Connect by Design
November 13, 2014

Westlake Urban was created to redevelop Westlake Realty Group’s decades-old San Francisco Bay Area portfolio. Our plans range from new pocket neighborhoods in Santa Rosa and Hayward to a 500,000 square foot technology-focused office campus in San Leandro and a proposal for 460 residential units in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset.

In transforming our portfolio, we are choosing to move beyond easy, formulaic development patterns to build properties that are better suited to a changing world. We believe there is a growing desire across generations to simplify and to live and work in vibrant places where people are connected. This belief fuels our work.

There’s a very practical aspect to our work, too.

Many of the buildings in our portfolio are outdated, and they were built at a time when families, work and life were different, when cars were the primary form of transport and when the dominant city pattern resulted in buildings and uses that were deliberately unconnected.

As with all buildings, the time comes when significant investment is required to repair or reposition them to meet the demands of a changing marketplace.  As we evaluate our properties, we do so with a new vision and a commitment to create buildings and places that will endure for the long term.

Demographic Overhaul

Families are changing, lifestyles are changing and the desire for simplification and connection are intensifying because two key demographic groups are imposing unprecedented and simultaneous change.  According to Pew Research, “America is in the throes of a demographic overhaul.”

Baby Boomers are moving into the next chapter of their lives and desire a simpler, less expensive lifestyle. They are choosing to move into condos and smaller, low-maintenance homes in more connected communities. Millennials, meanwhile, have grown up connected. They are choosing a connected urban lifestyle, embracing bicycles and public transit, reducing their environmental footprint and rejecting old ways of doing things. On the heels of the Great Recession, expectations and preferences are dramatically changing. As they change, communities are changing and our work as developers must change. Fresh ideas are required if we are to be successful in creating places and buildings that meet the changing needs and preferences of the residents, workers and visitors in each of the communities we serve. A template approach just won’t do.

Spaces Between Buildings

At Westlake Urban our designs begin with the spaces between the buildings. We choose to focus on these spaces because they hold the key to counteracting the isolating development patterns of the past. Well-designed common spaces – spaces that are designed for people, not cars – are fundamental to the redevelopment of our properties. While our projects vary greatly, we strive to encourage healthy outdoor activity through designs that promote connections to open space, spaces for interactions with neighbors or coworkers, active pedestrian-scaled and accessible walkways and easy access to public transit, bike paths and adjoining neighborhoods.

The Kirkham Project in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset is an important example. Owned by Westlake for almost 40 years, this 86-unit apartment community was built in 1950 at a time when it represented the latest thinking in modern, residential design. Great effort was spent to celebrate the automobile as the preferred and primary mode of transport. The most notable architectural features – and a key sales pitch at the time – were the open carports at the base of each building, a way to proudly put these expensive status symbols on display.

But times have changed. Our goal is to create a new neighborhood that retains housing affordability, connects the community, provides access to the environment and offers an exceptional experience for the residents at Kirkham Heights and the surrounding community. The proposed plan offers residents and community members access to a variety of outdoor community areas where neighbors can get to know one another. These include large and small auto-free plazas; spectacular, expansive views of the Pacific Ocean, Marin Headlands and Golden Gate Bridge; and well-lit, widened pedestrian connections and stairways to UCSF, the Inner Sunset, and the Mt Sutro Open Space Reserve. And because the location is transit-rich, other options such as bicycles, walking, car share and public transportation will be promoted and celebrated.

Community Input

Westlake has been in business in the Bay Area for over forty years. We have always invested for the long term. This new cycle of investment is guided by the theme of connection, and our community input process is guided by this theme, too.

We will solicit input and engage the community in a respectful way through a transparent process that includes formal and informal conversations with residents, neighbors and members of the adjoining communities. We will listen carefully to community interests and concerns, and we’ll do our best to incorporate this input into our work.

Change is hard. We don’t expect everyone to like what we do, but we hope people will appreciate our respectful approach and our commitment to do our work in a new way. We are all in the citybuilding business – we hope to play a small part in the transformation of communities where we invest. A transformation from disconnection to connection will benefit today’s residents and future generations as well.

Spaces between buildings, public art, nature, wellness, healthy living—these things are not usually in the job description of a real estate developer. But we believe they should be.

Invitation to Connect

We are not alone in this effort to build more responsive, vibrant development projects for residents and communities. We welcome you to join this conversation. Let us know if you have an experience or an example to share. Visit our websites, subscribe to the blog, follow us on Twitter, attend a community meeting or just pick up the phone and give us a call. We would love to hear from you.

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