The Kelsey Civic Center

The Kelsey Civic Center is a new urban community that provides 112 homes to people of all abilities, incomes, and backgrounds in one of the nation’s most challenging and inequitable housing markets. Located across from San Francisco’s City Hall, it represents the largest addition to housing for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the city to date. It will be the first fully-inclusive community of its kind. The Kelsey Civic Center is part of the C40: Reinventing Cities global initiative, which aims to transform underutilized urban sites into models of social inclusivity, sustainability, and resilience. Universally designed and accessible to all, this carbon-neutral, all-electric building addresses two of the defining issues of our time: the housing and climate crises.

The development will fill a dire need. People with disabilities who experience poverty are priced out of housing and locked out of their communities at a much higher rate than nondisabled people—and this is certainly true in San Francisco. Twenty-five percent of the units will be dedicated to people with disabilities who use Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS). The project will offer 100+ units of affordable housing and all units will be open to those who qualify at 20%-80% of area median income, creating a truly mixed-income community. In addition to the housing units, The Kelsey Civic Center offers a diverse program that includes community rooms, a garden designed to engage the senses, bicycle parking, rooftop, and public spaces that foster a mutually supportive environment rooted in the ethos of interdependence and informal support networks. Live-in staff will help residents build relationships with one another, access services and events, and navigate the neighborhood and city.

Through this project, the design team recognized an opportunity to advance the standards of universal design beyond physical accessibility. Collaborating with Universal Design Consultant Erick Mikiten and other project partners, WRNS Studio gained insights into how individuals with sensitivities to light, smells, sounds, and other stimulants experience a space. Drawing on these learnings, the design team integrated design elements that go beyond the existing code, such as changes in floor materials at entries and balconies, acoustic ceilings that create an audible “map,” and curved circulation paths that enhance ease of movement. Vibrant colors are used to denote different floors and program offerings, further enriching the resident experience while referencing San Francisco’s diversity and history. WRNS Studio used this experience to help inform a new rating system for evaluating architects’ commitment to accessible design, authored by The Kelsey in partnership with Mikiten Architecture.

Design of The Kelsey Civic Center puts a premium on community, inclusion, and well-being. The program is organized around a large garden courtyard with seasonal plantings that promote biodiversity and urban agriculture. This courtyard acts as the building’s “lungs,” facilitating a layout that maximizes access to fresh air, daylight, and nature. Exterior circulation with planter balconies on every level promotes social interaction among neighbors. A robust part of the interior experience, the courtyard and balconies sponsor a single-loaded layout with operable windows on both sides of each unit, allowing for cross-ventilation, enhanced shading, and ample natural light. Heat recovery units with MERV-13 filtration in every home provide healthy and energy-efficient indoor environments for all residents. The project also features a vertical rain garden that serves as a biophilic landmark while filtering water. A sensory roof terrace provides breathtaking views and supports energy efficiency goals through a PV array, while capturing and pre-treating stormwater that flows down into the courtyard and is managed by an infiltration gallery under the pavement.

The ground floor includes a community space that connects to both the public sidewalk on Grove Street and to the central courtyard, allowing views through. The space is entered via a large perforated-metal, hangar-door. This large door ceremoniously folds up and down to showcase a civic-scaled artwork by local artist, Joseph “JD” Green, which was selected by the San Francisco Arts Commission from eleven different submissions that interpreted disability inclusion and racial and social equity. The door’s metal screen’s varying hole sizes re-create Green’s evocative artwork — as well as serve to illuminate and add texture to the interior space, while creating visual interest along the street.

The project sits on an extraordinary site located at the heart of the Civic Center of San Francisco, directly across from City Hall, and close to the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and the Davies Symphony Hall. Design of The Kelsey Civic Center responds to its existing civic and historical context by reflecting the patterns, materials, and scale of the neighborhood. The building is articulated with a base, middle, and top to complement the massing and organization of the area’s Neoclassical buildings. A through-color fiber cement panel with a stippled texture evokes the neighborhood’s ubiquitous Sierra Granite while anodized copper details echo the area’s accents and secondary features. Double and triple-height fenestration further help the building “hold its own” amidst the weight of its much larger neighboring buildings. With the roof and courtyard visible from many nearby vantage points, including an observation deck at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the design team took great care to make the project visually appealing to the broader community.

The Kelsey Civic Center is being created by two organizations: The Kelsey and Mercy Housing. The Kelsey is a San Francisco–based nonprofit that co-develops accessible, affordable, inclusive multifamily housing for people with and without disabilities. Mercy Housing is one of the nation’s largest affordable housing organizations. The development site is a C40 Cities site in partnership with the Mayor’s Office and San Francisco Department of the Environment, and is a funded by public, private and philanthropic investors, including the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development.

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