Parkmerced, San Francisco, California
“A City Within a City”- A modern landscape and urban planning masterpiece at risk
By Aaron Goodman
This project was a career breakthrough for Church and, therefore, many of the details and designs for the individual courtyards and terraces were developed through his site visits and office’s personal efforts. This exceptional example of a joint architectural and landscape endeavor, is currently being threatened by four, multi-pronged developments that aim to redefine the original boundaries, layout, and detailing of the masterplan of Parkmerced and the historical boundaries of the district parcel. The San Francisco State University (SFSU) Office of Capital Planning and the California State University Regents, Alliance Residential Company, Stellar Management, Summerhill Homes, and Olympic View Realty (former owner), are all proposing ways in which to subdivide and reinvent the complex. To allow the district to be divided, and the parts made un-whole, is to lose a sense of what rental living can be.
Parkmerced is one of only four remaining large-scale garden rental apartment complexes existing in the United States (the others are Parkchester in the Bronx, New York; Parkfairfax in Alexandria, Virginia; and Park Labrea in Los Angeles, California). Developed in the 1940’s by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company of New York (MetLife), the project was unlike many public housing projects of the time, as it was an example of a private corporation seeking investment opportunities in the moderate-income rental housing market. Following its success in the development of Stuyvesant Town in New York City in 1943, MetLife built Parkmerced to create a long-term, solid investment and, at the same time, community benefit for returning veterans and families not able to afford the high price of homes in the San Francisco Bay Area. The complex is associated with the war preparedness efforts and unprecedented population growth in San Francisco post World War II. (Note that from 1940 to 1950, the population of California increased by 42%, the largest of any state.)
Designed by Architect Leonard Schultze and Associates (1877-1951) with planning and landscape architecture by Thomas D. Church (1902-1978) with Robert Royston (1917-), it was known as “a city within a city.” The original 191.5-acre site, contained over 3,480 residential units, and over 8,000 residents.The pie-shaped blocks and internal courtyards, invite residents into sloped and terraced patios all intricately and individually designed and detailed by the landscape architects. This project was a career breakthrough for Church and therefore many of the details and designs for the individual courtyards and terraces were developed through the office's frequent site visits and with attention to site-specific details. Perhaps most important, the landscape was seen as an integral function to the primary use of housing. It is this close cooperation between Schultze and Church that gives Parkmerced its universal appeal for the many families who chose to live there. It was praised in its design for its “simplicity, utility, and beauty” and as a “modern community of tomorrow.”
Notable design features include pie-shaped blocks (an idea of Schultze) which influenced the overall site plan and individual housing units. Unlike the separation of pedestrian and vehicular traffic in American garden cities designed by Clarence Stein and Henry Wright, the two modes are almost universally integrated throughout the site. Communal courtyards, central auto-parking, and the sweeping Beaux-Arts lawned streets allowed for flowing in-between spaces, that developed into pedestrian-scale entry ensembles that accommodated the individualization and specialized response to topographic variation, views and vistas within and outside of the community, and microclimatic conditions between the two-story units and inside courtyards, allowing a lush palette of canopy trees and selected Mediterranean plants that have since grown to maturity. Simple planted traffic circles, with overall axises transversing the site and the large central circle, “Juan Bautista Circle,” located at the main intersection of the property, has been deemed as the “heart” of Parkmerced. Today, this generous green space of majestic canopy trees over lawn continues to provide residents with a public space for passive enjoyment. The "right-of-way" portions of the southern side of the site are lined with magnificent, mature trees, and tucked into the side is a local park, a former plant nursery, and larger groves of trees that assist in the engineered hillside that runs the length of Brotherhood Way on the south side.
Well appointed amenities for residents, including an observation deck, laundry yards, a commercial zone along the eastern portion, and a recreational area to the northwest, were designed using a compatible architecture and landscape palette and were parsed throughout the complex. A large meadow was developed between four central towers at the west of the complex that lead to Lake Merced, with the intent of linking the residents to this picturesque and recreational resource. Smaller-scale landscape features were also utilized throughout the community and were designed in a collaborative effort between the architect and landscape architect. These features ranging from fences and walls that screened trash cans to planter boxes, stair rails, terraces, patio shapes, and building detailing (e.g. unique wooden insets), to simple and elegant curvilinear curbs with street names stamped in the concrete, seating, and retaining walls. Other amenities included transportation for "in-town" workers via municipal rail service (which was installed later at the northeastern corner of the site) as well as access to direct downtown bus service. Even a16-room school facility, to the immediate north of the site, was touted in marketing brochures.
Over time, incremental changes have collectively compromised Parkmerced's buildings and grounds, and its longstanding service as rent-controlled housing for low to mid-income families within the city and county of San Francisco. Its local appeal is seen in the longevity of families that have, in some cases, resided there over three generations. This longevity has, to some extent, been a contributing factor to the endurance of the site's overall character and the surviving historically significant landscape features.
However, recent small and large-scale development proposals by multiple adjacent property owners and SFSU agencies has threatened to significantly change both the boundaries and the historic character of the site – as well as its relationship to its surrounding context. Moreover, the recent subdivision and sale of several lots and proposed “short and long” term “improvements” by the current property owner to emphasize the “new” Parkmerced, threaten to change the overall composition of this large-scale urban gem. During his recent visit to Parkmerced, Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation noted that “since the historic continuity of the visual and spatial relationships had largely survived within the site, in addition to the contiguity with adjacent land uses, to sell off historic Parkmerced lands would have an adverse affect on a revolutionary work of landscape architecture and planning that is unquestionably a candidate for the National Register or even a National Historic Landmark under those themes.”
Up until the late 1980’s, when the property was purchased from MetLife by Leona Helmsley, Parkmerced had continued to be exquisitely maintained and protected by the city and county of San Francisco against perceived threats of subdivision and condo-conversion. This all changed in the late 1990's, though, a quick succession of owners including Carmel Properties, and Olympic View Realty. With this instability in ownership, Parkmerced experienced a high turnover in site management which resulted in a lower level of upkeep.
With the most recent sale, contributing historic portions of the property were quickly sold off to the California State University system (under the purchasing organization San Francisco State University Foundation) for so-called, landscape “improvements” on the Parkmerced site that often were in direct conflict with the original use and landscape features. The university cited rationale for expansion, and the San Francisco State University Foundation, acted on this need for more “room to grow,” absorbing the property which includes the former Parkmerced recreational field. This area, now titled University Park South, is addressed in SFSU's “master plan” which proposes to demolish historic portions of the former Parkmerced lots which would not only result in a loss of historic features, but would significantly alter the overall scale of the construction as well as critical visual and spatial relationships.
Additionally, the commercial zone has been sold off. The central "right-of-way" area was left in disrepair and evolved into a dumping ground used by maintenance crews. This blighted area was also sold off to a dev8posed by the former owner of the property, Olympic View Realty, as a high-end housing enclave. The results: the historic 191.5 acres were reduced to the current 116, severally encroaching on the historic complex and removing any buffer it once had.
The current owner, Robert Rosania, purchased Parkmerced for $700 million and is currently spending over $110 million in much needed deferred “improvements” to the towers and garden units. Rosania, purchased the development under the title of the Parkmerced Investors LLP, and along with Stellar Management and Alliance Residential Company has embarked with the management (The executive Director who worked under Carmel and Olympic View Realty, and now Alliance) to push for changes under the guise of “the ‘new’ Parkmerced.” Current units are being treated as “mock-up” or “testing-grounds” being used to initialize the overall changes and to allow further large-scale re-design and removal of original design features.
Today, Parkmerced is at a crossroads, and the collective changes wrought over the past decade along with proposed future re-design and densification proposals, raise the question of how much Parkmerced can absorb without compromising its historic integrity. As testified by the sale of historic contributing lands, the relocation and “plopping” of the Montessori School and its associated parking (into the primary viewshed from Crespi Drive); the construction and “plopping” of the outdoor shared “community garden” into the primary viewshed from Higuera Avenue through the four residential towers; the felling of historic trees throughout the community; the removal of historic character-defining furnishings and features; and inappropriate new plantings around secondary traffic circles illustrates a lack of SFSU’s, the owner’s, and management’s commitment to the historic significance of the communities’ planning and landscape architecture.
With reduced maintenance and increased rents, and few other options, many families have moved out of the complex and the city. This exodus, paired with the growth of SFSU’s student population, has created a significant change in the demographic of the building. If trends were reversed, students provided adequate housing on and within the SFSU’s original campus boundaries or pushed to locations designed for the transitory student population, Parkmerced might once again entice renters who want to make a home. This would not stop the owner’s consistent approach to interior renovations and rental cost increases, however, it opens the spaces again to tenants and does not turn the area into a “student-dormitory.”
The Parkmerced Residents Organization takes great pride in the history and people who comprise the tenants of the area. We feel as a group that only through tenancy is the notion of “community” and the respect for others living in your vicinity recognized and developed. However, the current SFSU master planners have encouraged very little public comment, or design review to allow us to “share” in the design process or effect its final form. Information on meetings, and locations was kept to a minimum. The EIR university development team is circumventing the joint effects on the multiple property developments noted in the laws of CEQA, for the University, and even the southern “right-of-way” development was approved without an EIR by the SF board of supervisors. There is a significant need for redevelopment in the city of San Francisco, yet the push to create the new is ignoring the need to survey accurately the special features and reasons why and how this area was created. It is important to have this site recognized for its economic, social, educational and historic impacts and import in the city of San Francisco, while protecting the overall master-planned community as a historic district, an urban design master plan, historic buildings in their concept typology and layout, and the integrity of the Church landscape large-scale design for future generations.
Learn More / Site
3711 19th Avenue, San Francisco, California 94132 (leasing office).
The border streets are Holloway and 19th Avenues, Brotherhood Way, and Lakemerced Blvd.
Outsidelands - Inge Horton and DOCOMOMO (Documentation of the Modern Movement) U.S. Northern California Chapter
The Parkmerced Residents Website has a template letter and information on writing the CSU Regents and State and Local representatives on SFSU master plan, as well as other developments proposed around and on Parkmerced property. A template letter supporting the local, state and national San Francisco landmark district nomination for Parkmerced is in the works. We urge you to support opposition of the SFSU master plan and the nomination to ensure that this invaluable legacy of Garden Rental Communities endures.
In the News
San Francisco Chronicle - Search under The Villas Parkmerced, Parkmerced or SFSU Master plan
BizJournals - Article “facing west” summer hill homes)
San Francisco Business Times - July 2007 Article on Parkmerced Improvements 110 Million.
Outsidelands - Website on the Western portion of San Francisco its history and links to the SF Public Library historical photos of Parkmerced.
About the Author
Aaron Goodman is one of the current Vice Presidents on the Board of Directors of the Parkmerced Residents Organization, grew up as a local Bay Area native and has during his travels enjoyed the variety of developments that are attuned to the needs of renters in cities. He is an architectural designer currently working in San Francisco. email@example.com