Plan to Replace Modern Landscape Wins

Three trees
Landscape architect Tommy Church improvised while designing the courtyards at Parkmerced, often coming up with ideas while roaming the site. Photos by Dave Weinstein

One of San Francisco’s largest modern landscapes has lost a major round in court. The state Supreme Court gave the go-ahead to rebuild Parkmerced, which will destroy landscapes by Thomas Church.

The Supreme Court, in upholding an appeals court ruling, said the project doesn’t violate city regulations and will provide the city with additional affordable housing. The issue of preserving historic landscapes was before the court but the emphasis was on density, intensity of use, impact on transit, and open space.

The groups seeking to block the project  are San Francisco Tomorrow and the Parkmerced Action Coalition.

The development proposal from Parkmerced Investors Properties, first proposed years ago, would add about 5,700 units to this rental community, in the southwestern corner of the city near Lake Merced and San Francisco State. There are currently about 3,220 units, Many residents are students but it also houses a wide variety of people in towers and two-story garden apartments.

Leonard Schultze's lightly modern buildings drop their Colonial ornamentation on sides facing Church's unpretentious courtyards. Church's focus was always on livable landscapes, not fancy plantings.

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. Groundbreaking is expected to take place next fall.

"It was a David and Goliath case," says architect Aaron Goodman, who has fought the case for years and who used to live in Parkmerced.

"Unless somebody wants to spend a lot of money there’s no ability to go forward" with their fight against the plan, he says, suggesting the possibility of " going back to the ballot box to strengthen" city measures to control density and development.

"I wish we could force the city to rethink their whole scheme. But we can’t."

Goodman says the project will worsen congestion in the area and remove valuable open space. "This is just the opening of the dam for more density in western San Francisco," he says.

Project opponent Sue Vaughn also worries that, despite an agreement that replacement apartments will be rent controlled, that agreement could be thrown out in the courts, leading to the losss of affordable housing.

Parkmerced was built in the late 1940s, with buildings designed by architect Leonard Schultze in an odd style that combines Colonial with lightly likable modern – and with occasional touches of Moderne. It was a popular combination, at the time.

What makes the complex of real interest to fans of modern design, though, are the Tommy Church courtyards, greenways and lawns that wrap the buildings and dart beneath their courtyard doorways. Church (1902-1978) is one of the founders of modern landscape architecture.

During his long career Church designed several landscapes for Eichler neighborhoods and did gardens and outdoor areas for many individual Eichler homes.

“I’ve looked at a lot of planned communities and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Charles Birnbaum, founder and president of the Cultural Landscapes Foundation, a national organization, said of Parkmerced in a 2008 interview. “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.”

There's a certain charm, even humor, to the decor of the doors. Less so, the added vinyl windows.

Unlike a similar project built by the same developer at the same time in Los Angeles, Park La Brea, which today is gated, Parkmerced is open to passersby and is a joy to explore.

Each of Church’s courtyards, deceptively simply, with their curves and rises, trees and low plantings, walls and connections, is different enough from the others to provide delight.

Project proponents, though, say the expansive lawns are wasteful both of water and of space, and say the entire development is auto dependent. They promise a much more environmentally and socially progressive "eco-neighborhood" that “will greatly enhance the quality of life for our residents and neighbors by transforming the property and adjacent area into a vibrant San Francisco neighborhood.”

The project was endorsed by such groups as SPUR, an urban advocacy and educational group, and the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition.

The developer promises to provide housing for all current residents. The design team was led by Craig Hartman, a leading modern Bay Area architect (Christ the Light Cathedral, Oakland), with the local office of SOM.

Black Eye
Few urban neighborhoods have as much open lawn as Park Merced. A bit too suburban for some critics.

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