Last spring, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Potrero Hill’s and Dogpatch’s combined population is expected to double over the next two years, due largely to “a proliferation of upscale apartments.” Since 2008, when the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan was adopted as a means to increase the City’s housing supply by converting industrial spaces to residential uses, Southside residents have been concerned about deficits in public transit, open space, community services, and retail that might hinder healthy accommodation of large waves of newcomers.
Advocacy groups – including the Potrero Boosters, Dogpatch Neighborhood Association, and Grow Potrero Responsibly – have pressured developers to limit damage to the community fabric, and make positive social and aesthetic contributions to the neighborhood. Developers working in the area – such as Equity Residential, which owns Potrero 1010 and One Henry Adams; and Related California, whose 1601 Mariposa complex will front Jackson Playground – have taken various approaches to appeasing their new neighbors, or, occasionally, ignoring them. Each project has emerged as a case study in the negotiation of a particular set of challenges faced by large-scale apartment and condominium buildings erected in an urban landscape once dominated by a binary of single-family homes and industry.
Last fall, at 338 Potrero Avenue, the real estate company Trumark Urban unveiled Rowan, a condominium building designed by Handel Architects, the firm responsible for the developer’s Pacific Heights multi-family palace, The Pacific’s $15.872 million grand penthouse made headlines for breaking a price-per-square-foot sales record previously held by South-of-Market’s Millennium Tower. On the border of Potrero Hill and the Mission District, Rowan houses 70 for-sale units, ranging from 654 to 1,277 square feet. More than sixty-five percent of the units have been sold, at prices between $700,000 and about $2 million. Homeowner association fees add $600 to $800 a month. Eleven below-market-rate units were priced, without parking, between $250,000 and $300,000; all have been purchased.
An underground garage featuring a stacked automated parking system has 40 spaces for cars; bicycle parking is more plentiful. Built on the site of an abandoned carwash, Rowan has a rooftop deck, second-floor “Zen garden,” and 2,200 feet of ground-floor retail space that’s yet to be occupied.
Alone among the new residential developments in and around the Hill, Rowan was architecturally conceived as a vertical downtown condominium tower rather than an outer-neighborhood housing complex. In order to secure a height permit, Trumark Urban added more below-market-rate units to the building; 16 percent. San Francisco requires new residential construction of 10 or more units to rent or sell 12 percent of the homes below market rate, a stipulation that developers circumvent by building BMRs off-site or paying a fee, the route taken by Onyx at the Park on 17th and De Haro streets.
For Rowan, Trumark Urban focused its community outreach on the recreational space immediately adjacent to the property, Franklin Square, forming a relationship with the volunteer group, Friends of Franklin Square, contributing $50,000 to the construction of a new artificial-turf soccer field that debuted last fall. Rowan staff organize quarterly cleanup days at Franklin; $15 of each homeowner’s monthly HOA fees go to park maintenance.
The Chronicle’s architecture critic, John King, enthusiastically praised Rowan’s “efficient strength” and “muscular exoskeleton,” while admitting that, as a “nine-story concrete box,” it “might seem startling at first glance.” Although the building’s external structural supports form a zigzag pattern over a glass façade lined by Juliet balconies, the overall impression it gives isn’t one of lightness or whimsy.
Stuck between a McDonald’s and a gasoline station, Rowan looms like a colossus over Potrero Avenue’s humble dishevelment. For Handel Architects, fitting the building into the neighborhood’s existing texture, which includes a tire seller and the Potrero Center on 16th Street, probably wasn’t a good idea. The solution, evidently, was to allow the building to stand out, boldly and forthrightly, as an unapologetic fortress of gentrification; a stylistic embodiment of domination that cops visually to the tension of its surroundings with fearsome gusto.
The building’s north and southward sides are composed of huge, faceless concrete panels, as if deliberately shunning the businesses on either end. From the street, the impressive edifice registers almost as an act of hostility, though not as a work of mid-century brutalism. The structure feels modern, sleek, trendy. Those qualities carryover to its interior: the German painting of a smashed-up luxury coupe that decorates the lobby; silver boxes cum elevators; the striking contrast between ultra-dark hallways and the brightly lit, stunningly quiet – thanks to state-of-the-art acoustic engineering and four layers of walls between homes – condominiums they serve.
Rowan isn’t Trumark Urban’s only project in the area. The Knox, a 91-unit condominium complex with 11 BMRs, celebrated its grand opening last spring at 2300 22nd Street. Prices – $750,000 to about $1.9 million – are roughly the same as Rowan, with marginally lower HOA fees. According to Trumark Urban, it’s attracting a slightly older demographic. Its location, in a quiet southeastern pocket of the Hill, is more removed from the urban hustle and bustle. Thanks to its proximity to the Caltrain stop, its units – which range from 481 to 1,480 square feet – have been selling briskly, with 60 percent already sold.
The Knox’s slightly less edgy location allows for a significantly less edgy architectural design by BDE Architecture, with five stories of gray, white, and brown boxes, alternatingly set back and pulled out to create “texture,” wrapping from Texas Street around 22nd to Mississippi, evincing an aesthetic markedly warmer – and, arguably, blander – than that of the sturdier-looking Rowan. The U-shaped complex centers on a secluded internal courtyard of private patios and shared spaces that’ve been planted with flowers meant to attract California’s endangered butterfly species, two of which have made a home in The Knox’s garden.
Traditional amenities, absent at Rowan, include a fitness center and clubhouse. The condos’ interiors resemble those of its Potrero Avenue sibling: the same attractive gas stoves, “arctic quartz” countertops, and slick style of handle-free cabinetry. The building’s later completion date seems to have permitted inclusion of a few of the newer fads in interior design and gadgetry: trough sinks and inconspicuous “dual-strip drain systems” on shower bottoms that sit flush with bathroom floors. The parking ratio for cars is higher, with 75 percent of units getting spots in the underground garage; bicycle storage is allotted for every unit.
Taking into account The Knox’s Dogpatch-adjacent location, Trumark Urban reached out to the Boosters and DNA for input during the design process, securing approval of both groups. Boosters president J.R. Eppler recalled four meetings with Trumark Urban. “On each of those presentations, feedback was given, and certain aspects were incorporated in the next iteration that we reviewed,” he said.
One Boosters victory was convincing Trumark Urban to incorporate a small, as yet unfilled, retail space on the building’s ground floor. The units’ configurations made for another point of discussion. “The City requires a certain unit mix in an Eastern Neighborhoods project, and a project can satisfy that by producing 40 percent of the units as two-bedroom units,” said Eppler. “Invariably the first iteration of a project would have 40 percent of those units be two-bedroom units. What we’ve been able to do is move projects on average to having roughly 45 percent of the units be multi-bedroom units and five percent of those units be three-bedroom units.”
Eppler acknowledged that a three-bedroom unit “doesn’t automatically mean that a family pops up there . . . but, if you don’t build those units, you permanently foreclose the ability for a family to be there. We want to maintain a diverse neighborhood, and a diverse neighborhood means being able to house people at different stages in their life.” The Knox boasts 52 two-bedroom units and three three-bedroom units.
According to Eppler, problems remain, despite the Boosters’ best efforts and Trumark Urban’s cooperation. A dispute with neighboring Sierra Heights, whose residents claimed that their views were blocked by the new construction, went unresolved. Given plans that’ve emerged for a 250-unit development at 790 Pennsylvania Avenue, a site geographically unsuited for ground-floor retail, Eppler wishes that he’d pushed for more than 600 square feet of retail at The Knox.
“This project came at an interesting time in the neighborhood’s learning curve, and I think it did some things well, and I don’t blame the project for the things it could have done better, because the neighborhood was learning how to deal with large projects at the time,” he summarized.
Trumark Urban designated The Knox, though more than a block west of the Interstate 280 overpass, a “community in Dogpatch,” with a website, knoxdogpatch.com. Accordingly, the developer’s expressions of concern for the surrounding green infrastructure hewed closer to the waterfront than to the Hill’s southside, with a $10,000 gift to the playground at Woods Yard Park at 22nd and Indiana streets, and a donation toward the formation of the Dogpatch & NW Potrero Hill Green Benefit District, even though The Knox falls outside its jurisdiction.
As part of the 790 Pennsylvania project, a soon-to-be-constructed public staircase is expected to link 22nd and Texas streets to the Potrero Hill Recreation Center. With the pedestrian steps in place, The Knox residents will be closer to that facility than any of Dogpatch’s open spaces. However, The Knox – being ostensibly in Dogpatch nonetheless – hasn’t offered financial support for the prospective outdoor stairway or the vast Hill park above it.
In Dogpatch proper, Devcon Construction is putting the finishing touches on Abaca, an AGI Avant project designed by Fougeron Architects, at 2660 Third Street between 23rd and 24th streets. The building opened last month, with final construction expected to be completed soon. At this 263-unit apartment community, monthly rents start at $2,800 and go up to $5,875. The 34 BMRs include studios, one-bedrooms, two-bedrooms, and three-bedrooms, with prices set between $991 and $1,391 a month.
Per-unit square footage at Abaca range from 405 to 1,125. The building features a rooftop deck; fitness center; and clubhouse with a bar and kitchen installed by KRBS, the back-of-the-house designer for restaurants like Quince and State Bird Provisions. The gym opens directly onto the coffeehouse-lobby in an effort to create an atmosphere of vibrancy and activity immediately upon entrance. Like The Knox and Rowan, Abaca privileges cycling over driving, with 55 percent of units receiving an automobile parking space in the garage’s stacked automated parking system, and 100 percent getting indoor bike rack storage. As with the other developments, it awaits a tenant for its ground-floor retail area. The structure’s layout is like an enlarged, six-story version of The Knox: a horseshoe slung around an internal courtyard with grills, plants, and patios.
What makes Abaca unique is the story it tells about Dogpatch’s past, and how it incorporates this tale into the building’s design through features that may occasionally seem frivolous or literalistic but, in the end, create a stronger sense of place than similar developments are typically able to. Also known as “Manila hemp,” abacá is a fiber that was processed by the Tubbs Cordage Company. Occupying the former Tubbs site, which in the 19th century was waterfront property, Abaca has sought to incorporate its location’s history into virtually every planned detail: the rope chandelier that strings maritime lighting above the ground floor; the climbing rope in the gym; the wallpaper composed of pages from port histories and old shipping records.
The building’s exterior pays homage to Dogpatch’s earliest days through its color scheme – blue on the section facing Third Street, which was then still part of the Bay; green fronting a former marsh; and red pointing toward the neighborhood’s historic residential district – and to its more recent industrial past through the corrugated metal panels applied to its façade. The structure is loosely chopped into three linked blocks, the most oddly shaped and least rectilinear of which fronts Third Street. It looks like a massive watercraft.
Most significantly, a wooden boardwalk mimicking what the Tubbs Cordage Company used to load its products directly from its manufacturing plant onto ocean-bound vessels has been replicated, as a public service, to form a connection at Tubbs Street between Tennessee and Third streets, an open mid-block passage, designed by Fletcher Studio, that’ll lead to a small plaza on Third with an instructional rope installation, where passersby can test their nautical knot-tying skills. The project is amiable in part for its sense of fun, but it also valuably signals the need for more solutions to the pedestrian-unfriendly Dogpatch streetscape, whose north-south blocks can sometimes feel a mile long on foot.
Abaca’s floor plans – which include a collection of two-story townhomes – are perhaps the most interesting of these three new buildings. The model townhome on display for prospective renters opens directly onto the Tubbs Boardwalk, and at first resembles a narrow but vertically spacious one-bedroom apartment. Yet a discreet set of concrete steps leads up to an amusingly tiny, garret-like bedroom with its own full bath on the second floor. Even more intriguingly, the structure has three “transformer studios,” installed as a “project within a project” by a separate designer, which feature movable walls that tenants can arrange and rearrange at will, forming any variety of configurations.
Like Trumark Urban, AGI Avant made a contribution toward the formation of the GDB, into which it’ll pay about $24,000 a year. And, similarly, it worked to achieve design approval from DNA, erecting a requested privacy screen between Abaca and the adjacent Hells Angels clubhouse. But, ultimately, its investment in the neighborhood – which also involved the addition of sidewalks and streetlights to lower Tennessee Street – wasn’t only a civic endeavor but an imaginative one.
The closeness to Caltrain is a blessing and a curse for The Knox and Abaca. They both run the risk of becoming self-enclosed commuter hubs, like gated suburban communities, for Silicon Valley techies who only nominally want to be San Franciscans. But The Knox, which sits across a seven-lane freeway from the neighborhood to which it supposedly belongs, has the greater danger of isolation, while Abaca seeks artistically to ground its residents in Dogpatch, its gritty past and innovative present. Where Rowan’s solution to community integration is to fortify itself in concrete and wait for the Mishpot’s northern end to gentrify, Abaca embraces its place with a respect and affection made visible through its design, whatever its merits or flaws otherwise, creating the possibility of inspiring its tenants to participate in public life.
All three buildings take cues from the Hill’s and Dogpatch’s famous industrial character. Rowan is a considerable, uncompromising, artistic instantiation of the stratification, cruelty, and pleasure of industrial society. The Knox tempers its right angles and smooth planes with organic hues, as if in conciliation to the gentle, family-friendly neighborhood sitting just above it. On some level, it knows it’s actually in Potrero Hill. Abaca locates its aesthetic vision in specificity: conceptually, it sits not just in industrial Dogpatch, but within its maritime history and the particular industries that animated its old waterfront, and it presupposes a continuity among San Francisco’s past, present, and future in which even renters can take pride.