Skip to main content

Lancaster, California: Affordable Artist Housing Leads Smart Growth Transformation

  Arbor Artist Lofts is a downtown landmark that provides live/work space for the resident artists (courtesy of PSL Architects).
  The building's curvilinear front massing has become a locally iconic architectural feature in Lancaster's transformed downtown (courtesy of Kelly Barrie, Panic Studio LA).
  The five-story building includes ground level commercial space and an exhibition courtyard with four residential floors located above (courtesy of PSL Architects).
   The courtyard next to Arbor Artist Lofts provides an outdoor exhibition space for the resident artists' work (courtesy of Kelly Barrie, Panic Studio LA).
  The first-floor commercial space was used to exhibit art work shortly after the building opened (courtesy of Kelly Barrie, Panic Studio LA).
   Each of the apartments includes a shared kitchen, main living space, common work area, and four bedrooms (courtesy of Kelly Barrie, Panic Studio LA).
  Arbor Artist Lofts during a street festival (courtesy of PSL Architects).
  Arbor Artist Lofts was the first project developed under the guidance of the city's newly established form based code (courtesy of PSL Architects).
  Arbor Artist Lofts created a bold vision for the future of downtown (courtesy of PSL Architects).
  Prior to redevelopment, Lancaster Boulevard was an automobile-oriented thoroughfare where local businesses struggled to remain open (courtesy of City of Lancaster).
  Phase I of the city's nearly $11 million investment in streetscape improvements along nine blocks of Lancaster Boulevard (The BLVD) (courtesy of City of Lancaster).
  The Ramblas on Lancaster Boulevard, where center-of-street parking can be devoted to other uses during special events (courtesy of City of Lancaster).
  Revelers enjoy Halloween on The BLVD; the redevelopment has created a destination for residents and visitors to the community (courtesy of Curt Gideon Photography).

Home > Case Studies > Lancaster, California: Affordable Artist Housing Leads Smart Growth Transformation


Lancaster, California: Affordable Artist Housing Leads Smart Growth Transformation


Arbor Artist Lofts is a 21-unit housing development in Lancaster, California that provides affordable housing for working artists. The project, part of the city's strategy to transform its struggling downtown into a regional hub for culture and the arts, received the 2010 American Institute of Architects (AIA)/HUD Secretary's Award for Creating Community Connection. Arbor Artist Lofts was a catalyst for the revitalization of downtown Lancaster, which earned a 2012 National Award for Smart Growth Achievement in the Overall Excellence category from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Background and Context

Situated approximately 70 miles north of Los Angeles in the high desert of the Antelope Valley, Lancaster has transformed from a railroad outpost in the late 1800s into one of the state's most rapidly growing cities.1 Although the aerospace industry fueled the city's growth in the 1950s and 1960s, during the last quarter of the 20th century, the city attracted first-time homebuyers seeking relief from the Los Angeles region's high housing costs. Lancaster's population more than tripled from approximately 48,000 residents in 1980 to more than 157,000 by 2011. Much of this growth resulted from annexations, as the city expanded from 37 square miles in 1980 to its current 94 square miles just 12 years later.2

While Lancaster's population grew outward, the city's core slowly declined. Businesses along Lancaster Boulevard struggled to compete with suburban shopping centers, and by the early 2000s, empty storefronts were common in a business district that captured only 1.5 percent of citywide retail sales.3 The loss of a thriving main street district was felt not only by local businesses; many residents and city leaders yearned for the era when downtown was the community's social and cultural center. In 2006, the city initiated a detailed planning process for 140 acres in the downtown area.4 The resulting Downtown Lancaster Specific Plan, which the city adopted in 2008, promoted a walkable urban core for the Antelope Valley, where residents can live, work, play, and shop.5 At the heart of the plan was a form-based code that would regulate the design of buildings and public amenities.

As the city moved forward with its plan, the private sector became engaged in downtown renewal. In 2007, a proposal emerged to draw the pioneering spirit of artists to Lancaster's downtown, with residences being marketed to local artists as well as artists located throughout greater Los Angeles. The resulting project, Arbor Artist Lofts, was completed two years later as affordable housing for working artists.6

Design and Program

Arbor Artist Lofts is now a downtown landmark that provides live/work space for the resident artists. The façade of the five-story building is notable for its curvilinear form and blue metal cladding above a recessed commercial space on the ground floor.7 Beside this dramatic front massing is the entrance to a courtyard that serves as an outdoor art exhibition space and provides access to the residential units, which comprise the building's upper four floors. Covered parking is located behind the commercial space and beneath the second floor, largely hidden from street view.

The two-story apartments were designed to meet the needs of working artists. Each unit is equipped with a 220-volt electrical outlet on its balcony for kilns and other equipment, and a workspace on the second story of the units includes an exhaust vent to expel noxious fumes. Polished concrete floors and steel stairs create a durable space that balance the unit's domestic and productive uses. The apartments on the building's second and third floors include an open volume rising through the two stories. This allows for a dynamic space that can accommodate two bedrooms on the first story in addition to two bedrooms on the second story. The units on the fourth and fifth floors have an open plan, with one bedroom off the main living space on the first story and three bedrooms upstairs. All units have a kitchen on the first floor and bathrooms on the first and second floors.

The design incorporates sustainable features to reduce energy and water consumption. The building's high-efficiency mechanical systems exceed the requirements of Title 24 of the California Energy Code by 20 percent, and the lighting system exceeds these requirements by 24 percent. In addition, low-flow plumbing fixtures reduce water use by 20 percent, and the site is landscaped with drought-tolerant plants.

Permitting and Financing

Because the development of Arbor Artist Lofts coincided with the writing of the downtown plan, the city's planning department was tasked with ensuring that the project would be consistent with the city's yet-to-be-adopted vision of downtown development. The city's conditional use permit process facilitated the building's unique design and allowed for practical considerations, such as reduced parking requirements. Because of the project's downtown location, the city waived the impact fees that typically would have been applied.8

Public financing for the $5.1 million project came from the sale of low-income housing tax credits allocated by the California Tax Credit Allocation Committee. The units at Arbor Artist Lofts are available to households earning 60 percent or less of the area median income (AMI). To ensure that the units are available to artists, potential residents must present a portfolio of their work and demonstrate that at least half of their income comes from the sale of their art.9

Number of Units*

Income Limits

Monthly Rent


30% AMI



40% AMI



50% AMI



60% AMI


*One unit is reserved for the building manager.

Fostering Smart Growth

Arbor Artist Lofts has proven critical to the revitalization of downtown Lancaster. As one of the first infill projects completed in accordance with the downtown plan, Arbor Artist Lofts has attracted a diversity of residents to the city's core and has ensured the long-term viability of affordable housing for artists.

Along with the downtown plan, the project has paved the way for additional public and private investments that have dramatically improved the livability of downtown Lancaster. In 2010, the city invested nearly $11 million in streetscape improvements along nine blocks of Lancaster Boulevard (The BLVD). The construction, which was completed in less than eight months, transformed the four-lane, automobile-dominated thoroughfare into a pedestrian-friendly boulevard. Traffic-calming measures included single travel lanes for automobiles, center-of-street parking that can be devoted to other uses during special events, public plazas, and street trees. In 2011, the 13.5-acre American Heroes Park opened with an amphitheater and sports and recreational fields, and in 2012, the Lancaster Museum of Art and History opened adjacent to Arbor Artist Lofts.10

The $41 million public investment in The BLVD has helped forge a strong local economy. Since 2009, downtown Lancaster has experienced $130 million in private investment, leading to more than 1,100 temporary construction jobs, 800 permanent jobs, and nearly 50 new businesses. Sales tax revenue from the downtown is up almost 100 percent in the two years since public improvements began. Property values rose by 9.5 percent in 2012, compared with an average decline of 1.25 percent elsewhere in the city. Expanded downtown housing, including more than 800 senior and workforce housing units, has also bolstered the revitalization. These public and private revitalization efforts, focused on infill development and place-based investments, have led to the rebirth of Lancaster's downtown.11

  1. City of Lancaster Planning Department. September 2008. “Downtown Lancaster Specific Plan, Appendix F: Historical Period Building Survey,” 5–9. Accessed 21 November 2012.

  2. City of Lancaster Planning Department. July 2009. “General Plan 2030: City of Lancaster,” 1-6. Accessed 21 November 2012; United States Census Bureau, 2011 Population Estimates Program: California. Washington, DC. Accessed 20 November 2012.

  3. Interview with Brian Ludicke, planning director, City of Lancaster Planning Department, 29 November 2012; City of Lancaster Redevelopment Agency. August 2006. “Downtown Specific Plan Feasibility Analysis,” 8. Accessed 20 November 2012.

  4. Interview with Brian Ludicke.

  5. City of Lancaster Planning Department. Downtown Lancaster Specific Plan, 1-1.

  6. Interview with Brian Ludicke.

  7. Interview with Mark Lahmon, principal, PSL Architects, 28 November 2012; internal documents provided by PSL Architects.

  8. Interview with Brian Ludicke; City of Lancaster Planning Department. May 2006. Staff Report, “Conditional Use Permit No. 06-01.”

  9. Email correspondence with Amanda Johnson, InSite Development, 28 November 2012.

  10. Internal award submission documents provided by Brian Ludicke, planning director, City of Lancaster Planning Department, 30 November 2012.

  11. Ibid.


The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.