THREATENED: Parkmerced, San Francisco

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Parkmerced: Symbol of future or the past?

By Dave Weinstein, San Francisco Chronicle

Published May 3, 2008

The sprawling, grassy neighborhood of Parkmerced in San Francisco has few bigger fans than Susan Kennedy, who's lived there 21 years. But the place can still surprise her.

"Wow, that's so cool," she said during a recent tour of the neighborhood's signature semiprivate courtyards. "I've never been in here," she said of one courtyard, whose space was energized by a pathway that slips sinuously past a lawn through a series of curves. There are dozens of courtyards, all of a piece but subtly unique.

Parkmerced is one of San Francisco's most unusual neighborhoods. The architecture is stripped down, modern, even Art Deco in places - but with oddly amusing neoclassical details, including temple-front porticoes. They come across as Colonial Moderne.

Instead of a grid, its streets curve. From the air, the neighborhood's geometric design becomes apparent: an octagonal plan with boulevards radiating from the wooded Juan Bautista Circle. There are 11 high-rise apartment buildings, an unusual sight indeed in the city's generally low-rise western lands.

It's also made up entirely of renters. And most of it - 116 of the original 192 acres - belongs to a single owner: Parkmerced Investors, which plans to make major changes, including demolishing the garden apartments, preserving the high-rises and adding others, along with new midrise dwellings. Many of the streets and most of the open space would be reconfigured as well.

Those changes are threatened, however, by the pedigree of Parkmerced's architects. Its courtyards, medians, circles and other open spaces were designed by Thomas Church (1902-1978), the San Francisco landscape architect whom the National Trust for Historic Preservation called the "creator of the modern garden." The overall Parkmerced plan - the radiating streets, the almost Beaux Arts-style symmetry - was designed not by Church but by the venerable Leonard Schultze (1877-1951), one of New York's great architects (he designed the Waldorf Astoria and the Pierre Hotel), who loved all things Parisian. Church was brought in to fill out the plan; he may have rearranged the original street plan to make it fit the site. Fittingly enough, preservationists are focusing on the landscaping, not the buildings.

Church pioneered the free-flowing, asymmetric designs that everyone takes for granted today. The kidney-shaped pool was one of his innovations, for example. He designed gardens for everyday use, not as repositories of pretty plants. It is difficult today to appreciate how revolutionary Church's designs were in the 1930s and '40s, because they have become ubiquitous.

"This was very advanced compared to what else was happening in landscape architecture then, which was more formal and axial, with rectangular planting beds," says Andrew Wolfram, referring to Parkmerced. Wolfram is the president of the Northern California chapter of Docomomo, an organization dedicated to the preservation of modern design. He recently took Kennedy and her neighbor Aaron Goodman, an architect and vice president of the Parkmerced Residents Organization, on a tour of Parkmerced.

"These designs are more modern, organic," Wolfram says. "They lead your eye around, play tricks on you. They're fluid, not formal."

Walking through Parkmerced can seem surreal, as view opens onto view. From well-tended, grassy boulevards, you walk through what appear to be the front doors of two-story apartment buildings. But instead of lobbies, you enter semiprivate gardens shared by tenants. The gardens in turn open onto laundry courtyards - used today primarily by skateboarders - and onto other gardens and courtyard parking. All of this is hidden from the street.

"You get these unexpected vignettes as you move from one space to the next, and you see how places connect," Goodman observed.

"It's labyrinthine," Kennedy said.

"But in a good way," Goodman added.

A quiet elegance

Fans of Church can find a virtual museum of his work at Parkmerced. "Because each landscaped courtyard contains a different design, and because the place has been so well maintained over the years, Parkmerced is like a Thomas Church sampler, offering examples of the key features of his work," wrote Chandler McCoy, a Docomomo board member.

Landscape architect Cathy Garrett says: "Walking into those courtyards, it's like a beautiful piece of music - and not classical music. It's very minimalistic, slender, simple in its use of materials. It's very quiet. It's intentionally quiet, and it's elegant.

"The courtyard spaces within the buildings are classic Thomas Church landscapes," says Garrett, who is also a co-chairwoman of the federal Historical American Landscapes Survey. "And there are not many of them left."

Craig Hartman, a highly regarded modernist architect in the firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, is redesigning the neighborhood for Parkmerced Investors. He acknowledges Church's historical importance. "The architecture itself is not particularly significant," Hartman says. "So it's a question of the cultural landscape."

Hartman, who is also planning communities in China, India and on Treasure Island, says changes are needed to turn Parkmerced into what the owner promises will be "an international model of urban sustainability," not to mention "a 21st century eco-neighborhood."

"Should we freeze entire districts and neighborhoods of the city in any one period of their history?" Hartman asks. "Is that really the best thing for the city - to preserve as relics from the '40s one piece of the city? Or is it better to provide for the organic development of the city?

"I would personally come down on the side of letting this important district of the city evolve in a way that reflects what we've learned over the years about sustainable development."

Ironically, when plans for Parkmerced were announced in 1941, just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, it was proclaimed "a community of tomorrow" because of its open space, airiness, playgrounds and pathways separated from traffic. It was a modern garden city. Most of Parkmerced was built during World War II. The high-rises were added in the early 1950s.

In 1944, with 2,500 units occupied, the landscape architect Mark Daniels (who laid out fine neighborhoods himself, including San Francisco's Forest Hill) called Parkmerced "well-knit, well-designed and well-planned in all its dominant features. It has both unity and variety."

Five years later, Chronicle real estate columnist George Voigt suggested that Parkmerced represented San Francisco's future. He wrote: "Communities such as this in outlying districts and communities of tall apartment buildings in central districts eventually will replace many of San Francisco's traditional row houses."

A relic of the '50s?

Has Parkmerced already become a community of yesterday?

Its owner says yes, portraying it as a relic of 1950s car-based sprawl. Parkmerced Investors points to the acres of grass (planted in the era before "lawn" became a dirty word), and to other nonnative plantings. Its plan calls for converting viewable green space into usable open space, such as playing fields, plazas and trails. Hartman says the goal is to restore the area's natural drainage and riparian habitat, which will help replenish the incredibly shrinking Lake Merced.

Green design will result in the neighborhood's consuming 62 percent less energy than it does now, and 42 percent less water - despite a much higher density, the developer vows. Currently, it says, irrigation alone sucks up 5.9 million gallons of water a year. Parkmerced may even be powered through solar and wind energy.

The plan calls for increasing the number of units from 3,221 to 8,898 - almost tripling the population. New buildings would be mostly three to four stories, with some as high as the existing 13-story high-rises. The build-out would take about 20 years after a public review process that will itself take several years.

The density alone would be a social and environmental benefit, the owners say, helping forestall rural sprawl and keeping people out of their cars. Retail and services would be brought into the neighborhood along the main entry at Crespi Drive. Muni would be rerouted through the neighborhood, and the owners would hire a "transportation coordinator" to help residents get where they're going in eco-friendly style.

Fear of density

Some opposition to the plan is based on the usual fears. Increased density and turning the area around Juan Bautista Circle into a shopping center would destroy what makes Parkmerced special, Kennedy says. "There is no reason why this shouldn't remain as it is indefinitely," she says.

Neighbors also complain that several other large developments proposed for the southwestern portion of the city will forever alter its air of relative peace.

Then there's the Church factor. Goodman, of the Parkmerced Residents Organization, has asked the city's Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board to consider landmarking the neighborhood. A study to determine the neighborhood's historical and architectural value is under way.

Neighbors aren't the only ones who say Parkmerced is significant. Several preservation groups and historically minded architects and landscape architects have weighed in as well, including Charles Birnbaum, founder and president of the Cultural Landscapes Foundation, a national organization. Birnbaum says he didn't expect much when he was invited to visit.

"I thought it was a community that didn't want to see any change wrapping itself in the cause of preservation," he says. Instead, "my socks were knocked off. I said, 'Holy cow! Who did this plan? I've never seen anything like this.' "

Parkmerced was one of several developments built by Metropolitan Life Insurance starting in the late 1930s to house middle-income families.

"I've looked at a lot of planned communities, and I've never seen anything like it," Birnbaum says of Parkmerced. "It's pretty darn important. The landscape architecture and planning is unquestionably a National Register candidate, and I believe could even be worth national landmark status."

Church's fans aren't asking to preserve Parkmerced in toto. "We would like a plan that maintains the character of the original landscaping while allowing for more density," says Docomomo's Wolfram. "It's a significant landscape, and it's important that its character be maintained and preserved."

"How do you balance the new and old?" Goodman asks. "I still see ways it could be developed and densified, but not a total teardown of the area."

Architect Hartman agrees that Church's landscaping has value. "I think we can preserve some of the courtyards," he says. "Do we have to save every courtyard to make a statement about the historical landscape? Or can we save a representative piece of that? It's just not possible to make major changes here and save everything."