High Ideals for Public Housing : Architecture: A nonprofit developer lets students design low-income apartments to be built in the air space over city parking lots.


Arnold Stalk and his apprentices look at the harsh asphalt landscapes of city parking lots in the San Fernando Valley and see urban frontiers for affordable, creatively designed housing for poor people.

Stalk, an architect and developer who runs the nonprofit L.A. Family Housing Corp., met with city officials and business leaders Tuesday to display his vision for low-income apartments that will likely be built above three Valley parking lots.

A 1989 plan by Mayor Tom Bradley aimed to combat the dire shortage of low-cost housing by donating air rights over city-owned parking lots to nonprofit developers for apartment construction.


After more than a year of studying sites and gathering support, city officials plan to request proposals on 10 lots around the city, said Jane Blumenfeld, Bradley’s planning adviser. The preliminary list includes lots in Canoga Park, North Hollywood and Van Nuys, she said.

The specifics of the approval process are still being working out in the mayor’s office but will likely include input from the city’s newly formed Housing Preservation and Production Department, and nearby residents and businesses, Blumenfeld said.

Stalk, who helped Bradley formulate the plan, invited housing experts to his East Los Angeles transitional shelter for homeless families Tuesday to review prototypes for the three Valley lots.

The models were prepared by students at the Southern California Institute of Architecture. The goal of the class project was to show how the plan will minimize building expenses and foster a sense of community and creativity not usually associated with public housing projects.

“What we are talking about is involving creative, innovative young architects who might not otherwise be involved with city projects,” Blumenfeld said.

For example, fifth-year student Michael Sessler designed a 16-unit courtyard complex on a concrete deck above a parking lot in the 7100 block of Jordan Street in Canoga Park. The apartments would have roll-up doors facing a courtyard, creating both a communal space and cross-ventilation that eliminates the need for expensive air conditioning.


By reconfiguring what he called a badly planned parking area, Sessler said he could provide parking for residents while preserving 20 of the 35 current public spaces. The chance to work with real-life goals and restrictions was challenging and unique, Sessler said.

“When you go to school, they tell you you have no restrictions, you are free to plan what you want,” he said. “This is a complete 180-degree turn from that.”

Many of the student designs included storefront shops, in-house social services and limited numbers of units, reflecting an emphasis on security and low density that makes public housing easier to sell, Stalk said.

“You have to design it with the neighborhood involved,” he said. “We have held design workshops with neighbors at projects in other areas. It’s all in the management.”

Stalk said the projects could cost less than $100,000 per unit, an estimated 30% savings over conventional apartment construction. Rents for a two-bedroom apartment would range from $350 to $400 a month, officials said.

The proposal gained quick support Tuesday from Bonnie Matheson, president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn., who said her group has supported other projects by L.A. Family Housing Corp.


“These lots are highly under-utilized,” she said. “The city is really behind in terms of housing. Land prices are so expensive. I think it’s very creative. It’s the best deal they’ve got.”

Stalk plans to submit bids for the Valley sites that incorporate his students’ best work. Blumenfeld and other officials say he has a strong chance of approval because of his organization’s extensive work in public housing.

L.A. Family Housing Corp. runs city homeless programs--including Valley Shelter in North Hollywood and the emergency cold-weather shelter at the Van Nuys Airport--and several low-income rental and tenant-owned projects in the Valley and East and South-Central Los Angeles.

The parking-lot housing plan has precursors in two senior citizen complexes built above Westside lots three years ago. Another housing project for the elderly is in the planning stages in Sherman Oaks.