Re-envisioning
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The missing middle: San Francisco developers rethink how to build housing in reach of the middle class

San Francisco Business Times by Cory Weinberg

May 15, 2015

For four decades, real estate developer Westlake Urban has held onto a six-acre slice of sloped, winding land where 86 rent-controlled housing units sit in the shadow of the forested Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve. But it will soon be time for big changes.

San Mateo-based Westlake Urban is shooting to turn the Kirkham Heights housing development into the largest new project to hit the Inner Sunset neighborhood. Its vision calls for 460 residential units dotted between widened sidewalks, new landscaping and parks.

The undertaking is unusual for San Francisco — and provides the ideal opportunity for the developer to try something new. Thirty percent of the units will be rent controlled or below-market-rate. Gaye Quinn, managing director at Westlake Urban, wants more of the units to be within reach of the middle class.

But how can developers reach middle-class families of four making less than $122,300 or individual public workers making less than $80,000 a year? The skyrocketing costs of land and construction in San Francisco have developers and their investors building more and more for luxury buyers, and that’s creating a middle-class donut hole that isn’t being filled.

“We believe it’s time for innovation in the building industry,” Quinn said. “There are a lot of technologies and innovations happening in the Bay Area right now, and we have a fight that’s full of challenges where it’s the perfect place to deploy.”

Westlake Urban and development manager Transform Urban are now exploring construction and design strategies that will build on some of the other innovations starting to bubble around the development world to make building cheaper.

The project could be the first major development in the region to reduce costs through urban mining to turn existing soil into building blocks, helping save on materials.

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