Two buildings with cross grain massing that allows for a walkway between them
The Park, a 249-unit development in Santa Monica, California, rethinks the formula by breaking the street wall to offer a more sustainable, informal, and neighborly vision.

How Koning Eizenberg Is Revolutionizing Multifamily Design by Going Against the Grain

Over the last few years, the Santa Monica, California, firm has evolved a new system of massing that opens homes up to space, light, and community.

Standing at the corner of Broadway and 5th Street in downtown Santa Monica you’ll see familiar urban sites like a wood paneled Target, a six-story senior home called Silvercrest, a tinted glass office building housing a WeWork space, and a number of multi-family developments with stores and cafes on their ground levels an hefty cubes of residences perched above, over concrete podia. But on the southeast corner of the block, a new development introduces something different: A 249-unit edifice fronted with jagged white window bays and black steel screens, its overall form composed of four long bars extending toward the curb. The bars are lifted atop hefty white columns, creating a repeating pattern of small plazas edging the street.

The complex, known as The Park, is an example of an approach that the building’s architects, Santa Monica firm Koning Eizenberg Architecture, call “cross grain massing,” which describes how its bars of units and steel and concrete-supported courtyards intersect with the street wall rather than following it. While maintaining the same number of units as a typical developer building, the majority of The Park’s units—even those at the eastern end of its courtyards—have views to the ocean, while natural light and breezes pour deep inside; which makes particularly good sense in such a benign climate. The irregular street front plazas, meanwhile, break down the building mass and draw energy both toward the structure (and its variety of street level retail) and onto the sidewalk.

A sidewalk with people walking under concrete columns
The Park’s units are lifted atop faceted columns, allowing the flow of life on the sidewalks below.

The Benefits of Cross Grain Massing

The firm sees the system, which has evolved over the years but only recently become a formalized approach, as an antidote to the predictable developer boxes—kind of maxed out McMansions for multifamily living, wrapping around internal courtyards—so prevalent in Los Angeles, and virtually everywhere else. “We knew that their vision of diverting from the normal donut-shaped properties was key to the success of the design and overall project,” notes The Park’s developer, Alex Witkoff. Koning Eizenberg is now employing the system in a handful of projects, including four in the L.A. region and one on the South Side of Chicago, and hopes it can help better unlock the potential of multi-family living, particularly in active urban areas.

Aerial view of a housing complex consisting of four buildings
The Park’s cross grain massing creates opportunities for the public realm and private areas to interlock and intermingle.

“The question was, how do we create a benefit to the neighborhood and the city while also contributing to the life of the residents?” notes Koning Eizenberg partner Nathan Bishop, who refers to the smaller public areas created by the form as “sticky spaces,” for their ability to draw people. “With a conventional street wall building, more than half the units have a lousy view,” he adds. “But somehow that’s what’s expected.” Koning Eizenberg principal Julie Eizenberg likens the variety of spaces carved out by cross grain projects to the quirky, approachable spaces of many cities’ older neighborhoods.

About a half mile from 5th and Broadway is The Arroyo, a 100 percent affordable housing complex that grew out of the same development agreement as The Park. While its location, on much louder and grittier Lincoln Boulevard, not far from the 10 Freeway, isn’t exactly bucolic, the building’s three bars of residences, extending toward the street, separated by a colorful, landscaped courtyard and topped by a perforated canopy, is somehow both calming and charming, both for residents and those walking by. Since its courtyard is on the ground level, it provides a more palpable connection to the street than the Park, whose courtyards emerge from the second floor. Its glazed ground level spaces are dedicated to community rooms, not retail.

“It’s a great example of what design does for the livability of residents,” says Jesus Hernandez, Director of Housing Development at the Community Corporation of Santa Monica, the project’s developer, “What it does for open space and light and community.” The courtyard spaces, he notes, make individual units feel larger, yet they make the overall building feel smaller, because they’re so open and soft.   

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A white housing complex viewed from the street with colorful accents and trees.
The Arroyo, a 64 unit affordable LEED Platinum housing development, is located at the edge of transit- and job-rich downtown Santa Monica.
A courtyard in a housing complex with a curving pathway and greenery
The cross grain massing creates space for a green area and floating bridges.

The Arroyo, like The Park, and all the firm’s cross-grain projects, also contains floating bridges, outdoor stairs, and informal planted spaces, connecting the jutting “bars” and adding energy, lightness, outdoor connection, and opportunities for informal exercise and social interaction. (Such elements generally don’t count toward overall floor area ratio, helping the projects pencil out.) These multi-dimensional communal elements vary from project to project. In colder Chicago’s Woodlawn Social, a 70-unit project on the city’s South Side, bridges will be glazed, but feature congregating and play spaces. At Santa Monica Village, a new project in the East Hollywood neighborhood of L.A., raised outdoor spaces and play areas will float above the ground floor’s food hall at several levels. At The Park, a 1-acre rooftop park (designed by Spurlock Landscape Architects), connected by bridges, spans all four bars, containing thick native plantings, public art, small herb gardens, a wading pool, and photovoltaic shade canopies. (The building, by the way, is rated LEED Platinum).

“The more we can envision these working like hill towns rather than a slab with housing above, the stronger we can bridge communities together,” notes Eizenberg.

Overcoming Planning Challenges with Cross Grain Massing

Despite their success so far, the process of getting cross grain projects off the ground, points out Bishop, is much more laborious than that of more conventional buildings, simply because they’re not the norm. With both The Arroyo and The Park, the firm had to negotiate with the city of Santa Monica to shift local codes, which now allow for more street wall variation. In Los Angeles, at both Vermont Santa Monica and the recently completed Flor, containing supportive housing units for the formerly homeless in Skid Row, the firm had sit down with planners to prove that the technique checked off the right boxes within the building code.

A housing complex with green accents and floating bridges between the two wings.
The Flor 401 Lofts in Los Angeles, also designed by Koning Eizenberg, offer 98 units and on-site services to help stabilize the lives of residents who were formally unhoused, many of whom live with mental illness and/or substance abuse disorders. The project has LEED Platinum certification.
The courtyard provides access to on-site social services, while the floating bridges encourage informal exercise and social interaction.

The one exception to such struggles was Woodlawn Social, which meshed effectively with the goals of Chicago’s Invest South/West initiative, a $2.2 billion public/private community development program, defeating two other firms in a competition and sailing through the planning department’s Committee on Design.  “The entire premise of the program is to elevate architecture to attract eyeballs and private investment,” notes Bill Williams, founding principal of KMW Communities, the project’s developer. In addition to its carved out public space and neighborhood retail, adds Williams, the project innovates with its mix of affordable and market rate rental apartments and for sale townhomes, many of them priced moderately. “It’s a place for every income bracket,” he notes, adding, “the neighborhood is starved for energy and services.”

Another key to cross grain massing’s ability to bridge private and public realms is planting trees and landscaping both inside and outside each building. But that, too, has been a challenge, particularly in the public realm. The firm had to fight for six months to get trees planted on the street outside of Flor, notes Eizenberg. At The Park, where trees, vines, and succulents emerge from courtyards, plazas, and elsewhere, public protest ensured that decades-old Ficus trees would be preserved, albeit with a pronounced haircut.

Woodlawn Social promises to catalyze a critical section of 63rd Street in Chicago and serve as a connective development tying the growth already occurring around Cottage Grove with the excitement building to the east around the Obama Presidential Center.
The development is envisioned as a vehicle for community wealth through a cooperative ownership platform and a commercial tenant employee stock ownership plan.

Another trial is maintaining porosity between public and private spaces, generally due to worries about security—particularly as the crisis of homelessness continues to metastasize.  Of Koning Eizenberg’s five (and counting) cross grain projects either completed or in the works, none offer unimpeded connections between courtyard and street. At The Arroyo a row of mirrored vertical bars is a reasonable compromise, almost seeming to disappear, but it’s still a sad reflection of larger realities.

Even areas specifically designated for the public are a work in progress when it comes to activation. At The Park, streetside communal spaces feel a little unwelcoming, (despite greenery, handsome textured ground surfaces, and a public art piece called Split Stone, by Sara Sze), with a lack of street furniture or places to linger, and only about half of the ground floor retail spaces occupied. Bishop and developer Witkoff think this will improve when retail—particularly a restaurant with its outdoor tables—arrives, but that depends on what is now an iffy retail sector.

Another frontier for this model is creating as much variety inside apartments as in the public and semi-public spaces. For private developers, Bishop says, attempts to suggest new layouts challenge established proformas, while for low-income housing they challenges rules designed, in theory, to protect tenants. But the architect notes that these projects are just the beginning of a longer journey, an evolution. He envisions multi-level public outdoor spaces, new combinations of public and private, and much more. Eizenberg agrees: “The old paradigms aren’t holding,” she says. “The issue of green space as we densify is a big deal. Retail is a question mark. People are craving more human connection. It’s going to be very interesting to see how it plays out.”

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