Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation
Main content start

“This is the future of architectural design”

Stanford students employ the practical and collaborative principles of sustainable urban systems to help revitalize Stockton, one of the hardest-hit cities in the financial crisis.

In California's Central Valley, a group of students designed a development that combines low income housing and commercial services. | Image by the designers​

In California's Central Valley, a group of students designed a development that combines low income housing and commercial services. | Image by the designers​

During the financial crisis, the city of Stockton, in California’s Central Valley, led the nation in home foreclosure rates and the city itself filed for bankruptcy.

Stockton recovered somewhat, but almost one-quarter of its population still lives below the poverty line. In South Stockton, where unemployment hovers around 18% and almost half the population lives in poverty, Stanford Engineering students have teamed up with city officials and community leaders to design a plan to revive the neighborhood through a mixed-use housing development.

The students faced real world constraints: They would have to keep costs low enough so that apartments would be affordable to people with extremely low incomes, a difficult hurdle even with subsidies.

At the same time, the plan had to be attractive and practical enough to attract solid commercial tenants – and investors – to one of the city’s most depressed neighborhoods.

In May, this student-conceived plan won Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s annual Low Income Housing Challenge, a 25-year-old design competition that is judged by experts in affordable housing, architecture and finance.

Sustainable urban systems

Now, as city and community leaders try to bring this plan to reality, the project highlights Stanford’s increasing emphasis on teaching students to improve the quality of city life by designing sustainable urban systems. This cross-disciplinary approach integrates civil engineering and architecture, urban studies and environmental sustainability, to create financially sound and aesthetically pleasing developments tailored to community needs.

“This is the future of architectural design,” says Lynn Hildemann, who chairs Stanford’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “Instead of architects working in isolation and handing off their plans to the engineering people, who have to figure out how to build them, we think there should be more of a collaboration.”

Derek Ouyang, a lecturer in the department’s Sustainable Urban Systems initiative, guided the Stanford team. Their design envisions a three-story, C-shaped complex with 62 apartments for low-income tenants, complete with patios that overlook a courtyard of trees and grass.

The living spaces would occupy the upper levels of the development. The ground floor, with a glass façade, would be anchored by Mandela Marketplace, an Oakland-based community-owned food co-op that works with local farmers and entrepreneurs. Community Medical Centers, which has been serving low-income residents in Stockton for years, would occupy a separate new building next door.

Satisfying residents, city officials, investors

To make the apartments as affordable as possible, the team broke with tradition and designed one quarter of the units for communal living. Individual tenants, who could not have combined annual incomes greater than $35,000, would have their own bedrooms but share the kitchen and other common areas. The sharing arrangement would reduce an individual’s rent by 30%, but the team designed the apartments to be flexible enough for use by single families as well.

Another real-world constraint was to balance the need for a vibrant and open community space with concerns expressed by nearby residents about crime. The result: an enclosed courtyard that would be open to residents and shoppers alike during the day but could be closed off to outsiders at night. And because each apartment will have an outdoor patio that overlooks the courtyard, residents can keep an eye on activities below.

“This is an example of crime prevention through environmental design,” Ouyang said. “This is the sort of thinking we encourage through the teaching of sustainable urban system design.”

The Stanford team also had to grapple with space for parking. The city’s building code would normally call for 233 parking spaces, but that would have drastically reduced the amount of usable building space and undermined the project’s economic feasibility. To get around that, the team proposed a smaller parking allocation, arguing that tenants and shoppers will need parking at different times of the day. Based on talks with city officials, Ouyang thinks the city will go along.

What about financing? The team worked with industry experts and a nonprofit developer of affordable housing, Stocktonians Taking Action to Neutralize Drugs (STAND), which had long been pushing to revitalize the neighborhood. The financing plan includes a mixture of tax credits for affordable housing, soft loans from the city and private investment.

Close collaboration

It’s an ambitious plan, with a projected cost of about $35 million. Yet Stockton city officials are so enthusiastic that they have entered into an exclusive negotiating agreement with STAND, which wants to acquire the land and turn the plan into reality. One of the plan’s biggest supporters is Stockton’s mayor, Michael Tubbs, a Stanford graduate (BA/MA, 2012) and former member of the city council who was elected mayor last fall at the age of 26.

Tubbs, who grew up in poverty in South Stockton, had been looking for ways to resurrect the barren tracts near his old neighborhood. It was Tubbs who first persuaded Ouyang, then an undergraduate completing a dual major in architecture and engineering, to help design a mixed-use complex that would provide affordable housing, community services and new business opportunities.

That was in 2013. Today, after four years of close collaboration with city officials and community leaders, the result is a bold proposal that has a good chance of being built.

Ouyang guided a group of student participants, including Moom Janyaprasert and Nikhil Chaudhuri, both majors in architectural design; Alex Páramo, a junior majoring in management science and engineering; and Paul Schroeder, a graduate student in sustainable design and construction.

“What made it cool was working in a real-world context with such tight financial constraints,” says Janyaprasert. “We had to design something that would improve the quality of life but stay within the limits we had. Every detail and every decision became important.”

Related Departments