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The Low Cost Of Living

January 06, 1991|MICHAEL WEBB | Michael Webb writes on architecture; his book, "The City Square," is published by the Whitney Library of Design

MENTION single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels and most of us imagine aging firetraps infested with rats and drug dealers, where the working poor pay high rents for leaky rooms. Fortunately, not every SRO is a slum. While Los Angeles and other large cities struggle to upgrade old SROs, San Diego has broken new ground, figuratively and literally, by offering low-interest loans and flexible planning approvals to bring innovative private developers into the market.

Leading the pack is Chris Mortenson, described by San Diego architect Rob Wellington Quigley as "an aggressive developer with a conscience." Mortenson realized the need for new construction when he renovated an old building and found that the displaced low-income tenants had nowhere to go. In 1987, he and partner Bud Fischer invited Quigley to design a 209-room SRO downtown, promising him that "if you'll work with our budget, you'll have design freedom." Challenged by a ceiling cost of $17,000 a room, Quigley used attractive low-maintenance materials to create a humane sense of place and to provide such basic amenities as a toilet and microwave. The Baltic, finished in 1987, is now almost fully occupied; rooms rent from $300 to $350 a month, based on the tenant's ability to pay.

Apartments in the recently completed 221-room J Street Inn go for $475 a month. Across from San Diego's convention center, the Inn stretches an equally tight budget even further. Quigley broke up the long four-story block by creating a boldly angled corner entrance with terraces on the setbacks above. Running down the spine of the site is a narrow courtyard, planted with bamboo and animated by water cascading along a split steel culvert. Reading and exercise rooms with large windows facing Second Street provide a sense of interaction between residents and passers-by. A sculpture over the entry, recessed lighting in the corridors, and showers and built-in furniture in every room give residents a sense of pride and added little to the budget.

The Baltic and the J Street Inn, which are for-profit ventures, have won top architectural awards, including the AIA Honor Award for Design Excellence, and have drawn a stream of visitors. John Kaliski, principal architect of Los Angeles' Community Redevelopment Agency, calls them "quite fantastic" and acknowledges that "San Diego is leading the country in its encouragement of private investment in this field." Construction has begun on two more Quigley-designed SROs, and other developers since have done similar work. Still to come, however, is a humane solution to the much greater problem of housing welfare recipients and the homeless.

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