Downs Gets Up

Downs Gets Up

The reconceived Jordan Downs site includes a mix of bungalows, courtyard housing, and apartments around a new park.
Courtesy HACLA

Opened in the mid-1950s, the 700-unit Jordan Downs public housing complex in Watts is a cold collection of repetitive and faceless brick buildings that has, like its cousins in places like Chicago, New York, and St. Louis, become a grim emblem of urban poverty, gang violence, social isolation, and the ability of architecture to hurt, not help, lives.

But the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) is hoping to turn that around. A new master plan for the complex would tear down and replace the current facilities, create civic activity and economic opportunity, and connect the complex to the surrounding area. The scheme, which is being overseen by the authority and by planning and architecture firm WRT Solomon E.T.C., was proposed in the fall, and the agency is set to kick off the EIR process with a scoping meeting tomorrow. The agency hopes to finalize the EIR by this September.

The masterplan would replace the 49-acre complex’s 700-plus townhouse-style units with 1,600 to 1,800 units built in a much more diverse mix of sizes and styles, including bungalows, courtyard housing, and stacked apartments. According to John Ellis, WRT Solomon’s director of urban design, the diversity is intended to make the area “feel like part of the surrounding neighborhood, not like a segregated and isolated piece of development, as it has been in the past.”

The units would also be mixed-use and mixed-income, meant to create a diverse community, explained Larry Goins, director of development services for the HACLA, who is overseeing the project. “We want services for all types of incomes: drycleaners, restaurants, grocery stores, coffee shops,” he said. Goins noted that many public housing projects in LA and elsewhere “were not planned as a community, but as a place for people to be housed only.” He wants to change that.

The central park, set within a reconnected street network, would become a community gathering space.

Courtesy HACLA

The new facility would be organized around a central park, located on what is now a 21-acre, mostly-vacant industrial zone in the area, connecting Jordan Downs’ divided north and south areas and providing much-needed green space. The project’s facilities will also be built to LEED standards. They will include a new Family Resource Center, creating a civic hub for what is now a faceless community. Meanwhile, the facility’s pattern of permeable streets and blocks would further reconnect Jordan Downs to its surroundings.

The plan is to be carried out in four phases to stagger resources and avoid disruptions. The first phase of new residential building will be carried out on adjacent land, so residents won’t have to relocate. The second phase will include more homes and the creation of the park, and the third and fourth will phase in more homes and civic redevelopment projects in the surrounding area.

Goins adds that it is still too early for the project to attract funding, which he admits is an issue in this economy. “Projects like this get funded as you get approval,” he said. “As we get a little closer and plans get into place, we’ll start securing funding.” Possible funding sources, he added, would include private developers, community redevelopment dollars, and local bank funding. He said that once it moves forward, the project should be built out in five to seven years. Since funding and entitlement could take up to three years, the project could be completed approximately ten years from now.

The plan, added Goins, has made its way through five “very open” community meetings, along with two-dozen other meetings with local residents of the smaller Jordan Downs Community Advisory Group. “You never can get 100 percent, but the majority has been very positive,” he said.

Solomon’s Ellis noted that such undertakings, often associated with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Hope VI program, have been successful all over the country, even in once-notorious places like Chicago’s Cabrini Green and Robert Taylor Homes. He compares Jordan Downs to his firm’s recently completed Othello Station Holly Park in Seattle, where a sad collection of buildings was turned into a neighborhood of varied townhouses on a grid of streets that’s actually helped lift home values in its area by over $100,000. “You can build public housing that is an asset to its neighborhood,” he said.