‘Common Ground’: Innovative design meets neighborly lifestyle

The driveway and gathering space at St. Elmo Village was created by artists Rozzell Sykes and Roderick Sykes as a nonprofit rental complex focused on the arts and community engagement. Photo by Art Gray.

More than half of Angelenos rent, and more than half of the city’s buildings are some form of multifamily dwelling, according to planners at the City of Los Angeles. Most new residential construction underway is multifamily, from accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in backyards, to six-story apartment buildings on arterials. But you might not know all this from the popular imagery of home in Los Angeles: the owner-occupied single-family house in a large yard, long a potent object of class and wealth. 

Such is the cultural and political dominance of the lone house that the construction of much-needed, and denser, housing involves an ongoing political struggle. Perhaps it would be less of a battle if people valued apartment living, or better yet, desired it. That is the view of longtime architecture reporter for KCRW and apartment-dweller Frances Anderton, whose new book is “Common Ground: Multifamily Housing in Los Angeles.” The goal, she says, is to celebrate some of the best of the region’s long legacy of apartment buildings and connected dwellings.

Pico Eleven, market rate apartments in Santa Monica designed by KFA architects and completed in 2018, incorporates a rooftop terrace on which residents can enjoy sundown. Photo by Nico Marques Photography.

She focuses on what she sees as a specific kind of multifamily housing in Los Angeles, centered on shared space and neighborly living. They include the very popular bungalow courts and courtyard housing of more than a century ago, to the garden apartment complexes of the New Deal years, to the midrise and mixed-use developments today – both affordable and market rate. She wants to showcase both excellent design as well as an intentionally social lifestyle, in which children grow up in close-knit courtyard housing with friends and surrogate aunts and uncles, or today, residents gather on the roof for a view of the sunset. She also highlights projects that model equity and stability for their tenants.  

El Cabrillo, designed by Arthur and Nina Zwebell for Cecil B. DeMille, is a richly crafted example of the courtyard housing of the 1920s. Photo by Art Gray.

Anderton recently took Steve Chiotakis on tour of three of the projects shown in the book. The chosen sites are in Venice: a garden apartment complex, a new affordable apartment building, and an unusual bungalow complex created by two inspired property owners.  

Lincoln Place

The architects gave each courtyard at Lincoln Place distinctive door and window treatments so residents experienced a sense of place, along with plenty of natural light and access to the shared open space. Photo by Art Gray.

Lincoln Place, opened in 1951 on 38 acres near Rose Avenue and Lincoln Boulevard to provide housing for workers at nearby Douglas Aircraft, is a fine example of a garden apartment complex. This type of development  appeared in the New Deal years, built by both the public sector and private developers with support from the federal government. Jordan Downs in Watts, now going through a major remodel, is one of the public developments. Park La Brea, Village Green in Baldwin Hills, and Lincoln Place are among the private ones. 

They consist of multiple two-story buildings located around courts, which connect to larger areas of open green, all built on “super blocks” – blocks combined into one very large area – with roads kept to the edges. The idea: Give families well-lit apartments with access to shared open space where children could play safely. They were channeling the era’s idealism about how lower-income people could live (albeit the private complexes were initially whites-only, per conditions of the Federal Housing Administration loan guarantees). 

The project, designed by the partnership of Heth Wharton and Ralph Vaughn, has gone through changes over time, including a lengthy struggle in the oughts with AIMCO, a development company that tried to evict all the tenants and replace the complex with bigger buildings. But residents fought back for 10 years, in alliance with the LA Conservancy, and in 2014, arrived at a compromise that would preserve most of the existing buildings and keep some of the tenants in place. Residents say that the communitarian design of Lincoln Place enabled people to stick together and fight for their survival. 

Dennis Hathaway, author of “The Battle of Lincoln Place,” tells Anderton and Chiotakis, “The fact that the tenants association were able to organize, and to fight the landlord and the plan to tear the whole place down, and successfully defeat that plan — had everything to do with that design as a community. It enabled people to come together and people to work together for a common purpose.”  

Rose Apartments

Rose Apartments elevates apartments over offices and parking. Credit: Brooks + Scarpa: Photo by Jeff Durkin/Breadtruck Films.

Rose Apartments, on Rose Avenue opposite Whole Foods, was designed by Brooks + Scarpa architects for Venice Community Housing Corporation. Completed in 2022, it consists of 38 studio apartments for the formerly unhoused and for young people moving out of the foster care system. It is a three-sided structure, sitting over parking and offices on the ground level, that wraps around open court areas on two levels connected by wood-clad terraces. Residents can sit on the terraces or at tables on the plazas and enjoy a glorious view of the Santa Monica Mountains, while passersby can look up at planting on the raised levels and a glittered stucco facade. 

The architects, who won this year's prestigious American Institute of Architects Gold Medal, are among a generation of designers and developers who have been building units for the formerly unhoused and working poor. They’re driven by an ethos of bold design and a sense of community. Angela Brooks, co-principal at Brooks + Scarpa, says that the raised courtyard has a practical reason – to allow air and light into all the units. There’s also a larger design goal: “We tried to make a sculptural piece, but also a great place for the people who live here. This is a green space that the neighborhood can share in as well.”

The 3rd Street Compound

Many of the socially-oriented complexes featured in “Common Ground” were designed by architects and developers. But some were created by inspired individuals, and Anderton took Chiotakis to an example that is a favorite of hers: the “3rd Street Compound,” created organically by two men, Tomas Fuller and William Kelly. 

This “compound,” also nicknamed the “Tales of the City South” (after Armistead Maupin’s famed “Tales of the City” series about a group of offbeat San Franciscans living under the sternly loving command of Anna Madrigal), consists of four neighboring lots on 3rd Street near Rose Avenue in Venice. Fuller and Kelly bought one of the lots in the once-dilapidated neighborhood in the early 1990s, and built themselves a house on it. They then purchased the neighboring three lots which had rental cottages on them. They brought in two talented landscape designers, first Jay Griffith and then Sean Knibb, and connected the four lots into a meandering and lush shared garden, with dining areas, a fire pit and a lawn for croquet and movie nights. 

Two residents play croquet at the 3rd Street Compound. Photo by Art Gray.

Fifteen people of different ages and backgrounds live across nine units plus the house, along with 12 dogs and four cats, all sharing the garden. Before creating the compound, Fuller and Kelly considered purchasing a home in Malibu or the Santa Monica Mountains. 

“You can go buy a big huge mansion and live inside your 20 rooms in the best part of the city,” remarks Kelly. “[But] if you get done with work, you go home at the end of the day, and you're alone. I actually realized I like the neighbors. And I like sharing things. Everyone looks after each other.”