Achieving Better Architecture in the Eastern Neighborhoods

by Annie Fryman : sfhac – excerpt

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

The 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 stamina 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…
A team of inspired designers should lead Eastern Neighborhoods guidelines…
Design guidelines can, however, be prescriptive in ground-floor programming…
Neighborhood input should happen as early in design process as possible…

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