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Designers Contemplate How Density Should Look

Christopher Kidd on
May 31, 2012

How do cities create a thriving urban fabric on large lots?  How do you build large developments to fit within existing communities?  How can large developments contribute to neighborhood vitality rather than overshadow it?

Such was the theme of "Large: Designing for Density", the third installment of the Lunchtime Forum series held by San Francisco Urban Planning & Research (SPUR) last week.  In the hour-long forum, moderated by Anne Torney of Daniel Solomon Design, speakers from the public, non-profit, developer, and architectural worlds held forth on what they considered the essential elements for large residential design. More than just an esoteric discussion, the topic could prove to be important for cities that, in the coming years, will be conforming to Sustainable Communities Strategies and deciding what density ought to look like. 

Joshua Switzky, representing the San Francisco Planning Department, compared large residential developments to UFOs landing in the midst of a city. He characterized zoning and design guidelines as the controls to rein in large-lot development that can otherwise "run amok".  While San Francisco adopted its first Urban Design element in 1972, it became clear over the proceeding decades that it didn't give enough guidance for large-lot development.  The Better Neighborhoods Program, launched in 2002, hopes to provide both citywide and neighborhood-specific design guidance for incorporating large-lot development into the urban fabric.  The tools Switzky listed for integrating large development are well known to most: re-establishing street-grid connections on super-blocks, requiring ground floor activity, syncopating building facades to create sight-line variations, and breaking up the massing of building frontages.

Daniel Murphy, the president of Urban Green Devco LLC, next spoke on design for large-lot residential from the developer's point of view. Murphy drew most of his examples from the South-of-Market neighborhoods (South Beach, Bayside, Mission Bay) that have seen a shift from industrial/port activity to large-lot residential development over the last 25 years.  

In the South Beach area, near the foot of the Bay Bridge, he extolled the variation in height and architectural styles of the existing large residential developments, the development of continuous urban streetwalls, and the proliferation of POPOS (privately-owned open space) as elements that soften large developments and tie the community together.  He also stressed that, in large residential developments, design trumps materials: successful urban places can be made on the cheap if they are built the right way.

In the Mission Bay area, near the San Francisco Giants' waterfront ballpark, he held up the "framing" of streets with an appropriate ratio of street width to building height as a key for successful design.  He also complimented the developers' "respect for open space and heritage" by retaining houseboats in the Mission Bay inlet as well as providing easy waterfront access.  For those who have experienced the ghost town that Mission Bay often feels like when the Giants aren't in town, Murphy urged patience.  Large-lot residential developments, he said, need time to mature before they can be judged as successful urban spaces.

In closing, Murphy urged the audience to "dream big", and not get bogged down in what he called the "blood sport" of neighborhood development politics.  He instead urged communities to let planners and developers do their jobs, which earned him an earful from neighborhood activists at the Q&A session following the forum.

From the non-profit world, Raime Dare spoke in her capacity as president of the SF Community Housing Partnership and a senior project manager with Mercy Housing.  While the previous two speakers spoke mostly about the exteriors of large-lot residential developments, Dare instead focused on the design elements inside the building necessary to thriving communities.  Drawing on the 12-story, 136-unit Mercy Housing development for low-income and senior housing at 10th & Mission, Dare emphasized the need for varied spaces within the building itself. Lounges, play areas, event space, patios, youth centers, and day care were among the semi-public spaces needed to make large, high-density buildings successful.  Also stressed was the role that buildings can play in the framing of outdoor spaces, whether they are public or reserved for the use of residents.

The final speaker was Glenn Rescalvo, principal-in-charge at Handel Architects, LLP.  Rescalvo portrayed increasing density as a boon to San Francisco, but one which requires additional attention paid to the challenges that a crowded city can bring.  While Rescalvo was more inclined to judge each building individually for its merit, he stressed the importance of increased pedestrian infrastructure and open space as a counter-balance to an increasingly dense city.  He highlighted three downtown open spaces in close proximity: Yerba Buena Gardens, the Crocker Galleria, and the plaza at 555 Mission (with its interesting public art).  To Rescalvo, each open space provided different urban functions, which further contributed to the enjoyment of a denser city.

When it came the buildings themselves, Rescalvo urged planners and residents to be less concerned with height than with bulk.  By allowed taller building heights (invoking shades of LeCorbusier), he said that building footprints could be reduced and more open space provided for public benefit.  Rescalvo characterized such an approach as "getting your sky back" by reducing building bulk; he eschewed "holding the height line" on buildings which would create an uninterrupted wall.

While the forum was interesting and informative, I couldn't help but feel that its brevity left out major points in the discussion.  The focus of the forum was almost entirely on aspects of the buildings themselves, paying scant attention to the transition between large developments and the surrounding community.  It's telling that almost every example at the forum came from the historically industrial and commercial areas along the South-of-Market waterfront - these new residential communities were cut out of whole cloth and did not face the task of transitioning into a well-established residential neighborhood. Another issue unresolved by the forum was that of infrastructure: while Mr Rescalvo briefly mentioned the need for better and larger sidewalks, none of the other speakers mentioned what types of cumulative impacts denser residential development has on our streets. 

Though not as pertinent to design, the demise of redevelopment in the state could have been another fertile topic for a forum on high-density residential housing.  Many large-lot residential projects across the state, especially those built for or incorporating low-income and senior housing, were made feasible through redevelopment funding.  The loss of such funding may play out in future project design as developers attempt to make things pencil out.

Christopher Kidd was the founder and former writer of the LADOT Bike Blog.  He currently works as a planner at Alta Planning + Design in Berkeley.

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