Recipe for Success

San Francisco’s Mission District—like many low-income neighborhoods in high-rent cities—is a mix of immigrants, primarily Latin American, and hipsters. Gentrification spread rapidly through the area in the late 1990s, during San Francisco’s dot-com boom, but has slowed postbust. On the trendier blocks, taquerias sit alongside sushi-cum-oxygen bars. Live/work lofts and boutique retail spaces serving the better-heeled residents are commonplace. But new construction that addresses both ends of the economic spectrum is rare.

One notable exception—architect Paulett Taggart’s design for a single lot in the Mission—accommodates market-rate housing and nonprofit community kitchen La Cocina. A landscaped courtyard separates the street-front kitchen from three two-bedroom town houses. The property owner—a self-proclaimed political activist (dubbed by Taggart an “enlightened developer”) who wishes to remain anonymous—initiated the project. “It was my idea to create a mixed-use situation because it makes economic sense in the city,” she says. “Taking a piece of land and making commercial and residential use is, for me, better use.”

After seeing the Mission’s Latinas trade in homemade tamales and tortas, carrying baskets of food to bars and offices, the owner teamed with the Women’s Foundation of California—which funds initiatives to improve the lives of women—to create a “kitchen incubator” that provides commercial cooking space and business training to low-income women. The goal is for the fledgling entrepreneurs who go through La Cocina’s program to become more established businesses owners—caterers, specialty food producers, bakers, and cart vendors.

Taggart’s challenge was to discreetly place a commercial kitchen in a residential neighborhood. “We have a building that wants to turn inward. It doesn’t really want to be on the street—it isn’t a retail building,” she says. So she created a facade with bands of glass and aluminum on the first story and a slatted screen made of ipê, a South American hardwood, on the second that complements the volume and scale of the adjacent apartments and Victorian houses.

Inside, north-facing clerestory windows illuminate the 4,100-square-foot workspace, which is equipped with two lines of top-notch cooking equipment and four prep stations. “I lost my breath the first time I saw the space—it was so full of light,” recalls Gayle Gonzales, an artisan pastry chef who recently joined La Cocina’s training program. “The tables are laid out so that you face one another. In commercial kitchens they are in a line, so you can’t look at each other. Here it is possible to have synergy with other people in the program.” The owner says that openness was a design strategy: “That is very purposeful on [Taggart’s] part and has to do with the idea of building community as well as a community facility.”

Although she began her practice building single-family homes, Taggart’s office is now working on several community projects—from affordable housing to neighborhood swimming pools. “I have tried to steer my practice toward projects that help more people—those who don’t have much exposure to the benefits of architecture,” she explains. “It feels a lot more rewarding because the whole conmunity gets involved.”

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