ANALYSIS AND PLANNING HONOR AWARD
Leslie Webster, Student ASLA
University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, California
Faculty Advisors: Randolph T. Hester, FASLA, Linda Jewell, FASLA, Marcia McNally, Louise Mozingo, and Michael Southworth
This project presents a theoretical approach for rehabilitating large-scaled public housing projects in the Western Addition of San Francisco. The affects of past and present trends in planning and design on this site and current use patterns in the neighborhood informed the development of design principles that improve the physical conditions of the site while minimizing community instability. The principles are applied to the neighborhood in a site-specific design proposal that both physically heals the site and re-knits the city fabric.
The urban fabric is always changing. The structures that we build and inhabit do not last forever - ‘out with the old and in with the new’ is inevitable. However, there are situations where parts of cities are prematurely deemed old because they reflect a pattern of city form that has become outdated. However these outdated structures are not always just a building – they are sometimes a home, a neighborhood, or a community. This process of erasure was most prevalent during urban renewal. Whole neighborhoods were torn down in favor of a new model for living in the city. Today, the neighborhoods that suffered the most from redevelopment in the 1950s and 60s contain the highest concentrations of low-income, predominantly minority residents. These homes are reflections of an outdated paradigm in city building - a stigma to their residents. These neighborhoods are again being targeted for redevelopment because they are seen as yesterday’s solution. Physical improvements in these neighborhoods are necessary but must be sensitive to the needs of the existing communities. Instead of continuing to tear down and rebuild in the newest fashion, improvements can be made within the existing structure of the neighborhood that emphasize small-scaled, incremental changes that remodel the post-renewal built form.
The Western Addition in San Francisco is one many places in this country that suffered from urban renewal. The Western Addition was once a thriving African American community that was erased by urban renewal from the 1960s to 80s. The form of this neighborhood stands out against the backdrop of the surrounding neighborhoods in the city. It sits at a unique crossroads in space and society. After neighborhood was destroyed, it was replaced with a highly concentrated pocket of low income housing. There is a sharp edge separating the neighborhoods that are still part of the historic urban fabric. The blocks in this part of the city are twice as big as the blocks in the rest of the city. Every block is made up of monotonous, faceless buildings that were all designed and built at the same time. Whereas the city’s population as whole is around 7 percent African American, the census tract that encompasses the former redevelopment area is 50 percent African American. The city is designating large amounts of resources for future streetscape improvements in the adjacent neighborhoods, but none in this neighborhood which arguably need the improvements the most.
Remodeling renewal with attention to the needs of the current residents while implementing a vision for a vital, thriving neighborhood future is what this project has to offer. There are certainly neighborhoods at this moment whose streets are being widened, quickened, elevated, or removed in the name of progress and efficiency and where existing and stable neighborhoods are being cleared to make room for new consolidated developments. There are also countless people who live in places that share a common planning history with the Western Addition. The approach and solutions that this project presents are an alternative for all of these neighborhoods - whether they are in a preventative or reparative mode.
This project begins with historic research into some of the more influential planning eras of the past and how each contributed to the current layered urban form of cities like San Francisco. The Western Addition is a vivid example of the on-the-ground effects of the planning-driven urban morphogenesis on the social structure of a community. It then presents a detailed analysis of the physical and social structure of the Western Addition site today and in-particular those conditions that contribute to the sharp contrast between the parts of the neighborhood that were affected by urban renewal and the parts that were not. The contrasts are both environmental and social. The existing conditions of the site are analyzed on three distinct yet interrelated scales. The first is the context of the site – beyond the edges of the eight blocks – focusing on the ecological structure, the characteristics of the adjacent neighborhoods, and the institutional environment that shapes its future. The second is the neighborhood scale which looks at the physical structure of the eight blocks, and is analyzed using a theoretical framework of best practice in public housing typologies. Third is the site scale which investigates the social structure of the people who make this ‘site’ their home, including their social and behavioral patterns as they relate to the physical form of their living environment.
The results of the research at each scale is synthesized and mapped, generating the follwing series of design principles that guide the future improvement of the physical conditions of post-urban renewal neighborhoods. Each principle stems from the position that the physical form can be improved without destroying the neighborhood. The remaining, unsuccessful post-renewal neighborhoods are in need of physical improvement and designers and planners should prioritize these places in their local process. However, the resident communities do not have to be displaced to make these improvements possible. Additional benefits to this approach are that it is more cost effective and ecologically responsible to work with the existing buildings that to start from scratch.
Principle 1: The institutional grain of post-renewal neighborhoods shall be broken down into a more humane scale. Without tearing down the buildings redesign can articulate differences between structures and spaces at a finer grain than currently exists. This will make a more dynamic pedestrian experience by creating more visual variety from the street and decrease the public housing stigma of this area.
Principle 2: The border between public and private space in post-renewal neighborhoods shall be mediated with a clearly defined transitional zone. Currently in this neighborhood the houses that face directly onto the street have turned their backs on the street, hiding behind gates, barred windows, and drawn blinds. The addition of a transitional zone between public and private will give the residents more personal space and make this part of the city fit more with its context.
Principle 3: Security in post-renewal neighborhoods shall be stitched into the site plan to minimize incongruence with the surrounding neighborhoods. The feeling of safety that parents feel letting their children play with friends in the internal protected spaces of the developments should not be undermined by the new design. Changes in the built form can maintain the secure nature of the interior while reducing the visual impact of the security elements.
Principle 4: Increasing density in urban centers is necessary and shall be achieved within the existing structure of post-renewal neighborhoods. Increasing the density of cities is imperative to slowing suburban sprawl and auto dependence. Density can and should be added to the interiors of the blocks within the structure of the existing housing while maintaining the population of current residents.
Principle 5: The current use patterns of residents in post-renewal neighborhoods shall be documented and used as a basis for determining what type of neighborhood space shall be developed in the future. In the Western Addition residents use the interiors of the blocks more than any other types of space – especially the parking lots, patio and porches, and programmed play areas. Redesign that incorporates more of the type of space that has proven successful will make the neighborhood work better for the residents.
Principle 6: Municipal plans for improvements to the public domain shall incorporate and prioritize post-renewal neighborhoods. The physical conditions are the direct result of the planning and design decisions of the past and therefore present day planners have the ethical responsibility to improve the unsuccessful places that they helped create.
Principle 7: Current residents shall be allowed to remain in their homes while improvements are underway as well as after improvements are complete. Whenever possible, current residents shall be involved in the planning, design, and implementation process. The people who will benefit from the proposed improvements to the built form must also be the residents that are currently living in the neighborhood.
In order to test the applicability of the design principles, a design solution for a portion of the Western Addition neighborhood of San Francisco was developed. The design proposal is carried out on two scales. The first is at the neighborhood scale and includes an urban design plan for the streets and sidewalks in an eight block site within the Western Addition. The second is at the site scale and includes a schematic design for a single superblock.
The streetscape design consists of four main kinds of urban design improvements. First are elements that promote pedestrian safety including curb extensions located at strategic position in where traffic is high or where crossings are made to reach a park. Second are sustainable stormwater managements surface treatments including swales and bioretention basins that are doubled with the existing open spaces and the new curb-extensions. Third is an extensive street tree planting plan, and the final piece is the narrowing of one of the wider, lower-trafficked streets in the neighborhood to increase the sidewalk and setback. Taken together, these four moves improve the pedestrian experience and the ecological functioning of this site and keep this part of the city up to speed with the present planning and urban design goals of the City of San Francisco.
Investigating a single block, the site plan consists of five major moves that work together to apply the design principles by reorienting the internal spaces in the block. The addition of porches and private yards onto the homes and apartments increases the transitional zone between public and private space. The development of seven units of new housing increases the density of the block and initiates the reorganization of space to brake down the grain of the block. The parking and circulation are also reorganized in the form of parallel parking using a street vocabulary. A small portion of the block is opened as a slow street to literally cut the block in half and start to repair the finer grained, historic grid and allow limited public access to the site. The community center building is remodeled and expanded to include a commercial use on the ground floor adjacent to the new slow street and a new public plaza for community gatherings is set in front of it. Finally, the visual impact of the gates is minimized by softening materials and creatively masking the elements of security within the site design. The existing residents would be able to stay in their homes both during and after these improvements were implemented. Wherever possible, the existing, mature trees are maintained. Also, the spaces that were observed as most used in the block - the parking lots and the play structure - were preserved as fully as possible.
Planners and designers need to step back and learn to value the fact that despite the horrible physical conditions in these areas, somewhat stable communities have formed and these places are now their homes. Careful understanding of the history, built form, and the way that resident communities use space in post-renewal sites starts to give designers a direction for developing and nurturing the idiosyncrasies of each block. Fostering the uniqueness of each community through small-scaled design interventions starts to break down institutional quality of these places. This project has both theoretical and design implications for many other neighborhoods in this country. Remodeling, instead of destroying, is an approach that extends the life of the developments and allows communities that have managed to develop stability against all odds simply continue to be.