the new dwellings that would make them places of pride for their residents.
Project: Britton Courts, San Francisco, California
Site: A 3.67 acre parcel of land in an area of southern San Francisco where residents tend to be low-income. A high-rise public housing tower was demolished near the site in 1998.
Program: A livable, walkable, mixed-income neighborhood replaces a high-rise housing project. The resulting infill project provides 92 units of for-rent affordable housing. Eight-plex buildings surround protected courtyards, and formerly isolated streets are reintegrated into the neighborhood. The project was completed in 1999.
Transect Zone(s): T3 sub-urban, SD district.
Project or Plan's Scale: Neighborhood
Land area (in acres): 3
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Project team designers: Solomon E.T.C., Michael Willis & Associates Architects
Project team developers: Housing Conservation & Development Corporation
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Starting/Ending date of construction/implementation: -