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Former blood bank office transformed into desirable urban lofts

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Originally built in the 1960s, Structure Lofts on Upas Street in Hillcrest was redesigned into an eco-friendly and modern residence. Photo by Brent Haywood Photography/Courtesy of H2 Hawkins & Hawkins Architects Inc.

If the last time you looked at the four-story building on Upas Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues in Hillcrest was more than a few months ago, stroll over there and take another look.

The structure's still there, so what's there to look at, you say? Exactly.

When the building's latest owner, Hammer Ventures, decided that the future of that building — previously owned by and known as the San Diego Blood Bank — was as a multistory residential development, "structure" was the imperative word. While the 34,000-square-foot building underwent major interior renovation through its adaptive re-use, its structure as a "classic, four-story, modern building" was aimed to live on.

The design team left the property’s character intact while converting the former blood bank office space into open-style lofts. Photo by Brent Haywood Photography/Courtesy of H2 Hawkins & Hawkins Architects Inc.

The force behind its morphed existence and design, H2 Hawkins & Hawkins Architects Inc., was challenged with taking the 1973-built office building and making it something attractive for residential use, while not allowing a loss in its character. Originally designed by the architectural firm Tucker, Sadler & Bennett — well-known architect Hal Sadler's firm at the time — what's now known as Structure Lofts included, and still has, one of the hallmarks of modernity in its clean lines. And its concrete structure adds to its distinctiveness, David Hawkins, president and principal architect at H2, said.

"It's a classic structure, designed back in the '60s," Hawkins said. "Our goal was to recapture the feel of the existing structure of the building, hence the name of the building. We had the concrete coffered ceilings that had been hidden over the years with dropped ceilings. And being the blood bank, there were a lot of little offices and cubicles — the whole thing just kind of chopped up into small spaces."

While leaving the main structure's character intact, H2 opened those spaces, which with the building's floor-to-ceiling windows collectively create a panoramic view of the city in all directions. With 25 loft residences, the building is being marketed toward the upscale urban professional, while a portion of the ground floor was designed for restaurant, office or retail use.

Still as integral a part of the design as Sadler meant it to be, the concrete remains in all its glory once again. Concrete ceilings were sandblasted; floor concrete was ground smooth and sealed. The windows were replaced for the sake of upgrading their single-glazed panes with energy efficient, dual-glazed floor-to-ceiling vinyl windows.

"The whole idea was just to kind of help revitalize the community with that kind of a mixed-use," Hawkins said. "It's a great community there, close by restaurants — a walking community with a park, and we were able to create nice views out of the units upstairs over to the park or to the bay."

Designing the ground-level commercial space took consideration of its visibility from both Fifth Avenue and Upas Street, so it was built into the southeastern corner, where it could be seen and accessed from either street. The tall ceilings in the space — again with the concrete finishes restored — offer it to a variety of retail, restaurant or possibly café uses, Hawkins said.

H2 spoke with Sadler for help in getting the building's original plans.

One of the early concerns was whether the building was structurally sound, being that it was 40 years old. There were no problems in that department, Hawkins added. But a lot of work went into getting all the outdated mechanical and electrical systems out of the building, and updated. Further work was needed once the inside was gutted, and the new units' dividing walls were built. Each unit averages about 1,000 square feet. Crews built into each unit a modern kitchen and bathroom, while half the units — per the neighborhood requirement — include an exterior space, or a balcony above the first floor.

"It is definitely different from any other kind of residential properties around there," Hawkins said. "This lended itself to creating an open-lifestyle loft — really a true loft. That word gets overused all the time on projects, but in this case, it really fits it."

None of the 25 units has a bedroom; they're all open spaces, leaving the task of room-dividing completely up to each tenant and his or her furniture.

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