The common wisdom is that all the new development, or at least all the interesting development in San Francisco, is South of Market. This of course makes news because it represents a sea change from the prior 100+ years when “south of the slot” was the industrial, working class (or worse) sector of the city. This began to change when Nordstrom (Whisler Partri, Architects) opened at Fifth and Market, on the south side of Market, in 1986. The Chronicle wondered, on the front page no less, whether anyone would ever cross Market Street to shop. Fast forward twenty years to when Bloomingdales (RTKL Architects, Baltimore) opened next door, with its entrance not on Market Street but facing south on Mission Street, a design decision only their out-of-town ownership would be sagacious enough to make.
Development moves south
The Giant’s ballpark (HOK Sport, Architects [now, Populus]) opened in 2000, finally giving the impetus for Mission Bay (Johnson Fain, urban designers) to finally begin construction, after 15 years of aborted starts. Today Mission Bay is nearly completed and running out of developable land, on its way to being a 300+ acre job and housing and entertainment center.
When the local media recently reported that square-foot office rents in SOMA exceed those in the Financial District, it seemed the story was complete. Who would have guessed, when in 2003 the white-glove law firm Orrick moved to Foundry Square (Studios, Architects) in SOMA, that this would be the face of the future?
And today as we follow the almost daily announcements of new projects in SOMA – the Golden State Warriors (Snøhetta Architects); Pier 70 (Evan Rose, Sitelab, and AECOM, for Forest City); numerous housing projects along the Third Street light rail; Hunters View (Mithun | Solomon Architects and Master Planners; Paulette Taggart Architects; and David Baker Architects, for the John Stewart Company); Lennar’s Shipyard (with projects by David Baker Architects, Interstice Architects, BDE Architecture, ib+a Architecture, Kava Massih Architects, Steinberg Architects, Torti Gallas and Partners, and AE3 Partners) – it might seem that this in the only place development is occurring.
True, this is where the majority of new development is happening – Mission Street to the county line, from the Bay to about Fifth Street. Saving all the development in the Central Market/Van Ness Corridors for a future article, its notable to look at all the redevelopment that is happening along the northern waterfront. Kicked off by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the subsequent replacement of the Embarcadero Freeway with a graceful boulevard, billions of dollars of investment began occurring on the northern waterfront.
The northern waterfront
What is different from the southern waterfront is that this development has a focus on the public realm and public uses. As it fronts more mature neighborhoods, with less opportunity for all-new insertions into the urban fabric, public agencies and architects have risen to the challenge of complimenting and completing these existing neighborhoods.
Going back to April 2013, EHDD’s sensitive insertion of the Exploratorium into Pier 15 showed how a restrained approach can deal with a wholly new use of an historic pier shed. While the existing main façade of the pier bulkhead building remains intact, the interior exhibition spaces flexibly contain the ever-changing hands-on exhibits the Exploratorium is so famous for. What is different from their old quarters in Maybeck’s Palace of Fine Arts is the amount and quality of light, the spaciousness, and the Bay views. An unabashedly modern observatory and terrace at the pier’s end captures both Bay and City views, and an outdoor plaza frames exterior exhibits in the Bay itself.
On September 25, 2014, the Port opened the new Cruise Ship Terminal on Pier 27, designed by Pfau-Long Architecture and KMD Architects. This is a wholly new building, in a steel and glass industrial idiom, appropriate to its function and location along the formerly industrial piers in this national historic district. By design, the real stars here are the cruise ships themselves, which because of their height, totally dominate the views for blocks around when they are in port.
A little further north along the waterfront is the Fort Mason Center, discussed in a previous column.
Continuing north: the Presidio and the new public realm
Which brings us to the Presidio, the 1,500-acre national historic landmark National Park guarding the southern shore of the Golden Gate. Established in 1776 as Spain’s northern-most outpost in the new world, it functioned as a Spanish fort until Mexico declared its independence from Spain in 1821. As a result of the Mexican-American War, it converted to a U. S. Army post in 1846. It remained the most important army post on the west coast until 1994 when it was transferred to the National Park Service. Under threat of sale to the highest bidder by a conservative congress, Representative Nancy Pelosi, working with SPUR and other local activists, succeeded in establishing the Presidio Trust, a unique federal agency intended to be managed as a private enterprise. While the lands on the periphery of the Presidio are managed by the National Park Service, the interior lands are managed by the Trust.
Two new Trust projects have recently opened. On September 23, the Officers Club was reopened after a thorough reconception and rebuild. What was a real dog’s breakfast of 200+ years of remuddling by military engineers has been transformed, almost unbelievably. Selective removal and exposure of past layers, insertion of windows and courtyards, a rationalization of circulation, and just fine design sense by Perkins + Will Architects form what surely will become the community center in the heart of the Presidio.
On first entering, one comes on the Mesa Room, its adobe walls dating to circa 1800, with subsequent layers selectively revealed in a fine conception by Ralph Appelbaum Associates. Grasping the history in that room makes clear the history of the entire building.
The Heritage Gallery, also by Appelbaum, is a multi-media exhibition hall with films, photographs, and artifacts presenting the 10,000-year history of the land and the 235 year history of the Presidio since Europeans arrived.
Upstairs is Arguello restaurant (EDG Architects, with Laura Cook Interiors), the latest of Tracy Des Jardin’s (think Jardinière) restaurants. (She has another, The Commissary (Boiled Architecture), a couple of blocks away in one of the iconic red brick 1895-1897 Montgomery Street barracks on the main parade ground.)
One of the most charming features of the O-Club, as it has traditionally been called, are its courtyards – once left over spaces between the hodge-podge of additions and infillings that the building suffered over the last century plus. Now landscaped courtyards, they both let light into adjoining rooms and are delightful sheltered places themselves. In one we find Andy Goldsworthy’s Earth Wall, a relief sculpture of curved eucalyptus branches from the surrounding forest and adobe from the Officer’s Club construction, housed within a rammed earth wall. With four Goldsworthys, the Presidio hosts the largest collection of the famed British artist’s works on public view in North America.
In another of the Montgomery Street barracks yet another new public facility opened on October 4. This is the museum and library of the Society of California Pioneers. While membership in the Society is limited to direct descendants of persons who arrived in California before 1850, the public is welcomed to the facility. Michael Wilk is the architect, whose work here shows a deft and disciplined hand, and with changing exhibits designed by the Society.
There’s an interesting story here. Founded in 1850, the Pioneers leased a headquarters at Montgomery and California in 1854. By 1862, with a donation of land by James Lick, they built their own building at Montgomery and Gold. In 1884, Lick donated yet another lot on Fourth Street, between Mission and Market. Both buildings were destroyed in the earthquake and fire of 1906. They built a new headquarters at 5 Pioneer Place in 1907. In 1936 a new Pioneer Hall was built at 436 McAllister Street, where they stayed until 1990 when they moved to a 1984 office building at 300 Fourth Street, at the corner of Folsom. There they remained until the recent move. The corner of Fourth and Folsom must have looked like a great location in 1990. It was in the Yerba Buena Gardens cultural center, just across from the Children’s Center, in this new developing cultural hub. Unfortunately, it was on the corner of two traffic sinks, Fourth Street and Folsom Street, a hard place to visit by foot or car or transit. The cultural riches of Yerba Buena developed to the east, and the Pioneers were to the west.
The new location of the Pioneers in the Presidio makes a lot of sense. It is a National Park, a National Historic District, in an historic barracks (BAR, base building architects), and with interiors stripped down to their beautiful original 1890s bones, aptly suited for displaying the historic art and artifacts of the Society. So as SOMA turns to tech headquarters, Fourth and Folsom will be better used for that conurbation. And the Pioneers are located in a newly reimagined neighborhood that may well last them longer than their predecessors.
All around them the Presidio is undergoing transformation from post to park. The third reach of Tennessee Hollow is being excavated, the creek day-lighted and landscaped. New walks, trails and overlooks dot the landscape.
But the big landscape moment is the demolition of the elevated Doyle Drive and its replacement by the gracious Presidio Parkway. Doyle Drive is, or was, the one-and-a-half mile elevated approach to the Golden Gate Bridge, from the tollbooths to Bernard Maybeck’s Palace of Fine Arts. The Doyle Drive viaducts were badly compromised in the Loma Prieta earthquake. Two years later the city formed a task force of citizens and agencies to seek a consensus design.
The camps formed quickly. The traffic engineers and the California Highway Patrol wanted a fast and safe freeway. Environmentalists and the National Park Service wanted no impacts to the land and its historical buildings and spaces. Marina Boulevard residents wanted the Marina exit closed, sending all traffic to Lombard Street. Homeowners on Richardson Avenue, the arterial joining Lombard to Doyle Drive, wanted to send all traffic to the Marina exit. Collectively, neighbors hoped that traffic from the bridge would enter the Presidio, find its way to the Main Post, and disappear down a rabbit hole. Each weekly meeting brought more disagreements. The impasse continued for nearly a year. The threat that kept them meeting was that if they couldn’t agree on a design, Caltrans would build an eight-lane freeway.
One day Michael Painter, a landscape architect, and a spectator at several sessions, asked to speak. He pinned a 20-foot-long, hand-drawn plan to the wall. He proposed a vision of a parkway winding gracefully through what would soon be national parkland. The focus would be great views of the bridge, the bay, and Bernard Maybeck’s Palace of Fine Arts. Opposite the tranquil national cemetery and the formal Main Post, the road and its noisy traffic would be hidden in short, cut-and-cover tunnels with landscaped tops that people could walk across. The Presidio and Crissy Field would be visually and physically reunited. The contentious traffic balance between the Marina and Lombard ramps would remain the same – with most traffic encouraged to use commercial Lombard Street and the overflow to residential and recreational Marina Boulevard. A new Presidio turnoff would keep park traffic out of the neighborhoods.
Painter’s vision was to see the highway and its setting as one integrated form, and to emphasize the best qualities of both. Like the superb landscape architect he is, he was able to turn the task force’s sometimes fanciful wishes into design solutions and he would go on to refine his concept for a decade, for free.
United around a good design, the task force took just three months to write and present its report, A Scenic Parkway for the Park (1993), which the Board of Supervisors adopted as city policy. So how did we get to 2014, and the roadway is still in construction? Public works are never easy, and public works in San Francisco, in the western part of town, in a national park, and with multiple engineering viewpoints vying for primacy are downright hell.
Every affected agency saw Doyle Drive through its own filter of laws, regulations, and internal cultural norms. Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration felt mandated to build the project to national and state highway standards. The Presidio Trust and the National Park Service felt mandated to preserve the Presidio’s every architectural, historic, and natural resource. And both sides felt compelled to prove that they had taken every possible step to honor their mandates (or, others felt, to cover their backsides).
Through the years SPUR and Michael Painter maintained their vision of a parkway integrated with its landscape, even as the engineered alternatives marginalized it. It is now under construction, two years away from completion. The Painter/SPUR plan saved $200,000,000 in construction costs even as other costs ballooned. Five years into a seven-year construction project, it is possible to begin to see the Painter’s vision come alive, of a gracefully curving parkway focused on views of the Golden Gate, Maybeck’s dome, and the Bay.
New Presidio Parklands Project
A key concept behind the Presidio Parkway is putting portions of the highway into two tunnels, allowing free pedestrian passage from the heart of the park to Crissy Field (George Hargreaves, Landscape Architect) below. The New Presidio Parklands Project is a competition to design (and hopefully build – the S. D. Bechtel Foundation has given a lead gift of $19 million toward the project) a designed landscape over the tunnels at the north end of the main parade. The site is 13 acres of “made” land – that is, the bluff is being extended northward covering the roadway. The competition was narrowed to five teams for what the Trust (in partnership with the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy) calls the “imagine” phase – conceptual design. Next year, one or more of the teams will be selected to prepare final designs. The teams are:
- THE OBSERVATION POST
CMG Landscape Architecture, with EHDD Architects
- PRESIDIO POINT
James Corner Field Operations, with Page & Turnbull, Architects
- YOUR GATEWAY PARK
Olin Landscape Architects, with Olson Kundig Architects
- ARCS & STRANDS
Snøhetta Architects, with Hood Design
West 8, with Jensen Architects and Bionic Landscape Architects (full disclosure: I am an advisor to this team)
Like all design competition, these entries demonstrate widely divergent concepts within several overarching themes: views of the Golden Gate bridge; wind protection; social spaces; sustainability; and sense of place. Other than that, the sky’s the limit. They range from a clear big idea to enough ideas for several sites; from romantic to deconstructavist; from slightly reticent to look-at-me. The competition is now in the listening phase, where the public is invited to comment and critique the concepts. Exactly how they are going to move to the final selection has not been announced, but now’s your chance: videos, boards and models are on display in the Presidio Trust Gallery in yet another of the Montgomery Street barracks.
Back to the beginning
So where does San Francisco grow? The answer is everywhere. The growth is not just additions but is also enrichments. Rethinking old decisions. Teasing out themes. Reimagining under-developed spaces and mis-developed spaces. As the southern waterfront becomes a whole new high-rise/mid-rise city within a city, the northern waterfront is adding a gracious public realm along the bay. The Convention and Visitors Bureau (now, San Francisco Travel) used to call San Francisco a “three day city” where the typical tourist “saw” everything there was to see in three days. No longer. San Francisco Travel now even has a webpage “2014 and Beyond: San Francisco’s New Developments.” This small city of 800,000 population has enough to last a week!
 Portions of this section were previously published in a different form by SPUR, Replacing Doyle Drive, www.spur.org
All photos by author.