Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) is designing San Francisco’s largest new development, the 393-acre Treasure Island. As if that weren’t enough, the firm’s San Francisco office is now also working on a blockbuster on the other side of the city: a transformation of Park Merced. If approved, the scheme for the World War II-era housing development will add about 5,700 new units to the 115-acre site, now renamed Parkmerced, tripling the number of apartments there today. Like Treasure Island, the project’s cost is estimated at $1.2 billion. In January, Parkmerced’s owners, Texas-based Stellar Management, filed an environmental evaluation application, effectively starting the planning process and giving rise to vocal opponents from the community and beyond.
The original Park Merced, composed of simple, modernist towers and town houses arranged around varied green spaces, was designed by Leonard Schultze and Associates and built by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, which also put up similar complexes like Park La Brea in Los Angeles and Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan. Completed in the early 1950s, it was intended for moderate-income families, many of them from the military. Most agree that its most notable feature was the relationship of its buildings to its landscaping, with its intricate internal courtyards and interrelated terraced patios largely designed by Thomas Dolliver Church, who also oversaw the master planning of UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and the Mayo Clinic.
Stellar Management bought Park Merced in 2005 and has already begun a $130 million renovation. The development’s four-phase plan will retain the largest towers and replace its two-story buildings with four-story units. The plan will also add retail and slightly reconfigure Park Merced’s street grid, create more intimate green spaces, and stagger new buildings to minimize cold winds coming off the waterfront, said SOM partner Craig Hartman, who likens its current feel to a retirement home. He points out that the new buildings will be designed by several architecture firms (as yet, unselected) in a style “that reflects our contemporary culture.”
Hartman also hopes to bring the entire development off the grid and reduce energy consumption by about 60 percent using wind power, solar power, high-efficiency fixtures, water recycling, improved insulation, and co-generation (using existing power sources to generate energy on-site). The new plan will connect the park to public transportation by moving an existing MUNI stop, adding a new one, and providing low-emissions shuttles to BART.
But the intensive scheme, which would radically change this once-sleepy development, has its opponents. Aaron Goodman, an architect at San Francisco’s Studios Architecture and vice president of the Park Merced Residents Organization, the area’s recognized tenant group, complains that the new plans will be unaffordable and will disturb the area’s neighborly atmosphere.
“The character of the site will be lost,” said Goodman. “I wouldn’t call it charming, but it’s very effective.” Goodman is one of the leaders in an effort to landmark the property, and has filed documents with the city’s Landmark Preservation Advisory Board. Docomomo (International Working Party for Documentation and Conservation of Buildings Sites and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement) is working together with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the California Preservation Foundation, San Francisco Architectural Heritage, and the Cultural Landscape Foundation to get Park Merced placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It’s highly significant,” said Andrew Wolfram, president of Docomomo’s Northern California chapter, who pointed out that Park Fairfax, also built by Metropolitan Life, is already on the National Register. “We’re not saying it needs to be frozen in time, but its important elements should be preserved.”
Stellar Management spokesperson P.J. Johnston points out that the scheme has been through 63 community meetings, and that many of the buildings on the property are too degraded to save: “It’s a property that’s well beyond its use-by date. It needs to be revitalized and rebuilt.”