January 30, 2012

Preaching To The Choir With Respect To Architectural Innovation

Central Corridor Area of Study

In an attempt to learn "how cities can capitalize on the de-industrialization of their urban core to sustainably address the demands of growth and modernization" and inform the development of San Francisco’s Central Corridor Project, the Planning Department’s Steve Wertheim looked at four European cities (Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Lyon and Torino) to understand strategies, successes, and the ability to enhance quality-of-life.

One of the "key lessons" from Wertheim’s study that couldn’t help but catch our eye:

Amsterdam (and perhaps more so Lyon) show the potential of outstanding architecture to create iconic buildings and neighborhoods, thereby supporting both development and a high quality of life. To achieve such standards in the Central Corridor, San Francisco may need to consider raising architectural standards by formalizing peer-to-peer design review and/or revising our internal processes to support architectural innovation. With increased land values, it may also be possible for developments to attract the interest of top architects to the area.

Can we get an amen and hallelujah?

San Francisco’s Central Subway Corridor Project [SocketSite]
Capitalizing on De-Industrialization to Address Growth & Modernization [sf-planning.org]

First Published: January 30, 2012 5:00 PM

Comments from "Plugged In" Readers

"...revising our internal processes to support architectural innovation."

Perhaps by starting with this neighborhood and changing the process so neighbors have less of a say in the building details. By all means involve the neighborhood when it comes to bulk issues like changes in zoning, heights, and perhaps basic massing issues. But lets allow Rem Koolhaas to drop in a giant hot pink chunk of Swiss Cheese without the need to add bay windows.

Posted by: The Milkshake of Despair at January 30, 2012 5:35 PM

Yes, I would agree. Let the architects DESIGN. That's what they do. Give them freedom to design great architecture.
Keep issues such as zoning,height, bulk, FAR, etc. strictly by the written code.

Take away ANY design control from the Planning Commission.

Take away the DR process completely.

Posted by: futurist at January 30, 2012 6:29 PM

Agree. Some of the best architects in the world are in SF…and they all do their best work elsewhere. We have totally empowered the no-nothing neighbors who never saw a change they didn't hate; the Planning Department that tends to be frustrated wannabe architects and nimby histrionic preservationists…all of which leads to mediocrity.

Posted by: Jim at January 30, 2012 6:44 PM

Beware any proposal to expand the Planning Dept's role in design.

The infamous "beauty contests" of the 1980's - concieved with similar motivations - begat the most rancid crop of buildings in the city's history.

Any reform should strategically prune the approvals process, not expand it.

Posted by: rubber_chicken at January 30, 2012 6:51 PM

rubber_chicken - I'm curious about the 80s "beauty contests". Do you have any more info?

Posted by: The Milkshake of Despair at January 30, 2012 9:40 PM

I find it hard o believe that the substandard architecture of SF is all due to an overactive citizenry and the Planning Department. Yes the regulations should be simplified and the screamers muffled, but as an architect I do not think of the SF design pool as one I would want to necessarily draw from.

Posted by: charles at January 30, 2012 10:42 PM

Definetly preaching to the proverbial chior on this one. It's odd (and a bit appalling) that a "world class city" such as ours seems to eschew inovation in favor of the pedestrian.
Forward thinking desings and seemingly iconic designs such as 555 Washington and 706 Mission - Denied. Insetead we end up with One Rincon and even the Hines/Pelli proposed tower for the TransBay is strikingly similar to Penn Plaza going up in NY.

Seems the planning department feels "interesting" buildings is exclusivley the perview of museums.... (DeYoung - Contemporary Jewish - even the proposed MoMa expansion.)

The commission should abxolutely enforce height, seismic, etc. but if they have the power to stop a project strictly on aesthetics - then let's make sure they have some taste....

Posted by: DZinerSF at January 31, 2012 8:03 AM

Oh boy, this is all we need.

"Formalizing peer-to-peer design review" on top of the current standards, "make sure we protect our most important historic building", "continue applying impact fees on new development and seek additional revenue".

Don't worry "with increased land values, it may also be possible for developments to attract the interest of top architects to the area." So the expensive land they just bought will pay for the top architect to build below market rate housing.

That and we need more bike lanes and parklets.

Posted by: sparky-b at January 31, 2012 8:47 AM

Ban neighor-originated DR. It's a very simple solution.

Posted by: [anon.ed] at January 31, 2012 9:43 AM

I would welcome more input from actual architects instead of planners and preservationists, but more committees and votes always dilute strong design gestures.

Posted by: Jeremy at January 31, 2012 9:53 AM


In '86, Prop M put a cap on the amount of approved development downtown so there were more projects on the boards than allowed. Planning took it on themselves to make aesthetics the criteria for approval and even hired outside architects as a "jury".

An article from 2000 goves the back-story:


100 First street & 505 Montgomery are among the progeny of this policy.

Posted by: rubber_chicken at January 31, 2012 10:32 AM

rubber_chicken - 100 First and 505 Montgomery look like the winners in a Lego contest.

Posted by: bobo at January 31, 2012 11:11 AM

Thanks for the background rubber_chicken. I don't really care for 505 Montgomery. 100 First is fine by me though. Sort of looks like someone took the Empire State building and then collapsed it down to half the height.


All this talk of letting architects let their creativity shine is great but lets get realistic. Architects never have full reign on decision making. The developer has the last word before the ground breaks. And many developers care a lot less about aesthetics than they do about profit. If it weren't for civic influence there would be a lot more blank boxes with lots of sell-able and lease-able floorspace constructed.

Posted by: The Milkshake of Despair at January 31, 2012 1:22 PM

Yep, can't forget the role the invisible hand of value engineering plays. BTW, 100 First is one of my least favorite buildings in SF. Too many conflicting elements and the massing seems to be building toward something much taller, then just stops. The saddest part is it uses some quality materials, but it's executed all wrong, IMO.

Posted by: Turin at January 31, 2012 1:50 PM

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