Here in Echo Park we are in the midst of great change. For some, this change rejects the way things have been as of late in pursuit of a dramatically different future for the neighborhood. For others, it’s nostalgically reigniting the past in fear of what the future may hold. And still, there are those who hope to create a hybrid of the two; moving forward with the demands of our modern society while staying true to the roots, history and culture of our past.
The latter seems to be the sentiment and goal of the newly constructed housing project called the Blackbirds — a gathering, if you will, of homes located in the residential hills of northern Echo Park at the corner of Baxter and Vestal Ave. Designed by Barbara Bestor of Bestor Architecture, these homes are “a progressive design solution for high-quality dense housing in a city with little available land…” and an attempt at “experimental contemporary urban living where community, nature, and design are in balance with each other.” Built over what was originally 5 single family homes, this lofty experiment has managed to create 18 homes within the limited .82 acre space available for the project. In doing so, the hope was to install a sense of community similar to that experienced in apartments and townhomes but with the luxury and added space of a house. Of course, this comes with a heftier price. As one of the most expensive housing projects in the Echo Park/Silverlake area, the homes range between $795K and $1.145M.
The concept of “community” is first and foremost showcased in the kitchen-living room where the open floor plan extends, metaphorically speaking, beyond the windows and into the shared parking lot acting as a “living space” where everyone can, quite literally, see each other and connect. This communal space is “known as the woonerf, a central landscaped courtyard that serves as the parking area for the homes,” and, to the hope of the designer, much more. As only 6 of the 18 units have their own parking garages, this space will be taken up primarily by cars, but has the potential for neighborly BBQs or other shared activities.
(Left) Arielle takes notes. (Right) Ashley makes herself at home.
The construction details and design choices were impressively made with great intention and precision to make the most of the limited space. The two-directional awning windows, for example, are not typically used for residential projects but allow a greater sense of openness in the rooms, creating a constant stream of light throughout the homes. Though one of the intentions of the project was to pay homage to the historic craftsman homes of the neighborhood, they appear far more modern with some earthy accents like the hardwood oak floors. The industrial, often IKEA-esque design doesn’t detract from the general warmth many of the units have; it does, however, stray away from the envisioned historic influence. The most notable homage to the craftsman era are in the pitched rooves; an expensive and challenging addition made to blend in with the adjacent homes. The tastefully staged, bohemian decor by Platform in the model homes further exhibits the potential of what these spaces could be with a little heart, soul and personality. And if you like any of the items showcased, they can be purchased.
(Bottom left) Built in bookcases. (Right) Bohemian decor by Platform.
Though these modern, barn-shaped homes look almost identical at an outside glance, there are actually 4 prototype designs showcasing variation in size, layout and privacy. Each model is given a name coinciding with the general theme of birds and their respective whereabouts and surroundings. A couple homes have breathtaking views of the Echo Park hills and downtown, while others seem to solely look into their neighbor’s’ windows; an inherent result of such a challenging, ambitious project architecturally, engineering and space wise.
We were given a private tour of the homes and property by the Blackbirds’ superintendent, Steve Zeledon. With his firsthand expertise and generous willingness to explain both the minute details and general goals of the project, we experienced a unique, firsthand look at what life would be like in a Blackbird and for whom such dwellings would be most suitable. It should be noted that Zeledon and his team’s work on the Blackbirds is most impressive; these are homes that are constructed to last, and it clearly shows.
(Left) Arielle and Steve Zeledon take in the view in front of Brewer’s glass ledge. (Right) Blackbirds are a tight squeeze.
We saw three staged model-homes, which helped to picture them in real-life terms and how the spaces inside the varying models could be utilized in different ways. The Brewer model has 2 bedrooms and 2.5 bathrooms, an airy and open kitchen-living room hybrid space with large cantilevered balconies and a private garage. The master bedroom, though small, is given an expansive illusion with the glass ledge boasting epic views. This model and its particular positioning at the leftmost end of the property allows a good deal of privacy in these otherwise revealing homes.
This was also the case with the Trail models, of which 3 out of the 6 are already sold. In many ways, this model offers the most privacy, with both a front and back enclosed patio as an added bonus. The large, open windows of this model face Preston Street with views of Downtown instead of neighbors and the concrete parking lot. The downstairs floors have an interesting, industrial feel with natural foundation-concrete that was poured, washed, sealed and polished to highlight the natural cracks. The oak hardwood floors continue upstairs.
We then took a walk through the Perch model, which was not staged but nonetheless offered a unique and striking floor plan. We asked Zeledon who he thought would be the ideal inhabitants for this model, to which he instantly replied, “roommates.” And an astute choice, given Perch’s particular three-story layout catering less to a family with young children and more to a shared space amongst singles. The central kitchen-living room common space is on the second floor where the main house entrance lies. The first floor has two bedrooms, a recreation room and a shared bathroom making it an ideal scenario for roommates. The recreation room could be a many things including perhaps another bedroom if feasible with building codes. The master bedroom takes up the entire top floor, is spacious and much more private than the other models.
You would perhaps expect the most expensive model to feature a good deal of privacy along with the other added amenities. Nest, however, at a steep $1.45M, could not be further from the latter. There doesn’t seem to be a room inside that is not overtly revealed to the public eye, including the master bedroom which is surrounded by full-length windows on three of the four walls.
Though this model includes the largest kitchen-living room open floor plan, three bedrooms, 2.5 bathrooms, a recreation room and private garage, it still seems a hefty price to pay considering the lack of privacy. And the only outdoor space in the front yard opens directly to Vestal Ave without any buffer from the street or neighbors. If Nest was geared towards a family, it would seem fit for one from a congested, high-density city where privacy is not a familiar commodity and autonomy and open space are not the highest of priorities.
The future of Echo Park?
With the challenge of balancing space, building to code, observing earthquake safety regulations, creating a drought-tolerant landscape and maintaining, to an extent, the overall vision of the project, the Blackbirds seems an obvious success. Whether it fulfills its aesthetic vision, respects the historic integrity of the neighborhood and falls in line with the ideal future of Echo Park, is another story.
This begins a more personal conversation for those who live in and love this neighborhood, namely, the neighbors. Many of those immediately surrounding the Blackbirds have been vocal about their disdain for the project. Much of this unhappiness revolves around the current congestion of cars during the construction process as well as future concern over parking on the surrounding streets. With the probability of numerous visitors taking up parking space on the already steep and narrow streets adjacent to the Blackbirds, this concern is understandable. Though the project did open Vestal Ave. up an extra 10 feet wide and incorporates resident parking within the property, there will undoubtedly still be an increased overflow of cars and traffic in the neighborhood.
Furthermore, the Blackbirds now block what was once a perfect view of the hills and downtown for neighbors positioned directly above the property on Vestal Ave. Now all they see is a panorama of homes in a formation that one local described as resembling “a Squarespace template.”
The response isn’t all negative, however. As our friendly guide Steve Zeledon explained, “before the project, the 5 original properties and surrounding land was a stomping ground for animals.” Some neighbors have expressed gratitude for the project’s presence now decreasing the number of wild animals in the neighborhood as many have lost their dogs and cats to coyotes. The project has also limited the presence of gangs on the stairway below on Preston Ave., another welcomed change by many locals. An elderly neighbor had simultaneously complained to Zeledon about the mess of the construction zone, yet in the same breath thanked the Blackbirds for increasing the value of the property he purchased in the 1970s for $80,000.
But beyond those personally affected by the Blackbirds, the project and others with similar goals opens a greater debate as to the future of the neighborhood as a whole. While those behind the Blackbirds hope to offer and promote an integrated sense of community, it seems almost forced; a perhaps artificially utopic vision of something that would normally evolve organically. One might even argue that it’s less an experiment in sustainable, communal living, but rather a strategy to cram as many homes in a tight a space as possible to maximize profit.
Photo credit: Bestor Architecture
Could this be the kind of community catering to someone who doesn’t already belong to the neighborhood and thus relies on the cookie-cutter communal living that comes with purchasing one of these homes? And not that this prospect is necessarily a bad thing for those seeking relationships in a new place, it just begs the question: who exactly is the new Echo Park?
According to Zeledon, much of the interest in the Blackbirds has been from people from out of town, specifically the east coast. “And the part that’s really interesting,” he explained, “is when they walk in here and go, ‘That’s crazy, $1.45M for all this? You can’t get nothing like that in New York.’” Which makes you wonder, what exactly do these interested parties value in a home and neighborhood? For a million dollars, the densely-packed Blackbirds community may seem incredibly spacious and even cheap compared to Manhattan’s unforgivingly pricey real estate.
Yet for those who have lived in Echo Park for many years, or at least understand what the community values, the perspective may be different. Though in its mission statement the Blackbirds project strives to incorporate the new and old of the neighborhood, it’s hard to see where the old, historic, unique craftsman influence plays a part. In purchasing one of these homes, you are resigning a certain sense of individuality, especially with the exterior. But every aspect of these homes, including the asphalt communal space and materials used inside the homes, are new.
(Left) The modern Blackbirds. (Right) A craftsman home next door.