"Mixed-use" takes on new meaning in a Columbia City project that is more about community than retail. Not that the takeout tamale shop and the bed...

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“Mixed-use” takes on new meaning in a Columbia City project that is more about community than retail. Not that the takeout tamale shop and the bed and breakfast aren’t bustling. It’s just that people are also stopping in to consult an architect or reading tutor, others are living and working in the eight lofts designed for ultimate flexibility by architect Philip Christofides.

The three-story, live/work lofts are welcoming, with red trim, bright yellow doors and floor-to-ceiling windows. Built by Flip Builders, the project’s size and style fit harmoniously into Columbia City’s Landmark District. The units are grouped around a cobbled courtyard that invites pedestrians to stroll through by linking up with the network of neighborhood alleys.

“We wanted to design a project that built community within itself,” says Christofides, pointing out the semiprivate rooftop decks and the roll-up garage doors opening to the shared courtyard/alley space.

Inside, each fee-simple loft is 2,000 square feet of clean-lined, modern space. The walls are painted in the rich, modern color palette architect Christofides is known for, with streamlined kitchens, wall-sized windows and floors of bamboo, cork or Marmoleum.

The units were designed for maximum flexibility so owners could choose for themselves how to use their space. One unit houses a legal author’s library and workspace on the first two floors, topped by an apartment on the third. A group of architects bought another unit and share the ground-floor conference room. Perhaps the most innovative use is the two-level B&B apartment that sleeps four and rents for a week at a time. The owner says it’s often rented by parents visiting their grown children living in Columbia City, or by people with relatives in nearby hospitals.

Developer Rob Mohn and Christofides began by sitting down together to imagine what could and should take place on this former parking lot. They wanted to design a street-friendly project that would attract both residents and business people. They visualized a building adaptable enough to evolve with the community around it. “We tried to imagine 100 years from now, not just the moment, and realized it was impossible to predict how the neighborhood would change,” says Christofides.

There were challenges. This is the first new project in the heart of Columbia City’s Landmark District in 40 years. It went through six land-use reviews. But Christofides and Mohn prevailed with their modern spin on the old-world concept of living above the bakery.

“With Philip’s help, we were able to use the city’s new live/work regulations to develop something this flexible,” says Mohn. They’d expected more people might opt to live in their units, but so far most are being used for commercial purposes. Forty people occupy the lofts during the day while others return home to them in the evening. Such an innovative project may well serve as a fresh model for revitalizing older neighborhoods.

“We grossly underbuilt here; there were plans for a 23-unit condo development on the site,” says Christofides, clearly pleased with the comfortable neighborhood scale of the eight-unit project. Didn’t economic viability require more units to be built on this prime piece of real estate? “Overbuilding comes from a lack of imagination as much as economics,” says Christofides. “We don’t have to have all these bloated buildings.”

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “A Pattern Garden.” Her e-mail address is valeaston@comcast.net. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.