Lawns to highrises - Page 2

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

The 11 towers on the site, which account for about half the 3,000-unit housing stock, would remain standing, while the low-scale apartment dwellings would be demolished to make way for a mix of taller buildings, including 11 new towers at about the same height. Once the project is complete, Parkmerced would have a total of nearly 8,900 housing units, with a mix of rental and for-sale properties.

"Our plan for Parkmerced will directly address the city's housing shortage for households at all income levels," Hartman told the Guardian, adding that existing rental units would be preserved, and the project would comply with the city's affordable-housing requirements. The city typically requires about 15 percent affordability, which would mean about 850 new below-market units — and 4,800 at market rate.

And while the complex was originally designed for middle-class families, the owners have been targeting San Francisco State University students — who typically have their parents co-sign the leases and who don't present a rent-control issue, since they don't stay long.

Sustainability and energy-efficiency are underpinnings of the project, according to Hartman. The poorly insulated garden apartments are moisture-ridden and inefficient, he said, and the entire neighborhood layout reflects the car-centric mentality of a bygone era. The landscape also poses a problem. "Maintaining the expansive lawns ... requires the application of tons of fertilizer and wastes millions of gallons of drinking water annually. In fact, actual metering shows the consumption of 55 million gallons of potable water per year — just for irrigation."

Parkmerced residents would use 60 percent less energy and water per capita than they do now, according to Hartman, through efficiency improvements and investments in renewable energy sources. Plans also call for an organic farm and a network of bike paths. A storm-water management system would naturally filter runoff and use it to recharge Lake Merced, which has been seeping lower in recent years.

The developers hope to re-route the Muni M line through the complex to make transit more accessible. New retail would eliminate the need to drive somewhere for something as simple as a quart of milk.

"To me what's most exciting about this is, if they get it right, it's actually taking an area that right now generates a ton of car trips, and making it walkable," Metcalf said.

But Goodman and others have suggested that Parkmerced should be designated as a landmark, which would hamper development plans, precisely because its character is reminiscent of that postwar era. A draft report issued by Page & Turnbull, a historic-architecture firm, found that Parkmerced would be eligible for designation as a historic district on the California and national registers of historic places.

It was built in the 1940s by Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. as part of a government-supported effort to supply housing for the middle-class and families of servicemembers. The "courtyard vignettes" bear the mark of Thomas Dolliver Church, regarded as the founding father of the modern movement in landscape design.

"It was Church's biggest public project," notes Inge Horton, an architect and former regional planner with the San Francisco Planning Department who completed an historic assessment of Parkmerced for Docomomo, the International Committee for Documentation and Conservation of Buildings, Sites and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement. Horton has mixed feelings about the proposed development. "It is one of these things where the developer or owner proposes to tear down all the low-rise buildings and put up a high-rise and make it a little bit green," Horton said.