S.F.’s controversial federal tower is getting a new plaza — and a tall protective fence

2021-12-22 06:21:40 By : Mr. Yuki Liang

Construction crews work on a new plaza with a large metal fence near the Federal Building at Seventh and Mission streets in San Francisco. The stark unpleasant plaza has been torn out and is being replaced by a new design that includes a metal fence along Mission Street.

The 8-foot-high metal fence around the new plaza at the San Francisco Federal Building is meant to provide some safety to the area, which neighbors say attracted unwelcome visitors.

The San Francisco Federal Building’s troubled plaza is being replaced with a plaza that includes a fence.

An artist’s rendering shows the redesign of the plaza at the San Francisco Federal Building at Seventh and Mission streets. The makeover includes an 8-foot-tall perimeter fence of galvanized steel.

The new plaza design is meant to draw visitors in during the day but keep drug dealers out at night.

Construction continues on a new plaza with a large metal fence a the base of the Federal Building at Seventh and Mission streets in San Francisco.

A rendering shows the plaza renovation now under way at the San Francisco Federal Building.

People walk past and through the plaza outside of the San Francisco Federal Building in July 2017. The uninviting plaza drew drug dealers and their clients at night.

Fourteen years after it opened, the plaza below San Francisco’s ever-controversial federal tower at Seventh and Mission streets is now a construction site. But one element of the planned makeover already is in place.

An 8-foot-tall fence of galvanized steel rods that can lock up tight on evenings and weekends.

“It was part of the scope of work for security,” said Meghen Quinn of Hargreaves Jones, the landscape architecture firm working with Ironwood Commercial Builders on the 1-acre site. “A lot of the project is about striking a balance between the setting and the aspirations.”

The $3 million remake, which will include abundant plants and a protected lawn, is scheduled to open late this year; the first plants should go into the new soil this week. It’s the latest and by far most substantial effort to make the plaza into what was promised from the start: “a welcome civic space ... that engaged and enriched the neighborhood,” to quote the booklet that accompanied the 2007 debut of a three-building complex best known for its 240-foot tower of concrete and steel draped in a jagged cloak of perforated steel panels.

The bravado of the design is visually provocative, no question. So much so, in fact, that when a now-revoked executive order that all future federal buildings should have traditional designs was signed last winter by ex-President Donald Trump, the San Francisco Federal Building was singled out as an example of what to avoid.

But neighbors don’t necessarily mind such architectural flourishes as the jagged silhouette. Almost since day one, they’ve complained that the plaza conceived as a community hub was uninviting at best, squalid and dangerous at worse. Things were especially bad at night, they say, when the plateau of decomposed granite would attract dealers and clients.

Construction continues on a new plaza with a large metal fence at the controversial Federal Building in San Francisco.

“We lobbied them for years, telling them they had to do something,” said Jane Weill, who lives in a condo tower on the same block. She has no objections to the fences that have been installed along Mission and Seventh streets behind hefty, preexisting bollards and benches that are meant to repel vehicles: “We’re thrilled.”

Security was the top desire of employees and neighbors who attended a round of workshops in 2019 to decide the plaza’s fate, according to the General Services Administration, the federal agency that owns the complex.

“The addition of the perimeter fence is necessary to address illicit activity that had been occurring and ensure the security ... after business hours,” said the statement from the administration, which also emphasized the desire to “maximize the use of the plaza for employees, visitors and the public.”

If the fences are there to keep people out when the tower is closed or there are no activities in the plaza, the renovated plaza aims to lure them in the rest of the time.

Taking cues from the angular folds of the design by architect Thom Mayne and his firm, Morphosis, the plaza includes a sharply contoured berm on the north and a less pronounced sloped lawn on the south, inside the fence along Market Street. The berm is intended to function as a “pollinator meadow,” with native plants that attract bees, butterflies and birds while offering a variety of textures and colors: “The goal is to have something blooming in every season,” Quinn explained.

A rendering shows the redesign of the plaza at the San Francisco Federal Building.

The berm will also have a low retaining wall that will double as seating and face the central open space — no longer the decomposed granite that often swirled upward on windy afternoons, but a new surface of concrete pavers spaced so that rainwater can percolate into the surface below. The idea is to dot it with movable tables and chairs for visitors, as well as customers of the boxy cafe that Mayne placed at the corner of Seventh and Mission streets.

“We wanted to create something flexible, that feels like an oasis,” Quinn said. “Garden spaces, but also the opportunity for small events.”

As for the galvanized fence with its three 8-foot-wide gates, Quinn suggested that the industrial look is in keeping with the tower’s hard-edged ambiance.

It’s still jarring to see a tall fence along a public space, especially a federal complex that was supposed to revive its long-sketchy surroundings. But several city parks have similar fences, such as Boeddeker Park in the Tenderloin, which received a $9.3 million overhaul in 2014.

The budget here was more modest, which is why features like the cafe’s windowless concrete walls along the sidewalks will remain as grim as before. On a brighter note, Hargreaves Jones shaped the new berm to make room for famed artist James Turrell’s light installation that extends from an 11th floor “skygarden” down the tower’s facade.

The plaza makeover also budgets for a manager to schedule events and ongoing programs — a feature that has never existed. The contract is with Demonstration Gardens, which participated in the early workshops to kick around ideas for bringing the plaza to positive life.

“A lot of people didn’t seem to want anything more than a safe space, but I think we can do better than that,” said Kasey Rios Asberry, the founder of Demonstration Gardens. She’s done similar work at Boeddeker Park. “If you can give a space a leg up with real greenery, and get some people in there, it can really change. I want people to feel like they can meet friends there.”

The San Francisco Federal Building, which opened in 2007, remains a startling presence at the corner of Seventh and Mission streets.

John King is The San Francisco Chronicle’s urban design critic. Email: jking@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @johnkingsfchron

John King is The San Francisco Chronicle's urban design critic, taking stock of everything from Salesforce Tower to public spaces and homeless navigation centers. A two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of two books on San Francisco architecture, King joined The Chronicle in 1992 and covered City Hall before creating his current post in 2001. He spent the spring of 2018 as a Mellon Fellow in Urban Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C.