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A senior center by Michael Lehrer makes the most of its East L.A. site while becoming an asset for the community

Story by Kristopher Fortin, photos by Tara Wujick

Deep in suburban East Los Angeles County, the Potrero Heights Park Community and Senior Center on the Montebello and Rosemead border was envisioned to be an anchor of community engagement and civic pride. But when the project was awarded to Silverlake-based Lehrer Architects, the challenge was a bit more complicated: Add a building—but save the park.

The firm’s principal, Michael Lehrer, explained it this way: “How do you put a building in a park that’s not very big without destroying the park?”

On an April 26 tour of the Potrero Heights Park Community and Senior Center as part of de Lab’s Making LA series, Lehrer talked about the multiple architectural design details to make the building a transitional gateway, and a functional building with activities for residents of all ages. The building was completed in 2012 and took over five years to finish from design to construction. Costing $1.7 million, the 4,000 square foot building has given residents—a majority of them seniors—a place to exercise, take computer classes and do a monthly movie nights.

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The community center is located at 8051 Arroyo Dr. and is surrounded by single-family homes, apartments, Potrero Heights Elementary and Resurrection Cemetery and Mausoleum. It serves up to 1,500 people a month, with 70 percent seniors, said Mamikon Nalchajyan, community services analyst aid for the County of Los Angeles.

For a limited sized space, the architects used as many design attributes to make the building appealing inside and outside.

Looking out from the street the roof almost disappears; but as one gets closer it gets bigger.

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Use of light plays a big role in many of Lehrer Architects’ building, especially this one, Lehrer said. The cantilevered aluminum roof grating on the side of the building gives shade, but also makes the light seem in motion whether a person is stationary or walking through.

“One thing that always keeps buildings dynamic if you really orchestrate the building so the lights always doing something,” Lehrer said.

Inside the building, the seven large glass garage doors allow enough light in during the day that lights don’t need to be used. Skylights through the buildings’ hallways, bathrooms, and community conference room also provide enough lighting, even on an overcast day, said Nalchajyan.

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The front entrance was designed to be a gateway to the park. While the entrance was originally designed to have longer steps, the ADA-accessible ramp with its budding garden wall was given more emphasis as the main entrance.

“Rather than just coming up a few steps directly into the community center you actually arrive here, you walk up, you have a transition,” Lehrer said.

The doors facing the street level and the park area were designed to open like a garage door so the building could open and close as needed. But the doors stay closed during day-to-day operation because the noise from the street ended up being distracting during instructional classes, said Nalchajyan.

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While the park borders two cities, the architects worked with four key groups: Los Angeles County, who hired Lehrer architects and operates the building, Montebello City, who manages the park, Montebello School District, who owns the property and nearby residents.

Prior to the building being installed, the park didn’t have city programming. Today, activities including line dancing, tai chi and computer classes. The most popular activity is the crochet group, said Nalchajyan.

See more photos from the event here.

Kristopher Fortin is an urban planner and journalist who has written for the OC Register, Streetsblog and Planetizen. 

Tara Wujick is an architectural photographer based in Los Angeles.

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This is the sixth event in our Making LA series, which is made possible by support from the National Endowment for the Arts. Making LA consists of ten free programs hosted throughout the city between fall 2013 and fall 2014 that focus on designers and architects working closely with communities and civic leaders to improve Los Angeles. The series will culminate in the Making LA conference in fall 2014, a one-day event where creative leaders from across Los Angeles will share best practices and investigate new ways to make their burgeoning civic, architectural or design projects a reality. Want to sponsor an upcoming event? Learn more.