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Good design as a good deed, on Skid Row and beyond

December 12, 2011 |  8:06 am

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Architects and designers can -- and do -- talk about the effects their work can have on homeless people who move into homes they build. But at a panel discussion on the topic, it was Paul Mitchell talking about the meaning of seeing birds outside his own window who moved the crowd.

Blu Dot, the Minneapolis-based home design company with a store on Melrose Avenue in L.A., sponsored the panel discussion along with Skid Row Housing Trust, which develops and manages apartment buildings that provide permanent housing for the formerly homeless.

Mitchell, who said he was homeless for the better part of 20 years, has lived in the Olympia Hotel for about a year, in a third-floor apartment with a tree out his window.

“I have birds that come in. It created a home for me,” he said at the event Thursday. A group of sparrows that worked early, chatted, flew away and came back to sleep each night became “like my mentors. They’re hard-working, peaceful neighbors.”

Once the tree was trimmed, the sparrows left, but some hummingbirds moved in, and Mitchell put out a feeder. “This one little hummingbird, such a small thing, makes a difference in my life,” he said after the panel discussion.

“The ability of design to make people feel secure, welcomed and part of a community is so important,” said Suzanne Furst, an interior designer who worked with the trust on the renovation of the Cobb Apartments in downtown L.A.

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Allen Compton of SALT Landscape Architects described workshops with residents of the Las Americas Hotel that led to the plans for a community space behind the building. When asked, residents said they’d like a mural, bike rack, space to plant food and a barbecue, Compton said.

“We talked about how they might actually use the space,” he said.

Architects can act as a catalyst for change, such as pushing for a pocket park within a complex, said architect Lorcan O’Herlihy. Every project he takes on, whether for wealthy people or those on shoestring, is “about an idea,” he said.

Vic Rodriguez, who has lived in the trust’s Dewey Hotel for eight years, said, “I cannot explain the freedom and independence I started to feel again” once he had a permanent home.

Skid Row Housing Trust has 24 buildings with 1,500 apartments. Medora Danz, Blu Dot vice president for sales and customer service, said this was the Los Angeles’ store first -- but she hopes not last -- community event.

RELATED:

A store called Made at the Downtown Women's Center

Decorating  apartmentsfor the homeless

Rooftop garden at Cobb apartments

 -- Mary MacVean

Top photo: The Cobb Apartments on San Pedro Street are among the Skid Row Housing Trust buildings. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times

Bottom photo: A sunflower grows in the rooftop garden of the Cobb Apartments. Credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times

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