Magnolia Place

Magnolia Place is a twenty unit multifamily urban infill project located on a vacant site surrounded by warehouse buildings.  Although the property was historically zoned for housing, the site remained vacant for decades, its barren condition perceptually isolating it from the established Santa Rosa Junior College and McDonald Historic District neighborhoods which are just a block to the west and east of it respectively.  The project is uniquely located with easy pedestrian and bicycle access to local shops, schools, churches, parks, downtown services, the YMCA, Santa Rosa Junior college, and mass transportation stops.  Therefore a key goal of the master plan was to encourage neighborhood engagement in the scale and architectural expression of the buildings, and through the shaping of the site layout.

The buildings’ mass is purposefully deconstructed into four blocks in two structures, allowing opportunities for generous penetrations of daylight and cross ventilation, as well as for interaction between residents.  The buildings are clad in stucco, Boral siding and corrugated metal panels.  The fenestration is a combination of generous awning and casement windows with fixed panes, and French doors.  The railings at the balconies are metal flat bar, with Boral slats at the privacy screens.  A signature butterfly canopy roof with deeply shading overhangs covers each building.  The exterior stairs leading to the apartment entries give scale and texture to the east elevation, while they also celebrate the act of arrival into the home with a transition to the filtered light, shelter and privacy afforded by their slatted screen walls.

The project achieves all of its core objectives, to maximize the allowable density permitted by the zoning code, to conform to the city’s urban design guidelines, and to design two bedroom dwellings and community open spaces which would foster dignity and wellness as essential values of the home.  Ultimately, Magnolia Place has also become a landmark in the neighborhood, making the most of its unique location in between two well defined districts, on a corner lot, bounded by major road, to successfully reconcile a gap in the connective urban fabric of Santa Rosa.

Design Challenge

Magnolia Place is an example of architecture as a public work.  The project presented a course for the architect to act as civic leader by identifying social needs and creating built solutions for them.  The innovations in this project flowed from the collaboration from the start between architect and investor/client/builder to define the project’s scope, budget, and aspirations. The site is ideally situated for a housing project centered on social wellness and sustainable living.  It is within easy walking and biking distance to mass transportation stops, community services and shops, parks, schools, churches, the YMCA and the Junior College.  The property's qualities invited its development into an urbane housing archetype for both professionals and families, one which could play a role in transforming outdated notions of apartment dwelling in Santa Rosa. Two key aspirations for the project were to overcome the unfriendly presence of the adjacent warehouse buildings as well as common public perceptions of modular construction as sterile or institutional.  The resulting building transforms both notions with its familiar and fresh expressions of “house” and “home”.  Benefiting from the precision and efficiency afforded by modular construction, the factory built dwelling units were craned into place within one week. The project design was challenged by residents of the adjacent Junior College neighborhood association.  They appealed to the City Council to deny the project based on “design context non-conformity”.  Opposition was eventually overturned by the Council, which noted that the Historic District was not immediately adjacent to the site and that there was no inherent incompatibility of the proposed architectural style with the immediate neighborhood.  The Council stated that there was no precedent to support denial of a project based on its architectural style.  The modern architectural expression of the project is in fact purposefully responsive to enduring principles of residential design such as:
  1. passive energy conservation with deep overhangs, generous fenestration, cross ventilation, and abundant natural light
  2. balancing functional and automobile needs with the creation of safe community open spaces for social interaction in the courtyard, exterior stairwells, shared entry balconies and private patios and terraces
  3. layering the sequence of public to private, from paths to entries, to one’s arrival into the private dwelling space

Physical Context

As an infill project, Magnolia Place reconciles a breach in the otherwise fine grain of its neighborhood’s urban fabric.  The buildings are located on a previously vacant 1.2 acre site surrounded by warehouse buildings.  The large blocks of existing warehouses on the adjacent lots are out of scale and not integrated with the highly walkable streetscapes around them. To the north are multifamily apartment buildings, circa 1970’s.  To the east is the McDonald Historic District, and to the west is the Junior College neighborhood, both distinctive neighborhoods with strong visual, historical and architectural imagery characterized by distinct edges, paths, nodes and landmarks.  At the site’s western boundary and to the south are collector streets, North Street and College Avenue.  Both have significant automobile and pedestrian traffic as well as commercial development. Each apartment spans the full width of the buildings, both of which are stepped two and three story structures connected by a courtyard in between them.  The courtyard functionally and visually links the western public boundary of the property to the more intimate residential neighborhood to the east. The apartment entries and stairwells are located on the “private” east facing side of the site, while their balconies and living areas interact with the “public” west side of the site.   The presence of the parking area is diminished by locating this function on the north, shaded side of the buildings, adjacent to the warehouses at that boundary. The client/builder and the architect collaborated with the City to design right of way lanes on North Street that would not compromise the pedestrian friendly character of the project. A portion of the west side of the property, along North Street, was deeded to the City for future street widening. The organic origins of the building’s conceptual design as tree-like are evident, re-invigorating the barren site with its open branched form, stepping up from two to three stories at its center, with private balconies that gesture outward, deep shade from large overhangs, the skyward butterfly wing profile of the roofs, and slatted screens filtering light into sheltered exterior stairways and balconies.