Lawns to highrises

Radical redevelopment for Parkmerced raises the question: What do we do with the suburbs?

When Aaron Goodman walks the grounds at Parkmerced, a sprawling apartment complex spanning about 116 acres in southwestern San Francisco, he picks up on details that might escape the notice of a casual observer. A gregarious tour guide, he chatters on enthusiastically about the unique design elements of an entryway or townhouse facade, the curve of a knee-high brick wall defining the slope of a courtyard, the simple elegance of a tiered planter or classic window frame, or the spacious feel of a breezeway that opens onto shared grassy space encircled by backyard terraces. "No two courtyards are alike," Goodman says. "Each one is like a little vignette."

An architect who lives in a rental unit in one of Parkmerced's towers, Goodman is on a mission to document the complex's 1940s-era courtyard landscapes — but he's racing against the clock. Landscape and carpentry crews are constantly rearranging things before he can get to them, he says — and those piecemeal cosmetic changes are nothing in comparison with what's coming.

A total overhaul has been proposed for Parkmerced. The low-rise town houses would be razed, the landscape drastically altered, and an additional 5,665 housing units constructed, nearly tripling the number of residents that can be accommodated.

Goodman regards the plan as a "total tear-down," an affront to the work of the influential landscape architect who designed the grounds, and a terrible waste.

But Skidmore, Owens and Merrill, the internationally renowned architecture firm hired by the owner, a real-estate investment group called Parkmerced Investors LLC, describes the future Parkmerced as a cutting-edge eco-neighborhood that would provide the city with desperately needed rental housing. "This will be the largest sustainable revitalization project on the West Coast — perhaps in the entire nation," says Craig Hartman, the principal architect. "Our goal is to create an international model of environmentally sustainable urban living, and all our decisions are being made in that context."

A development of this scale would fundamentally change the feel of an entire San Francisco neighborhood. It's also, potentially, a case study in one of the most complex urban planning problems of our time.

"This is the kind of problem that America is going to be faced with over and over in the coming decades," Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, told us. "It's this question of how do we retrofit suburbia?"

Parkmerced is one of many similar areas developed after World War II, "when people hated cities," Metcalf said, "when the idea was that everybody would drive everywhere, and it was a sort of new town in town. It's a period piece. It's from a time when people were trying to escape density and traditional Victorian patterns like in the Tenderloin or SoMa or North Beach — [instead], you would have big lawns, and it would look very suburban."

But that model, most environmentalists and planner agree, isn't sustainable. And activists say that the western part of the city, which has always resisted density, will have to accept more residents in the coming years.

But a development of this size and magnitude, driven by a profit-seeking real-estate operation, creates all sorts of other problems, including potential traffic disasters on the nightmare called 19th Avenue. And while much of the new housing will be rental and some will be affordable, it raises the question: is this the sort of new housing the city needs?


The plans for Parkmerced are bold, and the construction timeline spans 15 to 20 years.