Sunday, May 13, 2012

Leave Fort Mason alone

The recent John King column on Fort Mason was the first I'd heard of the move to screw up one of the nicest spots in San Francisco. Rich Hillis is in charge of a design competition that threatens to do that, and they picked the right guy for the job of "upgrading" Fort Mason. Recall that, a few years ago when he worked for Mayor Newsom in City Hall, Hillis opined about Octavia Boulevard:

"At one time the freeway bisected the area and developing the parcels is helping to heal the neighborhood," said Rich Hillis, deputy director in the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development. "A lot of the changes in Hayes Valley were sparked by the removal of the freeway and we think the developments near Octavia Boulevard will close out a project that has been successful."

That was so far from the awful reality of the chronically-gridlocked Octavia Blvd. I had to give Hillis an award for the Most Fatuous Statement About Hayes Valley by a City Official.

King and Hillis must first denigrate what it's like now: Fort Mason is "off the map of today's San Francisco"; It's "a  place out of time": can stand with your back to the water and watch bicyclists glide down the bluffs on their way from Fisherman's Wharf to Crissy Field, few of whom pause to explore the gated compound on the right. Or you can look at the buildings and read the signs of age, since the center's philosophy of low-rent space for nonprofits isn't conducive to fancy upkeep.

Fort Mason is now home to the legendary Greens Restaurant and 20 other businesses and non-profits. If the buildings need some "upkeep," a meddlesome---and dangerous---design competition isn't necessary to do that.

King places Fort Mason in a completely false city context:

But the northern waterfront has changed immeasurably since 1977. The Embarcadero was known for its elevated freeway rather than a wide promenade. Crissy Field was a military base, ramshackle buildings filling what now is celebrated open space. The city's cultural and economic momentum, meanwhile, has shifted south - a new order manifested by everything from Yerba Buena Gardens and the Giants ballpark to the Valencia Street dining scene. The artisans and arts groups that a generation ago were drawn to Fort Mason now hunt for spaces in Dogpatch or the Mid-Market area. Those spots are our 21st century urban frontier, and that's a big part of the lure.

Of course Fort Mason is nowhere near the Embarcadero, the Yerba Buena Gardens, or the Giants ballpark---or even Crissy Field, for that matter. And who cares if the trendies like Dogpatch or Mid-Market? Fort Mason is doing well where it is and as it is.

Hillis has a few typically obtuse soundbites for King:

"It would draw me in because of something specific," Rich Hillis said, as we explored the sternly intriguing landscape on a windy weekday afternoon. "It hasn't been a place for a casual visit." Hillis wants to change that: In September, he became the center's executive director, leaving a post at City Hall for an office with sailboats bobbing outside..."We need better connections to the water and better connections to the city," Hillis said. "The physical core and the core mission should remain the same."

Fort Mason has 1,750,000 visitors a year; Greens alone has 160,000 customers a year. So what's the problem? A lot of city residents make "casual visits" to Fort Mason every day to eat at Greens, and if you can't afford to eat in the restaurant, you can buy a sandwich at the take-out counter and eat on a bench next to the water. There are theaters and galleries and the library's used book store; special events bring thousands to Fort Mason every year. The #28 Muni line stops right across the street.

People should worry that someone who thinks Octavia Blvd. is somehow "healing" the Hayes Valley neighborhood is Fort Mason's executive director in charge of a design competition on how to change what even John King calls a "community treasure."

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At 11:55 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Rich Hillis responds:

"Rob – As always, thanks for the kind words.I’m not sure we’ve ever met, but happy to talk about Fort Mason Center if you are interested.The biggest goal of the design competition is to gain momentum to repair and reuse Pier 1, which has been vacant for the past 50 or so years. Rich"

No, we've never met, and I'm not interested in schmoozing with you, Rich. If you have something to add to the material already availble on the Fort Mason website, I'm interested.

If repairing Pier 1 is your "biggest goal," why the hyped up design competition for the whole property?

The "design brief" for the competition raises a number of red flags. Calling Fort Mason a "campus" is the first. In what sense can it be called that?

Fort Mason now "lacks a clear identity and cohesion"? How so? As the Fort Mason website notes, it is now "an extraordinary example of repurposing former military land and buildings for contemporary uses, including museums, performance spaces, and a vibrant schedule of art and cultural exhibitions and events."

Seems like Fort Mason is already realizing "its full potential" with 1.5 million visitors every year.

Your Design Brief reads like it was written by the city's awful Planning Department: "Prior" instead of "before"; "utilized"---and even "underutilized"!---instead of "used." And what the hell does "wayfinding" really mean? Is that PlanSpeak about signs---I mean "signage," of course---that tell people where to go?

Interesting that you're particularly interested in the city-owned parking lot in front of Fort Mason, which you're going to meddlel with to "make our entry more inviting and gracious" by widening the sidewalks and of course adding bike lanes, not to mention "the installation of a 'pay and display' system for paid parking on campus."

I bet all those "improvements" will mean eliminating parking spaces, right? Especially since you think the parking lot inside the gate is "underutilized."

And what's wrong with the entrance now? Nothing, actually.

There's nothing at all wrong with Fort Mason as it is, and your meddlesome design competition will only mean that the already wonderful place will be subject to some unintended consequences that will degrade the site.

At least you didn't talk about "healing" Fort Mason.

At 3:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not sure why you deleted my comment about the F-line. That needs to get extended into Ft Mason to really address access and bring in a whole new crowd.

At 11:54 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

The F-line is mentioned in one of the design competition documents, including this one. It's simply untrue that there's an access problem at Fort Mason. Instead there's a meddlesome bureaucrat problem. Many in the city that claims to "know how" don't know when to leave well enough alone.

At 12:03 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

In response to my question about the design competition ("Why is a design competition necessary if simply fixing up Pier 1 is your 'biggest goal'?"), Rich Hillis's response: "A difficult building to reuse from a design standpoint and needs $50+ million to renovate/repair.Competition will generate ideas and interest."

The problem is that your design competition opens up the whole Fort Mason site to potentially damaging "improvements" to what everyone now thinks is "a community treasure."


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