November 9, 2015 Housing Action Coalition

Achieving Better Architecture in the Eastern Neighborhoods

One thing was clear at the New Challenges for Eastern Neighborhoods forum: everyone is begging for better architecture in the Eastern Neighborhoods.

Eastern Neighborhoods Plan MapThe 2009 Eastern Neighborhoods Plan carefully rezoned the Mission, Potrero Hill, Dogpatch, and parts of Soma with more liberal height and bulk restrictions, but architectural design standards were never addressed. Residential development elsewhere in San Francisco must abide by residential design guidelines, which are (to some, overly) strict prescriptions intended to maintain the architectural rhythm and historicism of the early and mid-20th century.

On Wednesday night, the Potrero Boosters Neighborhood Association teamed up with an eager collection of architects, planners, and neighborhood leaders to collaborate on developing thoughtful guidelines for the quickly changing district. Ron Miguel, a veteran Planning Commissioner, Potrero neighborhood activist, and early member of SFHAC, so succinctly put it: “The Eastern Neighborhoods are the last frontier for creating an inspiring architectural spirit in San Francisco.

Stanley Saitowitz (Natoma Architects) brought an intriguing slideshow of urban buildings from other international, historic cities, emphasizing the need to re-empower the architect in a place where it’s tough to build. “World-class architects come from outside and see this city with immense clarity, but they don’t have the IMG_0959stamina to see their visions through. The forces against architects are enormous.”

These forces against architects were a common thread throughout the forum, attributed at points to everything from the Planning Department, to state mandates like CEQA, to scattered neighborhood inputs and internal reviews watering down design vision. And, in response, the forces against neighbors were also addressed. Fears about developers not considering the communities they’re entering; fears about the city enabling development at scales not fit for neighborhood character. Saitowitz, however, politely responded that “We need to face the fact that we are building a city now – we can’t continue just building little houses on little lots.”

Although a clear set of residential design guidelines was not decided by the end of the evening, the conversation between neighbors and architects was an actionable start to what will likely be a long dialogue. Here are some key conclusions:

Community can – and should! – offer design inspiration.
Lisa Iwamoto (IwamotoScott Architecture) stressed the importance of architects speaking the language of neighbors, and neighbors speaking the language of the architect. “Everyone assumes the worst going into a project, but the public is smarter and better-intentioned than you think. The question is not how we limit their input, but how do we teach them to think and see this city like an architect?” In response, one local architect suggested neighbors bring in photos of new, contemporary buildings they would be inspired to have on their streets. “We don’t need more prescription from the planning department – we need inspiration from the community.” Many agreed that the key to looking forward to exciting architecture is trust and openness, and thinking past the Painted Ladies and Victorian-era buildings that saturate nostalgic conversation in other districts. Or in Saitowitz’s words, “imitating the old is useless. It’s like making fake antiques.”

IMG_0957A team of inspired designers should lead Eastern Neighborhoods guidelines.
The planning department is responsible for creating architectural guidelines, yet only four out of our two-hundred planners are trained as architects. Stanley Saitowitz and several other architects in the crowd urged for the new guidelines not to be prescriptive, but rather open-ended and inspiring. “Let’s redistribute creativity away from Planning, and back to the architect and client. More constraints will become the reason why we aren’t flourishing architecturally… I want to see the architect reempowered.” Ron Miguel emphasized the importance of how guidelines are phrased. His suggestions included rhetoric that encourages lively conversation — rather than corner designers and squash creativity. Phrases like “awareness of neighborhood scale, urban harmony, and presentation from many vantage points” seemed to resonate with residents in the audience.

Design guidelines can, however, be prescriptive in ground-floor programming.
Amanda Loper of David Baker Architects, an audience member, urged the public to focus on what they want to see on the ground floor. “Developers have no idea what to put there, but they’re required to make it commercial. Think of your favorite coffeeshop: can you even tell me how many stories that building has, or is your attention focused on the ground floor experience that you love and participate in? Help us create that.”

Neighborhood input should happen as early in design process as possible.
Kathrin Moore, the only trained architect on the Planning Commission, clarified that neighborhood input should happen as early as possible so architectural vision doesn’t get watered down by process. “We need to invert the schedule so that the developer, architect, and neighborhood work these things out out pre-design.” The earlier input can be shared, the earlier it can be factored into the original design as inspiration. At that point, the architect can do what they entered this profession to do: design appropriate, relevant, and enriching buildings.

A constructive conversation indeed. It’s clear that frustrated architects and a reluctant public have led to mediocre architecture in the past. Let’s keep this plan moving forward to encourage trust, and to empower architects and neighbors in tandem.

Thanks to the Portrero Boosters for hosting, to CCA Wattis Institute for offering their space, and for all speakers and attendees for dedicating their busy weeknights to improving architecture in the Eastern Neighborhoods.

About the Author
Annie Fryman is a product of the Architectural Design and Creative Writing programs at Stanford, and for the past year has been working on residential design at Q-Architecture. She is a familiar face to SFHAC as one of the founding members of GrowSF and the newly formed Pro-Housing Coalition advocating for smart, fair, and robust development in our growing city. On nights and weekends, Annie designs maps with San Francisco’s Open Data to ask “what if?” questions about how housing policy shapes urban changes. Questions, comments? Reach out at and @anniefryman.

Housing Action Coalition

The Housing Action Coalition is a member-supported non-profit that advocates for the creation of well designed, well-located housing at all levels of affordability. We believe more housing means more choices and better solutions.

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