Innovative design for California infill
Although new urbanists are sometimes criticized for taking a retro approach to architectural style, they have been consistently innovative in their approach to building typology. One example is the hybrid courtyard units in a tightly packed, mixed-use downtown extension to Livermore, California.
For a project of developer Anderson Pacific LLC, Opticos Design of Berkeley produced a design made up about 300 residential units and 6,000 sq. ft. each of retail and artist space. The development contains a wide variety of townhouses, live-work units, and courtyard types — 17 different kinds of units on 5.5 acres. The live-work units’ ground-floor flex space can be used for office or retail. The second and third floors integrate two- and three-bedroom townhouses.
“As many units have access to courtyards as possible — 60 percent of the total — from one-bedroom flats to three-bedroom townhouses,” says Dan Parolek, principal of Opticos. “That’s not at the expense of the street addresses. There are entrances and stoops on the street. The primary goal is to design street address. But with higher density units, they can’t all have street address. So instead of entrances off of bad corridors, you get them off of the courtyard.”
Livermore Village has been approved by the city and is in the process of financing. It is in the heart of downtown, adjacent to the Regional Performing Arts Center, one block from the multi-modal transit center and the Iron Horse Trail, a few blocks from City Hall, and a seven-minute drive to wineries. The project, which integrates an existing superblock into the street grid, won a Livable Cities award from the International Making Cities Livable Conference in 2007.
Livermore Village represents Opticos’s first design of buildings that combine the townhouse, live-work, and courtyard types. “We studied the work of Stefanos [Polyzoides] and courtyard types in general,” Parolek says. “The value is that it breaks the volume of the buildings down. … It is better for the character of the street, and the market will pay more for units with an entrance off a courtyard. There are social advantages as well.”
Parolek characterizes this method of building as “slightly more expensive. Because of that, we had the builder involved in the conversation early in the design. The builder was doing cost estimates as the plan evolved. We wanted to make sure that the cost was not going to stop the project from moving forward.”
The size and locations of buildings were chosen so as not to overwhelm their context. The four-story portion of the buildings — which satisfy the 55-foot height limit set by the city’s downtown plan — are sited around a linear park at the heart of Livermore Village. Toward the edges of the development, building height and massing are broken down. “As opposed to large, flat-faced, four-story buildings, these buildings are designed to appear smaller and in scale with Livermore’s existing buildings,” according to Opticos.
Livermore Village is expected to use mechanical parking. “That allowed us to meet parking requirements while lining all of the buildings with usable space,” says Parolek. “Park lifts are marginally more expensive than parking garages in California. They were first used in downtown Berkeley by developer Patrick Kennedy. Now any infill project in Berkeley of medium density or greater uses park lifts. You can save 50 percent, even more, in parking space. You get three cars in the footprint of one. It opens up a lot of opportunity from an urban design standpoint.”
Six thousand square feet — one floor of a building — is designated as “artist community space.” It is envisioned as a combination of studio, gallery, and classroom space. This space is basically a civic contribution on the part of the developers. “It will generate money but not enough to pay for itself,” says Parolek.
The central linear park, as the principal open space of the project, combines lawn with shaded benches, a sitting pavilion at one end, and public art at the other end. A paseo leading into the park is punctuated with benches, sitting walls, a courtyard, as well as being fronted by building entries, flex live/work unit entries, and galleries.
Thomas Dolan Architecture and engineers Kimley-Horn also are on the project team.