Bruce Damonte

Located in the heart of San Francisco, 1180 Fourth Street stands out as an example of the potential for affordable housing to merge with sophisticated urban design.

Developed by Mercy Housing and designed by executive architect Mithun | Solomon and associated architect Kennerly Architecture & Planning, the vibrant 150-unit building provides much-needed affordable housing in the increasingly expensive city, along with helping to energize the up-and-coming Mission Bay South neighborhood. Design for 1180 Fourth Street originated from WRT/Solomon E.T.C. 

The building includes 50 units reserved for the formerly homeless, 11,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space, and various community gathering spaces. Bringing all of that real estate together while keeping the architecture appropriately scaled was an exciting challenge, says Jennifer Dolin, vice president of operations at Mercy Housing.

“We wanted to make sure we had retail spaces and 1-, 2-, and 3-bedroom units, but that we utilized that corner appropriately," she says. "We didn’t want it to look like a monolith structure; we wanted to keep the San Francisco look and have it look like multiple buildings on one parcel."

Adding to the high design imperative was the site’s high-profile location at the entrance to Mission Bay and in close proximity to multiple transit lines.

“This is an important civic site, and this affordable housing needs to be a real civic presence,” says Dan Solomon, partner at Mithun | Solomon. “The Mission Bay neighborhood has been roundly criticized in the city as being sort of bland and overscaled and not having the charm and complexity that the rest of the city has. We responded to what a lot of people felt was a need for architectural zest and complexity.”

Six stories high at its tallest point, the building’s corner tower makes a strong architectural impression on the lot’s busy commercial intersection, and then steps down gradually to meet the surrounding architecture, says Owen Kennerly, principal at Kennerly Architecture & Planning.

“As you head west, you get a lower profile building with townhouses with stoops that activate the street, and it’s just a very urbane presence,” he says

Service-Oriented Design
In addition to keeping the building well-suited to the area, the development team also worked hard to ensure the community was well-suited to the people who would call it home. In this regard, design didn’t just mean the building’s aesthetic appeal, but how it would best serve its residents.

“This was an opportunity, because it’s a full city block, to use the interior space of the block for a very rich program for the residents,” Solomon says. “There’s 250 children living there already … so it’s a very intensely used mid-block. The idea is that it is a good place to raise children and there’s lots for them to do and there’s many places for them to go.”

The building includes a large community room and multiple courtyards where residents can gather and the community can host events like outdoor movies and dinners, Dolin says. “We also host an after-school program, and we have a space for older teens so they can have their own space to hang out within the community. It is very much designed to be flexible, so as the population changes, the spaces can shift and adapt.”

The collaborative approach to combining design and purpose reflects the high standards of the city, where it’s important to integrate affordable housing into the heart of the city and build high-quality developments, Solomon says.

“In San Francisco, the nonprofit developers are very skilled, incredibly intelligent, and run their projects beautifully. The design is well executed; it’s woven into the neighborhood,” Kennerly adds. “We don’t want people to say, that’s a nice building for affordable housing. We want people to say, that’s a great urban building and it just so happens to be affordable housing.”