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Designing housing with trust for LA's Skid Row

Designing housing with
trust for LA's Skid Row


This article first appeared Feb. 6 at GenslerOn.

Homelessness is a problem that continues to plague cities across the country, and Los Angeles is certainly not immune to this unfortunate condition. Skid Row, a 54-block area in downtown L.A., is the epicenter for the city’s homeless population and has been for quite some time. More than a thousand people sleep here on the street in makeshift cardboard boxes and tents.

Fortunately, the L.A. County Department of Health Services (DHS) has taken an interest in creating more stable housing options for L.A. County’s sickest and most vulnerable homeless citizens. DHS recently came up with the "Housing for Health" program, which not only requested that its new headquarters be built in the heart of Skid Row, but also planned to create homes for 10,000 homeless people. In doing so, DHS would also reduce inappropriate use of expensive County Hospital resources and improve the health outcomes for its most vulnerable population. 

In conjunction with this development, DHS and the Skid Row Housing Trust asked Gensler to design a new office space, as well as a County-run clinic that will serve the residents of Star Apartments, the Trust’s newest permanent supportive housing project. Needless to say, this announcement sent waves of anticipation through the homeless community and tenants in other supportive housing sites.

                                                                                                                             All photos courtesy of Gensler.

                                                                                                                             All photos courtesy of Gensler.

The new DHS Housing for Health offices and Star Clinic, which are located in separate storefront spaces on the ground floor of Skid Row Housing Trust’s new Star Apartments, officially opened in October. Area residents are now noticing that former compatriots are living in their own apartments.

At the 1,300-sf Star Clinic, residents can receive both medical treatment and counseling in one of the five exam rooms, while a hallway nurse’s station provides space for vitals and charting. Street-facing glazing is lined with translucent acrylic panels that admit ample light while providing full visual privacy. The staff of five doctors and nurses expects to serve 50 people per week, or about 2,400 patient visits per year.

Shedding light while providing privacy

A few doors down from the clinic is the 2,400-sf Housing for Health office. It occupies a highly visible storefront location. Rather than working in generic, high-paneled cubicles, the staff now collaborates in custom open workstations that maximize every square inch of the tight footprint. An angled mezzanine takes advantage of the building’s 18-ft open ceilings, providing acoustic privacy for staff who deal with medical records while still keeping them connected to the rest of the office. Two conference spaces accommodate an additional 13 visitors and provide plenty of options for the staff to conduct both formal and impromptu meetings.

Both the office and the clinic feature intentionally humble materials: concrete floors, raw CMU walls and open ceilings. The enclosed, first-floor rooms in both spaces are capped by angled, faceted “roofs” and feature neutral colors. The client requested a warm, casual, coffee shop vibe that would welcome visitors of all stripes, from local residents and other county workers to experts in permanent supportive housing from other cities. To that end, the reception desk is made of reclaimed wood and hot rolled steel, and both spaces are punctuated with pendant lights made of corrugated cardboard.

For this project, Gensler donated $115,000 worth of pro bono design services and obtained more than $70,000 worth of in-kind donations from more than 30 vendors. The firm also recruited ARC Engineering, which provided pro bono mechanical, electrical and plumbing services. Mata Construction supplied discounted construction services.

Delivering on its philosophy that design can be a powerful tool in rebuilding communities and individual lives...
— LA County Board of Supervisors

I am so proud to have been part of a multi-disciplinary team that was led by Rob Jernigan and included people from Gensler’s LA and Newport Beach offices. Our team of Parinaz Behbahani, Stella Choi, Shawn Gehle, Hans Herst, Stephanie Lee, Mark McManus, and Colin Thompson really united around this project and found inspiration in the chance to help members of the homeless community. 

The October grand opening, held in conjunction with the opening of Star Apartments, was attended by county, city and state officials. We were fortunate to receive high accolades, including a hand-calligraphied commendation, from the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, which recognized the firm’s “legendary creativity and vision, delivering on its philosophy that design can be a powerful tool in rebuilding communities and individual lives … of the most vulnerable County residents.”


The author is operations leader for Gensler LA's Work 3 studio, project manager for Hyundai Capital's projects worldwide, Herbalife’s projects across the U.S., and the LA County Museum of Art’s executive offices. Contact her at



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