La Casa

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Mayor Muriel Bowser’s plan to close the dysfunctional D.C. General homeless shelter and open several smaller ones around the city drew hundreds of residents to question-and-answer sessions held in each ward last week. Among the many questions that remain about the plan: What will the new shelters look like?

The mayor’s slideshow includes architectural renderings of some of the proposed facilities: a row of gabled, green-roofed structures in Ward 3; a boxy building with purple and yellow accents in Ward 4. It’s not clear whether these concepts are purely hypothetical or something more. According to Department of General Services spokesperson Kenneth Diggs, no final decisions have been made regarding the design or construction of the shelters.

As the city develops a strategy to temporarily house more than 200 homeless families, it should draw on the successful models already here. One is N Street Village, an organization that has helped vulnerable women since 1972. N Street’s main facility at 14th and N streets NW combines a shelter, a live-in recovery program, and apartments. Designed by Shalom Baranes in the ’90s, the newer part looks like market-rate apartments from that period, faced in brick with postmodern touches that dispel any institutional image. The design also incorporated four historic townhouses, a decision that kept preservationists happy and placated some worried neighbors.

In 2014, La Casa in Columbia Heights set the bar for public architecture in the District. The visually kinetic building has 40 apartments for chronically homeless men, including many veterans, and in-house support services. (It’s permanent supportive housing rather than shorter-term transitional housing.) Studio Twenty-Seven Architecture worked with Leo A Daly to create sunny studios and welcoming common areas, such as a double-height lobby and an outdoor terrace. On its block of Irving Street NW, La Casa is a knockout amid boring chain stores and apartments. If anything, it should cause rents and home values around it to go up, not down.

Given the large scope of Bowser’s plan and the tight timeline (the city hopes to close D.C. General by fall 2018), the District may approach it as one big multi-site project and hire architects (or design–build teams) to complete two or three shelters each. The announcement should spark interest among designers in the region and beyond, so the city may want to cast a wider net for talent.

The gold standard for low-income housing, nationally, is the humane work of David Baker Architects, a San Francisco firm. Baker and co. have experience collaborating with city housing departments—not just in San Francisco, but in Asheville, N.C. and Charleston, S.C.—and their midrise, politely modernist buildings would translate well to the District. There’s also Brooks + Scarpa in Los Angeles, who won a national architecture award for Step Up on Fifth, permanent supportive housing in Santa Monica. (The materials the firm likes to use are more L.A. than D.C., however.)

This is Bowser’s opportunity to create a system of shelters that lift people’s spirits and elevate the urban fabric—just like the wonderful neighborhood libraries Ginnie Cooper imagined. It would be a great legacy for Bowser and a bragging point for the city for years to come. Carefully managed, it would not cost much more than building the drab, utilitarian way.

And it’s simply the right thing to do. In a city as rich as D.C., every person deserves to live somewhere with decent light and air, comfortable rooms, privacy, and security (the latter tragically lacking at D.C. General). The Housing First program has shown that when people who are homeless move into an attractive, inviting place, it frees them to focus on the work of turning their lives around.

There’s a tactical argument for prioritizing good design in the new shelters: The better a building looks, the less likely neighbors are to oppose it. Less cynically, though, it’s not farfetched to imagine D.C. taking pride in its model shelters. Look at La Casa and the striking new residence for homeless veterans by Sorg Architects going up in NoMa. If it seizes this chance, the District could become the national leader in housing homeless residents with grace and dignity.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery