By Jack Stubbs
Efforts to end veteran homelessness in the city of San Francisco have been ongoing for years, with certain residential developments’ project teams, in particular, working to address this ongoing challenge.
The Edwin M. Lee Apartments, completed in early 2020 and located in San Francisco’s Mission Bay neighborhood, was the first ground-up, new construction, shared housing project in San Francisco to combine supportive housing for both unhoused veterans and low-income families.
The project team for the 124,000-square-foot affordable housing development project – on which construction was begun in late 2017 – includes Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, Saida + Sullivan Design Partners, Swords to Plowshares, Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC), and Nibbi Brothers General Contractors, among others.
One of the most noteworthy aspects of the project was its provision of housing to both formerly homeless veterans and low-income families, which embodied true shared housing at its core. “There are a lot of synergies with these different residence groups…they may not normally intersect in the day-to-day or have a shared community, but this project does that really well,” said Gwen Fuertes, project architect with Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects.
The development provides 62 apartments for formerly homeless veterans and 57 apartments for low-income families, with ground-floor retail services for families, veterans, and neighbors, and also includes a shared courtyard area.
From a collaboration and design perspective, the project team learned a lot from one another throughout the process of making the Edwin M. Lee Apartments a reality, according to Fuertes. “Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects learned a lot from Swords to Plowshares [a Bay Area-based nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting veterans]…They had so much experience with the veteran community over the years, so they could help guide the specific design elements, like the acoustical features, how to provide visual sightlines for the veterans, and access to views and daylight,” she said.
In terms of the timing of the project, the team was able to conclude it before the pandemic upended much of the industry, which was particularly salient for the population that the building houses. “We wrapped up construction right before the pandemic…it was a safe, affordable housing option during the COVID turmoil…everyone was really relieved to get people housed safely and quickly,” Fuertes added.
The namesake of the building – Edwin M. Lee, the late Mayor of San Francisco who passed away in December 2017 – is a homage to Lee’s efforts to end veteran homelessness in San Francisco. “At the beginning of construction, Edwin M. Lee passed away suddenly…he had worked really hard throughout his career to end the veteran homelessness crisis in San Francisco, and was generally a leader in the housing community,” said Fuertes.
Beyond the limits of the city, the project also aligned with national efforts to address veteran homelessness. Edwin Lee signed The Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness – an initiative begun in June 2014 by Michelle Obama – in 2014.
Looking ahead, the hope is that the development might set a precedent for others in the future, according to Fuertes, who also emphasized the importance of creating new partnerships and collaborations. “The partnership [between Swords to Plowshares and Chinatown Community Development Center] was a really nice model for how these two different non-profit organizations and developers can work together to find a nice synergy in mixing different resident groups,” she said.
Swords to Plowshares was able to share some of its expertise with the rest of the design team about how to make the project most optimal and accessible for the veteran community, detailed Fuertes. “They [Swords to Plowshares] guided us on how to create a tranquil space inside and outside the courtyard…making sure that the veterans would feel comfortable moving throughout the building and gathering with other people. There was also a beyond-minimum code for accessibility,” she said.
Fuertes also emphasized her hope that similar elements might be integrated into future projects.“I am optimistic…but it takes partnerships and hard work across the board to finish a project like this…the design community in San Francisco is really exceptional at this…this is an effort that was started years ago, and we’re gaining more and more momentum here for creating shared-living projects.”