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Centre Street lofts in San Diego: New vision for apartment living

February 24, 2012 |  5:07 pm

Centre Street hinged window
On an otherwise unremarkable avenue in San Diego, architect Lloyd Russell has built an apartment complex intended to challenge commonly held assumptions about apartment living. How? By targeting a very specific group of renters — a generation of young Californians burned by the housing bust.

Center Street indoor outdoor“Dad and I thought there were a lot of young people out there who have had a hard time holding on to their first homes,” said Russell, who developed the Centre Street apartments with Lloyd Russell Sr., formerly a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “Their expectations about how they wanted to live had expanded, but their ability to pay for them had contracted.”

Soon after the Centre Street complex was finished in late 2010, the architect placed a small “for rent” sign outside. Russell confessed to having been nervous. He posted the apartments on Craigslist as well, knowing that the project needed to reach 90% occupancy in 90 days before the bank would agree to the long-term financing he needed. Russell wondered, “Is there such a market?”

PHOTO GALLERY: Centre Street lofts in San Diego

The answer came quickly. Despite rents that were as much as 20% higher than what the San Diego real estate research firm MarketPointe said was the average per-square-foot price for newly constructed rental housing in the city, Centre Street reached its occupancy goal well before the bank's three-month deadline. Today, the loft-style apartments are loaded not only with design features that are novel for rentals, but also with residents who have happily set aside the dream of house ownership for a cool, modern apartment.

“Several applicants had been through short sales,” said Keith Weibrecht, an associate architect in Russell's office, who manages applications at the Centre Street lofts and lives on the third floor. (That's his apartment with the glass sliders pushed open, above right.) “Another applicant had a credit rating of 400.”

Russell said they “decided we would look at the full picture, and if you had a good story and seemed responsible, that was fine with us.”

Centre Street loft
Waiter Christopher Salem, 49, who owned a nearby condominium, now lives in a 400-square-foot Centre Street loft with his partner and their three dogs.

“There was a time when I was proud to be a homeowner,” said Salem, pictured above climbing a ladder to his sleeping loft. “The irony is, even though I'm paying a little more, I'm much happier here. I wake up in the morning with light coming in on three sides, and I'm invigorated.”

Rents for most of the 400- to 1,200-square-foot units range from $1,250 to $2,650 a month. In exchange, tenants get a design that departs from the contemporary cookie-cutter apartment building.

The use of stucco and other standard materials is a sleight of hand. Inside, the units are airy and bright, akin to lofts one usually sees for sale. Each apartment has a different layout, all exulting in high ceilings that reach as high as 17 feet.

Centre Street CourtyardThe interior courtyard feels European, helped in part by its crazily patterned brick floor. Even the underground parking lot contains a surprise: twin palm trees whose trunks must be negotiated on the way in.

Almost every apartment has a sizable terrace, designed to serve as an additional room and often accessible by sliding glass pocket doors.

“If you want to make an apartment affordable, then you make each apartment small,” Russell said. “Tenants on the other hand want it big. So my solution was to do the California thing: Add outdoor space.”

In the one apartment with no terrace, Abbey Capstick's 550-square-foot home on the second floor, Russell installed an 8-by-8-foot window that pivots, pictured at the top of the post.

“It's awesome,” said Capstick, 32, an interior designer. “I have it open all the time so I can look out to the tree tops during the day, and at night, watch the moon from my bed.”

Because Russell's buildings forsake what he refers to as “industrial clutter,” he managed to get Centre Street built with no corridors or elevators. The payoff is less “wasted” space, though anyone on the third floor must learn to love stairs.

Center Street living room
The apartments also have varied kitchens. For Weibrecht's third floor loft, a contractor built the cabinetry but Russell purchased the cabinet doors from IKEA. The countertop is CaesarStone quartz, and an elegant green-tile backsplash complements black appliances. “All very minimalist,” Weibrecht said. (That's him in his living room, above.)

Designing 25 individual lofts would not appeal to most developers, who cry out for standardization. But for Russell, that was the fun part.

“I'm an architect, and I got to work on 25 little experiments,” he said. “You can't beat that.”

The renters at Centre Street seem pleased, among them Bianca Pettis and Jacob Roske, artists from Minnesota who qualified for one of two low-income units, each $750 a month. “We couldn't get anything like this in Minneapolis,” Pettis said.

The project also provided an opportunity for Russell to partner with his father. Five years ago, Lloyd Russell Sr. had a heart attack and retired. Since then, father and son have had a weekly lunch and architecture talk. “We drive around and look at lots, and work on the nuts and bolts of financing,” said Lloyd Russell Jr. “When the stock market settles, I'll start teasing him about the next project.”


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-- David Hay

Photos: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times