IT'S NOT EASY TO CREATE AN ENTICING entry-level townhome in the Bay area these days. A successful undertaking requires the right blend of budget-consciousness and cachet to appeal to the city's young sophisticates. This sold-out, 92-townhouse project, which finishes up this month, has a lot of things going for it. One is the future greenway—a playground for the entire project—that borders the site. Another is the basic modern vocabulary of the buildings. Bold, boxy forms, steel-and-cedar balconies, glass curtain walls, and fluid floor plans. Not posh, by any means, but bright and vibrant.

Dubbed City Limits because it's on the Oakland-Emeryville border, the site once housed an auto parts facility and required some soil cleanup. However, a remnant brick wall helps to organize the 18 buildings and to set the industrial tone. Architect Kava Massih oriented most of the town-houses north-south to capture soft, even light throughout the day. Some of them are built up against the old brick façade. A two-story, steel-framed structure defines the entry on each of these units, creating a sheltered front porch just off the sidewalk and supporting a balcony above. “We were able to get the city to allow us to build those entry areas partially on city property,” Massih says. “It was a nice gesture on the city's part and made that edge a lot nicer.”

There are eight floor plans, all of them three-story, ranging from two bedrooms and a one-car garage to two bedrooms and a two-car garage with extra space for a study on the ground floor. The architect specced continuous bands of windows for the second-floor living area. The windows' black aluminum mullions are a nod to the neighborhood's old factories. “The real nut to crack in a project like this is that you want it to make some references to the industrial neighborhood,” Massih says, “but at the end of the day, it's somebody's home.” On balconies, cedar lattices and railings soften the boxy geometries. Stucco walls protrude in and out, changing color from ochre to beige. Inside, Massih used off-the-shelf materials in fresh ways to keep costs down, such as concrete floors in the studies and built-in plywood bookshelves. “In a way, you have a license to keep things a little on the raw side because people are expecting it,” Massih says.

The new buyers—most of them former renters—are no doubt thrilled with their garages. But for short trips, the MacArthur BART underground train station is five minutes away by the Emery Go-Round, a free, electric bus that stops near City Limits. “The kinds of people who come to live here like a bit of an edge to their investment,” Massih says. But part of the reason City Limits is successful, he believes, is because the units are a close cousin to the single-family house. “There's no one above or below you, and you can drive into your own unit,” he says. “But at 35 units per acre, it has enough density to give it an urban flavor.”

Cheryl Weber is a freelance writer based in Lancaster, Pa.

Project: City Limits, Oakland/Emeryville, Calif.; Size: 1,033 to 1,426 square feet; Total units: 92; Price: $550,000 to $750,000; Developer/Builder: Pulte Homes, Oakland, Calif.; Architect/Interior designer: Kava Massih Architects, Berkeley, Calif.; Landscape architect: GLS, San Francisco


Steel-and-cedar balconies (left) add visual interest to boxy façades. The balconies—some of which are as large as 6 feet by 6 feet—face an old railroad track that the city plans to turn into a green-way. Inside, stainless steel appliances and granite countertops (top, right) reflect light from floor-to-ceiling windows (above, right).


Eight different City Limit floor plans respond to the irregularly shaped site. (The interior shot above and those on page 154 match the floor plan at right.) The open plans allow for flexibility and lend a loft aesthetic designed to appeal to younger buyers. Most of the units have a north-south exposure, so the townhouses are filled with soft, even light throughout the day.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: San Francisco, CA.