Mission Bay -- dull by design and still growing
Adventurous architecture is needed as development continues to give it a true S.F. spark
John King, Chronicle Urban Design Writer
Tuesday, May 8, 2007
Up and Coming Mission Bay
Julio Carballido, a post-doctoral researcher at UCSF, reads on the rounded steps of Genentech Hall on the Mission Bay campus
King Street is a major thoroughfare in the Mission Bay district. The street cuts through the most developed part of the area between Interstate 280 and AT&T Park
Despite signs of life at a King Street cafe, much of Mission Bay feels sterile -- mainly because it is large-scale and formulaic
On the UCSF campus, the red stucco community center with bursts of purple and pink is a welcome change from the bland lab buildings nearby
The Glassworks may be a small building, but it has a big presence as the graceful entrance to an area in need of pizzazz
A man sits on artist-installed contemporary furniture at the neatly manicured Koret Quad on the UCSF campus
If good intentions and careful planning were enough to make a neighborhood come alive, then fast-growing Mission Bay would be a dynamic addition to San Francisco's storied landscape.
They aren't. And it isn't.
After decades of debate and six years of construction, the 303-acre district stretching south and west from AT&T Park feels more like a planning exercise than an actual place. The strict city guidelines that are intended to prevent architectural monstrosities don't stop one project from blurring into the next: It's a horizontal procession of market-driven forms, utterly lacking in surprise or small touches of delight.
The good news? Most of the privately owned land south of Mission Creek hasn't yet been developed. The challenge for the city from here on is to build on Mission Bay's attractions -- such as generous amounts of open space and affordable housing -- while pushing for more adventurous architecture and urban design.
A shot of pizzazz, if you will.
The new neighborhood starts across Third Street from Willie Mays Plaza. Since the ballpark opened in 2000, eight housing developments have opened that together contain more than 1,600 units. South of Mission Creek -- now lined in part by an attractive promenade -- there's a campus for UCSF that already includes three research buildings, a community center and a block of student apartments.
What's emerging is a distinct district within the city. So far, though, it isn't a district that will attract anyone in search of a memorable urban experience.
Instead there's the squat monotony of King Street, where wide sidewalks and young trees are framed by vaguely modern buildings that average five stories in height except where broad slabs climb another 10 stories or so.
The cladding of choice is stucco, leavened by tiles here and there. Colors run a short gamut from brick red to drab gray. Storefronts feel like afterthoughts at the base of buildings.
Some buildings are better than others, but the overall impact is numbing. The mood is reinforced by the first batch of retailers: the likes of Safeway and Quiznos, Borders and Starbucks.
What's ominous is that this dreary world comes after years of meticulous planning.
Today's Mission Bay follows a blueprint approved by the city in 1998 -- 17 years after Southern Pacific Railroad first floated plans for the site, most of which is 19th century landfill created to hold railroad tracks and loading yards.
Not only did early visions of corporate towers and sports arenas lead nowhere, but Southern Pacific was taken over by another railroad, the Union Pacific Corp., and spun off its land holdings as a separate company, Catellus.
The 1998 plan crafted by Catellus and the San Francisco Redevelopment Authority slices the site in half. Six thousand housing units will fill blocks on either side of the creek, while the southern portion is devoted to blocks of commercial land wrapped horseshoe-like around a 43-acre UCSF research campus.
The two zones would be separated by an east-west commons that's 134 feet wide and five blocks long, starting at the bay and ending at a large traffic roundabout near Interstate 280.
Height limits and tower placement are dictated on a block-by-block basis. There are broad directives -- "tall buildings should avoid unusual shapes which detract from the clarity of urban form" -- and explicit rules that go so far as to dictate that "architectural projections" such as cornices shall have "a vertical dimension of no more than 2 feet 6 inches."
Catellus -- still the master developer despite its 2005 purchase by ProLogis Co. -- is spending more than $400 million to build roads, utilities and 41 acres of parkland that include the commons and the creekside promenade.
The goal is to create a new district that feels like old San Francisco: "Similar to the Marina, though a little denser," in the words of William Fain, whose Los Angeles design firm Johnson Fain Partners did the plan for Catellus. "People on the streets, retail at the corners, a wonderful active neighborhood right on the water."
But this isn't the Marina or North Beach, two revered neighborhoods assembled from hundreds of small buildings. It's acreage that Catellus sold off in big pieces to big builders. They'll tweak their established formats to fit Mission Bay's rules, but then bottom-line economics kick in.
That's why the current scene feels sterile. It's large-scale and formulaic -- development by spread sheet.
The benefit of the city's careful planning is that the neighborhood will improve with age.
Ten years from now there should be a leafy urbanity, since the landscaping plan by Olin Partners rolls out a sharp-looking street environment while the park designs by EDAW are subdued but attractive.
As for the 6,000 housing units, 1,700 will be for low- and moderate-income residents in buildings throughout the district. This guarantees a mix of social classes and generations; already, elders from the apartments above the library can be seen sitting by the creek on sunny days.
But for Mission Bay to become a memorable part of San Francisco, it needs more than demure buildings and decorous parks. It needs landmarks -- not in the sense of skyscrapers or monuments, but creative flourishes you won't find anywhere else.
Here's one example:
On its own, San Francisco's Kuth/Ranieri Architects has studied how leftover bits of Mission Bay could be used to enliven the image of the district as a whole. They seized on that western traffic roundabout; it's designed to be low and drought-tolerant -- out of sight, out of mind -- but Kuth/Ranieri suggests a lattice-like metal structure lifted cloud-like and airy above the circle, landscaped with vines and high-canopied trees to create a bird habitat that doesn't block drivers' sightlines.
Even if the aviary never takes roost, it shows flair that Mission Bay so far lacks. There's also opportunity in an open space beneath Interstate 280. Both EDAW and Kuth/Ranieri see an ideal spot for a skateboard park; redevelopment planners are wary that it might attract vandals and trouble-makers.
Meanwhile, Mission Bay plans call for a pedestrian bridge to cross the creek at Fifth Street. That project would be an ideal subject for a civic design competition.
The redevelopment agency is taking steps of its own to jazz things up south of the creek. One smart move: Planners have fine-tuned the rules to spawn a livelier retail zone than what is along King Street. Shops and restaurants will be concentrated on three blocks of Fourth Street, with each building stepping back five feet above the second floor to focus attention on the storefronts.
Realistically, Mission Bay will never be mistaken for the Marina. The scale of construction and modern economics will see to that.
But to the extent city officials can nudge private developers to be more adventurous, they should do so. And when there's a chance to shake up the civic landscape, do that, too. You only get one chance to build a neighborhood from scratch.
Mission Bay timeline
1860s -- Southern Pacific Railroad begins to amass tidelands along Mission Creek for rail yards and freight terminals.
1981 -- Southern Pacific announces plan calling for 9,000 residential units, 2,100 hotel rooms, 10 acres of parks and 10 million square feet of commercial space. Nobody bites.
1983 -- The railroad unveils another plan. This one includes canals and lagoons, 40 acres of parks, 7,000 housing units and 16 million square feet of commercial space. The design turns some heads, but this plan sinks also.
1987 -- Two years after Southern Pacific agrees to fund the city's community planning effort for Mission Bay, a company official says, "It's starting to be a little bit real. ... In 10 years, it's going to be one of the places where people will want to hang out."
1990 -- Voters narrowly defeat a Mission Bay plan that includes 8,000 housing units, 3,000 of them affordable; 6.4 million square feet of commercial space and 52 acres of parks. Developer now is Catellus, a Southern Pacific spin-off.
1994 -- Catellus teams with San Francisco Giants to propose a complex that would include a ballpark, an arena for the Golden State Warriors and "a technology-based indoor-outdoor entertainment experience." The Warriors decline the invitation. Giants go on to better things. Catellus goes back to the drawing board.
1996 -- Catellus changes direction again, saying it will concentrate on building residential buildings north of Mission Creek.
1997 -- The UC Board of Regents votes to build long-discussed UCSF research campus at Mission Bay on 43 acres donated by Catellus and the city.
1998 -- The San Francisco Board of Supervisors adopts a new plan for Mission Bay. Besides UC, it includes 6,000 housing units, as much as 6.8 million square feet of commercial space, a 500-room hotel and 43 acres of public parks.
1999 -- Construction begins on UCSF campus.
2000 -- The Giants open their ballpark at Third and King streets in April. Seven months later -- and 19 years after the first prediction of a bright future -- ground is broken for housing at Mission Bay.