All the Noise and Hurry Seems to Help, I Know…

Downtown! In an article posted on Tuesday, ArchNewsNow take a look at a recent trend in urban residential development – the reuse of existing office buildings. Anyone who has spent time in even the smallest city must surely have noticed development of their downtowns. Cities are back. At least for a while.

San Francisco is a major focus of the article, with the dot com boom and bust drastically altered the commercial and residential real estate landscape; creating first a shortage of, then an excess of, office space. In San Francisco, as in other cities, these old offices and warehouses are quickly becoming new condos.

After my first visit here, I posted a photo of an unknown office building undergoing what I thought was just a facade restoration:

Enlightened by the ArchNewsNow article, I now know that this building, at 690 Market, is the original Chronicle building, designed by Burnham and Root (what are they doing out here?) in 1869 and rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake. The porcelain skin was indeed installed in the 1960’s, in an apparent attempt to modernize. I find it hard to believe that there was such a stigma attached to ornamental brickwork and sandstone, that thousands of dollars had to be spent to cover it with a monotonous, albeit cleaner, facade. but whatever. what do I know? The current restoration and renovation will not only restore the Burnham and Root facade, but will also add eight new floors to the top of the building. This one-time stronghold of the Freedom of Press will soon house more down town condos and time shares.

Housing has been a hot issue in San Francisco lately, and in the current issue of local magazine, 7×7, a quartet of architects and planners discuss the development of the eastern edge of the SoMa neighborhood. Developers will attempt to combine what they see as the dominant fabrics of the city – Victorian townhouses and modern lofts – and by introducing new residential towers. hmm…Residential towers? in San Francisco? A city who first impressed me with its sunny streets and noticeable lack of towering glass residences? huh. These guys seem to think it can work, but in these situations, it seems like they always think it can work. The Rincoln Hill/Transbay Neighborhood, as the project is currently known, was approved this past summer and is incredibly ambitious in scope.


The goal of this development is not just to provide housing, for which a massive demand has surely been building, but to provide thousands of new housing units near urban employment centers and help prevent further sprawl while maintaining what they see as the distinct character of San Francisco. I’ll be the first to admit that this city has a definite charm, a certain je ne sais quoi, but I have a sincere disbelief that it can be manufactured.

Duboce Triangle, a very small residential area near the Castro, is the model from which this new “neighborhood” will be designed:

If you need a model for a nice, pedestrian residential community, Duboce Triangle is an excellent one. I have no idea how it happend, but this area is incredibly beautiful, friendly, and well…nice. make-shift Benches, planters, bollards, and trees line the sidewalks, creating casual spaces for spontaneous meetings. Sometimes the sidewalks widen to twenty five or thirty feet, for no apparent reason other than to create places to sit with a cup of coffee, read the newspaper, or talk to your neighbor. During my first visit to San Francisco, I stayed in Duboce Triangle and it made quite an impression on me. I’m sure that living (all too briefly) in this idyllic little area played a small role in my desire to move to the city. So yeah, Duboce Triangle is great. Still though, I have my doubts. The planners behind the SoMa development want to take those intermittent areas of congregation, the surprising expanses of sidewalk and street furniture, and expand them – stretching them on for blocks, in order to create some sort of pedestrian plaza. Parking will be minimized, and what is there, will mostly be out of site underground. This is an area thats meant to be walked. meant to be experience at street level. At a human scale.

By empahsizing a reduction of scale, by drawing more from the Victorian and Edwardian vernacular, developers hope to integrate their community into the fabric of the city. They anticipate small shops and local business occupying the street level while chain stores and larger corporations will be strongly discouraged from moving into the area. Above these shops, will rise – at least for a few stories – vernacular influenced townhouse style units, and then above that, residential tower. Although often not the most aesthetically appealing edifice, the residential tower is becoming a necessity in the growing city. In their defense, these towers are planned to be slimmer, more elegant, than their local precedents. Careful spacing will allow sunlight to hit more of the street, preventing the creation of a financial district-like shadow canyon. Regarding the “Victorian” context, John Cary, executive director of Public Architecture and co-founder of ArchVoices, promises that the development committee isn’t focused on “making everything look like Vicotorians.” He believes, and I would agree here, that integrated streetscaping is more important to the projects success.

Although I have a few doubts about the project, it’s exciting to see just a drastic proposal come to life. I’m quickly learning that San Francisco is an architecturally conservative city where there seems to be some abstact ideal of place that people long to preserve. With Thom Mayne’s Federal building and this multi-tower SoMa proposal reflect a change in attitude prompted by a new necessity for urban housing.

Here’s hoping that the progressive attitude prevails.