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Transforming an Historic YMCA into Supportive Housing and a Health Clinic for the Homeless

The former Central YMCA in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood is an architecturally celebrated structure and a beloved community asset. The building underwent a transformative renovation that preserved its long civic tradition while also providing permanent housing and holistic supportive services for the city’s homeless.

Constructed shortly after San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake, the nine-story building, built in the classical style with renaissance ornamentation, helped earn the Uptown Tenderloin Historic District a listing in the National Register of Historic Places. After the YMCA moved out of the building because of the cost of required seismic upgrades, the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TNDC), a nonprofit affordable housing developer that owns 32 buildings in the city, purchased the building in 2007. A 5-year renovation resulted in Kelly Cullen Community, featuring 174 studio units as well as commercial space and an 11,700-square-foot federally qualified health clinic on the first floor. The renovation also restored the structure’s most architecturally significant features: its gym, auditorium, atrium lobby, meeting spaces, and grand staircase.

Upholding Dignity

TNDC converted the YMCA’s former hotel rooms into 172 permanent supportive housing units for the homeless and 2 apartments for staff. Each unit is approximately 230 square feet, retains the original structure’s window bays and high ceilings, and includes space for storage, kitchenettes, and bathrooms. Although the renovation increased the size of the housing units, Kelly Cullen was able to add more housing units to the building by replacing the two-story handball courts and boys’ gym with two floors of apartments.

The residential component of the renovation presented several challenges, according to Chris Duncan, a principal at Gelfand Partners Architects. Duncan notes that supplying 174 residential units with modern water, electrical, heating, and ventilation systems, with all pipes and ducts concealed within floors and walls to comply with historic preservation requirements, was an especially “complex physical puzzle” that required constant collaboration among the developer, architects, and general contractor. In addition, energy efficiency and accessibility had their own needs for space, and required seismic upgrades had to be provided within aesthetic and cost constraints. The outcome of this complex renovation is housing for the formerly homeless in an elegant and dignified context. The dignity of the residential space is complemented by the restoration of the building’s many common spaces.

Preserving the Past

Kelly Cullen Community retains the building’s longstanding social purpose and community role. The developer restored many original building features with few changes, including the three-story men’s gym and the auditorium. In the basement, the developer also preserved the original swimming pool, giving special attention to deck, wall, and column tiles and providing a removable floor plate so the space could be used as a meeting room.

TNDC devoted considerable attention to restoring the architectural centerpiece of the building — the two-story, skylit lobby — as well as reconstructing the grand staircase that was lost during remodeling in the 1950s. The developer reconstructed the staircase in meticulous detail using compatible building materials, including terrazzo stairs, tile walls, wood ceilings, and translucent planters. Kelly Cullen Community also includes new common spaces: a kitchen, laundry room, and landscaped roof, which Duncan notes was designed to create “a little oasis for residents.”

The renovations included environmental features such as hydronic radiant panel heating, humidistat-controlled bathroom ventilation fans, energy-efficient light fixtures, and sustainable materials such as products containing little or no volatile organic compounds. According to Duncan, the goal was to develop systems that would use the least amount of energy and take advantage of the building’s ample natural light. In addition, 92 percent of the units meet the accessibility standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Linking Housing and Health

One of Kelly Cullen Community’s new distinguishing features is the Tom Waddell Urban Health Clinic, a space that has received Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Commercial Interiors Gold certification. As part of the project’s holistic approach to serving the homeless, the San Francisco Department of Public Health provides medical, psychological, and social services for Kelly Cullen tenants and an anticipated 25,000 patients per year from the wider community. Residents also have access to intensive services from an onsite multiagency team of social workers and nurses as well as money managers who coordinate tenants’ rental payments. This integration of medical, mental health, and substance-abuse services addresses tenants’ needs holistically and helps achieve one of the project’s goals: reducing high-cost hospitalizations for homeless individuals. Fifty of Kelly Cullen’s tenants were selected for permanent housing specifically because they were among the highest cost users enrolled in the San Francisco Health Plan, which provides health care coverage for low- and moderate-income individuals. New York University researchers are conducting an evaluation to assess how this integrated approach affects residents’ use of high-cost health services.


Total development costs were approximately $91 million (table 1). Federal funds made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) were essential to completing the building because an investor for the affordable housing tax credits was never identified. Despite the challenges related to the project’s scale, complexity, and financing, TNDC executive director Don Falk credits the many stakeholders who believed in Kelly Cullen Community with ensuring its success: “We experienced so many problems [and] so many difficulties in getting Kelly Cullen Community developed. We could not have succeeded if it weren’t something the San Francisco community wanted to see happen.”

Table 1: Financing for Kelly Cullen Community

San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development


ARRA funds in lieu of low-income housing tax credit equity


ARRA funds in lieu of California Department of Housing and Community Development Multifamily Housing Program


ARRA funds in lieu of California Transit Oriented Development Housing Program


PNC Bank — historic tax credit equity


California Housing Finance Agency — Mental Health Services Act Housing Program


Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco — Affordable Housing Program




Restoring a Community Asset

In addition to winning the 2013 National Preservation Honor Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation for the building’s restoration, Kelly Cullen Community received the 2014 American Institute of Architects/HUD Secretary’s Award in the Creating Community Connection category because of the way it incorporates affordable housing with community amenities. The auditorium, gym, and multipurpose room, which are all available for use by the wider community, hosted 35 free events by local nonprofits and community organizations in 2013. The auditorium and multipurpose room are the most-used rooms, and TNDC continues to evaluate how to make the best use of the gym for members of the community. Opening the building in this way, Kelly Cullen Community preserves a beloved neighborhood asset while also providing opportunities for the community’s most vulnerable residents through coordinated housing and health services.