Posted Oct 2, 2007, 4:54 PM
Join Date: Jun 2006
Location: San Francisco & Tucson
New SF City College Tower in Chinatown
John King: Place: City College, Hilton tussle over proposed tower
Tuesday, October 2, 2007
Architecturally, the parking lot at the northeast corner of Kearny and Washington streets is as challenging as any spot in San Francisco.
Chinatown's across Kearny to the west and so is Portsmouth Square, the center of town in Gold Rush days. To the east is the Colombo Building, a two-story landmark from 1912, followed by the stately brickwork of the Jackson Square district. Look south and Financial District towers line up one after the next.
It's a tough spot to put a building, especially a structure that would be the daytime home of 6,500 students - and especially when a 27-story neighbor doesn't want anything blocking its views.
That's the tussle between City College of San Francisco, which wants to erect a Chinatown home for itself, and the owners of the Hilton Hotel on the south side of Washington Street. The outcome will show whether good architecture can survive neighborhood politics.
It's by no means a sure thing.
What all sides agree is that City College needs better Chinatown facilities than the space it now leases in 12 locations; the institution offers language education and vocational training to immigrants, as well as more conventional courses.
With this in mind, City College last fall rolled out a vision of eye-popping ambition: a sculptural 16-story tower to be clad in green glass with a shape somewhere between a clover and an amoeba. It would include 42 classrooms and laboratory space; there'd also be culinary facilities, a library and a student terrace atop the tower's podium.
As quickly as the plans were unveiled, opponents went on the attack. One opponent in particular: the Hilton Hotel. After all, when your marketing boasts of "stunning panoramic views" and water-view rooms with parking start at $419, the last thing you want is a 244-foot structure just north of your 310-foot structure.
That's not how hotel representatives frame the issue. They make valid points: the City College site is zoned for 65 feet. A tower would add a sliver of shadow to Portsmouth Square on winter mornings.
The problem with the message is the messenger. Built in the 1970s to house a Holiday Inn, this gray bunker is the most unsociable chunk of concrete in San Francisco. It's grim on the skyline and worse on the ground, greeting Kearny Street and Portsmouth Square with a moat-like porte-cochere, the harsh tower standing aloof from the sullied street.
Don't take my word for it. Longtime Chronicle architecture critic Allan Temko described it as a "bulbous slab" that "exhibits just about every mistake that can be committed in urban design" - a rare example of our pugnacious Pulitzer Prize-winner being guilty of understatement.
But that history doesn't make the owners shy away from a fight, hiring lobbyists and midwifing the birth of the nobly named Education Coalition for Responsible Development. The "coalition" also hired Heller Manus Architects to draw up a scheme that puts the college into a 10-story structure with a seven-story satellite popping up from a college-owned lot behind the Colombo Building.
There's also protest from nearby residents wary of a tower this tall being allowed north of Washington Street. City officials don't like the cavalier way the college has reminded everyone that, as a state institution, it can ignore local zoning.
Now, after months during which each side claimed moral high ground while slinging mud at its opponent, various parties are meeting behind the scenes. City College is playing with a two-site scheme of its own, hoping to come up with a package that would make its supporters happy and mollify most critics.
Going from one tower to two buildings is OK: Portsmouth Square doesn't need an abstract green sculpture on its already mangled eastern edge. But the real work lies ahead - because when development battles are resolved by cutting deals, design quality takes second place to the need for everyone to claim victory.
The bright spot in all this is that City College has a top-rate architectural firm: EHDD, best known for its Monterey Bay Aquarium, is designing the campus in association with another local firm, Barcelon + Jang. EHDD excels at thoughtful buildings that are good neighbors as well as good places to be, and what's starting to evolve has real promise.
The best scheme has a 14-story tower at the Kearny-Washington corner, with the upper 11 floors pulled back to allow a student terrace and also fit with the existing march of buildings along the north side of Washington. Behind the Colombo, a four-story annex would include an auditorium, culinary facilities and a nifty cafe space on Columbus.
This approach would still block part of the Hilton's view, and it would still climb 199 feet. But the tower would offer a transition from the Hilton to the senior apartment mid-rise on the north end of the block. And a four-story annex (no more) is an appropriately sized neighbor to the Colombo. If EHDD is then allowed to craft the exteriors with care, City College could stitch together what's now a mess of a block.
Again, it's a tough site; the hotel's concrete hulk damaged Portsmouth Square beyond repair. But if a "compromise" means the hotel gets its way - squashing the tower and packing in square footage behind the Colombo while ignoring students' needs for a campus that nurtures learning - things will be even worse.
The future students of City College deserve respect. So does one of the most historic blocks of San Francisco. Well-designed buildings are essential - even if a few hotel rooms lose their panoramic views in the process.
Place appears on Tuesdays. E-mail John King at firstname.lastname@example.org.