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. 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. "Sorry to be so cynical."
Goodman wonders just what's so sustainable about demolishing buildings that the owners have just sunk millions of dollars into for fix-ups and cosmetic repairs. "When you look at the overall site, it's a functioning community and it's essential housing," he says, wondering why it can't be reused and expanded," he says.
Hartman says he views the site "as an architect," and finds it to be incongruous with San Francisco's character. "To be frank, the architecture is unworthy of this extraordinary site," he says. Instead, he sees potential for what it could be: a pioneering example of a green neighborhood that uses urban density to meet the challenge of climate change.
At a public meeting held in June to discuss the future plans, residents shared their anxiety about being forced to move. Some tenants, particularly seniors, have lived there for decades in rent-controlled units. Parkmerced Investors has promised that those residents would be able to maintain their current rents in brand new, comparatively sized apartments. But Goodman points out that many would lose their meticulously cared-for garden plots and be forced to adapt to life in a high-rise instead.
About half the tenants are college students who attend San Francisco State, which lies adjacent to Parkmerced. District 7 Sup. Sean Elsbernd, who represents the neighborhood, told the Guardian that he often receives complaints from his constituents about "keggers" that go on until the wee morning hours.
"Parkmerced is such a fascinating societal study," Elsbernd noted. "You've got a lot of folks who've been there since it was built, but really the vast majority now are students at San Francisco State who are so transient and really aren't terribly invested in the neighborhood."
Elsbernd said he also shares a different concern, which came across at the meeting loud and clear: traffic. Although development plans emphasize cycling, Muni access, and a shuttle that would carry passengers to the Daly City BART, the redesign would come with a grand total of more than 11,000 on-street and off-street parking spaces. And it's situated along the 19th Avenue corridor, which is already notorious for traffic snarls (and for pedestrian deaths). Some fear the combination of two new developments would fuel perpetual, dangerous gridlock.
"At minimum, we're talking 5,000 additional vehicular trips a day," said Calvin Welch, a longtime affordable housing activist. "You couldn't build housing further from where people work if you tried." Welch regards the smart-growth school of thought, enthusiastically endorsed by SPUR, with skepticism. The pitfall, he says, is "allowing high-density development in transit-oriented neighborhoods ... and then finding out that people drive."
On the other hand, Welch said, market-rate rental housing is much more affordable than market-rate condominiums, so Parkmerced will provide a service compared to the condos that are pricing so many middle-class families out of San Francisco. And the eastern half of the city has had its share of new residential development, so building new rental units in the western half might be an appropriate counterbalance.
Goodman said he has his own vision for Parkmerced, which would employ adaptive reuse of the existing structures and ensure truly affordable housing for people of modest means. "If I had money and tons of land and all the power in the world, I'd do it a completely different way," he says. "But I don't. I'm a tenant living on site."