The Gateway at Willowbrook by Withee Malcolm pairs affordable housing with a public library to create a community for growth
By Julia Edinger
Withee Malcolm has a long history of providing a unique touch to its developments, not only offering differentiated design, but as their mission statement says, “design that makes a difference.” The Gateway at Willowbrook may be the most obvious example of such a project, providing sustainable, affordable housing to people in the greater Los Angeles area.
What makes The Gateway at Willowbrook especially unparalleled in that sense is that it marks the first occasion of a partnership between Los Angeles County and the private sector in order to provide housing and a library to the community.
This project took place in Willowbrook, an unincorporated community neighboring Los Angeles that is undergoing a major transformation. When the Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital and the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science faced problems in 2007, the hospital was closed, the university withdrew its accreditation under duress, and the 30-year-old library was far past its prime.
The community faced a great challenge. Members of the community lost access to the hospital, and in its place, gained a significant amount of negative media attention. Fortunately, Willowbrook is a community of resilient people, and it was the investment of people that helped turn it around.
In 2015, a new hospital opened. By 2018, the university regained accreditation. The Willowbrook/Rosa Parks Metro Station underwent a $109-million upgrade, expanding on its capacity and creating growth opportunities in the community. Still, the greatest opportunities for growth arguably come from the heart of The Gateway at Willowbrook: The Willowbrook Library.
Gateway to Growth
This mixed-use project has created enormous opportunities for residents of the Willowbrook community. The project was completed in February of 2018 and is fully occupied, providing 100 units of affordable housing, paired with a public library. The building encompasses a representation of two foundational aspects of socioeconomic growth: housing and literacy.
According to a report published by the Pew Research Center, 95 percent of Americans (ages 16 and older) agree that the resources public libraries make available to members of a community play a significant role in giving everyone the chance to succeed. The same report elaborated that two thirds of those surveyed stated that their public library closing would affect them and their families. This became a reality for the people in Willowbrook, but a public-private partnership helped to renew this community.
“The Gateway at Willowbrook is the epitome of what high-quality and affordable development and services can and should look like,” explained Mark Ridley-Thomas, Los Angeles County Supervisor.
Literacy has long been known to correlate with economic mobility, and public libraries provide greater access to literacy for members of the community.
This particular library will offer reading areas, a workforce center, family areas, public- access computers and more. With modern art installations, literacy programs, and endless access to information at the click of a button, the library emphasizes the community’s culture. This mixed- use project opens a door — a gateway — for disadvantaged members of the community.
More Than Housing
The project was completed through a joint effort between Los Angeles County and the building team, which consisted of Withee Malcolm Architects and Thomas Safran & Associates Development.
The $44 million project has been in progress since 2016, and now offers a number of features and services to residents. The building offers residences to low-income seniors, reserving 22 units for formerly-homeless individuals. The library, however, creates a gathering space for members of the community of all ages.
The gathering space offers community activities, job postings, community news, and boundless access to information.
“The biggest challenge was to create an inviting public access to the project, in terms of both vehicular and pedestrian, while maintaining the security and privacy of the seniors who reside in the building,” explained Dan Withee, Founding Partner of Withee Malcolm Architects.
According to the project team, the architect and developer worked together to find a solution that would incorporate public and private functions without disrupting the residents’ sense of security. Having separate parking and entrances for the public and for residents allows for a peaceable solution to some of the challenges that may arise with mixed-use living.
The building was designed to be visible from the 105 freeway as well as from Wilmington Avenue, designed to be a gateway to the city.
Another feature of the project that helps to improve the community at large is its energy efficiency. In addition to reducing the project’s carbon footprint in the community, this helps to keep the cost of utilities down.
“This project was LEED for Homes Gold Certified,” stated Mauricio Munoz, Withee Malcolm’s Project Manager. “Energy performance exceeds Title 24 by over 15 percent.”
The community gathering space is adjacent to the private gathering space on the first floor, allowing for socialization or solitude. The project’s amenities include gardens, an outdoor lounge, fire pit, and barbecue area, in addition to laundry and fitness facilities.
Los Angeles has a growing challenge with the lack of affordable housing, but projects like this one may be able to offer solutions. It can be the difference between simply building homes and offering “design that makes a difference.” Investing in fundamental infrastructure and the members of the community is critical to effecting change.
To view this feature as originally published in Builder and Developer Magazine, click here.