November 2012

San Francisco Opera Warehouse May Take on a Bigger Role

Liz Melchor

For decades, San Francisco Opera employees have designed sets and sewn costumes inside a steel-frame warehouse located at 800 Indiana Street. But if the City approves proposed plans for a new housing development, the Opera’s costume shop could be replaced with 350 apartments, 68 of which would be set aside as affordable housing. The Opera, suffering from an $18 million deficit, negotiated a sales agreement with Archstone, a developer and manager of large-scale apartment communities. With Planning Commission approval for the large development at least 18 months away, the Opera continues to operate from 800 Indiana while looking for a new home to build its sets.

Dogpatch residents have become accustomed to the influx of development. Several large projects — on 2051, 2121, and 2235 Third Street, 1225 Tennessee Street, and 615 20th Street, to name a few — are in the pipeline. John Borg, a 20 year Dogpatch resident and business owner, has witnessed waves of land use changes over the years. According to Borg, not all have contributed to the community. The 1990s dot-com boom and the lofts green-lighted by the Willie Brown Administration haven’t withstood the test of time, with architecture that already looks dated, and stucco that’s crumbling. But the neighborhood has become more organized, designated Dogpatch as an historic district, and become more involved in what was being built on their corners.“We want to encourage cutting edge design that will look good in 30 to 40 years, not something thrown up to fit as many bodies as possible,” said Borg.

Archstone claims that it wants the 800 Indiana Street building to be cutting edge. While it would consist of one large structure, it would have the appearance of being distinct buildings, separated by courtyards, each featuring a design by a different architect. Kennerly Architecture and Planning drew a curved building out of a metal that would age with time for the property’s northern corner. Jon Worden Architects created a more geometric facade. Kava Massih Architects – the brother of Archstone’s Bay Area vice president – designed the central buitlding, which has an architectural detail resembling a metal sculpture or billboard on its roof. And Pfau Long Architecture completed the southern end with another curved metal building.

Last summer the Dogpatch Neighborhood Association (DNA) heard a short presentation from Archstone’s architects. In response, Janet Carpinelli, DNA’s president, detailed the association’s concerns in a letter to Archstone and their partner in the project, Build, Inc., the developer of the neighboring Esprit Project. Last month Amir Massih, Archstone’s group vice president of development for the San Francisco Bay Area, presented the company’s revised designs.

Even on the eve of the second presidential debate, the room was filled: people sat on the floor, and crowded around the door. Dogpatch resident and City Attorney Dennis Herrera poked his head in. Attendees expressed less concern about the building’s proposed design elements as its overall height and bulk. “I think it is overkill for our neighborhood. It obliterates the view of Potrero Hill,” said Carpinelli. The proposed development is 58 feet tall – the maximum height allowed under zoning requirements – eight feet taller than the existing warehouse and much higher than any of surrounding buildings.

Numerous residents expressed concerns that their view would disappear. “This takes away my entire view of Potrero Hill, and I am not okay with that,” said one attendee. However, Michael Spain welcomed the change. “Anything that blocks my view of the freeway and the traffic moving 60 or 65 mph, I like.” He also doubted that the height would disrupt any of what he did like about his view: the hill behind. But Spain, like his neighbors, could only guess at the actual change he’d see from his windows. While the developers will have to include renderings of the views as part of the planning approval process, Carpinelli had requested they present visual simulations at the meeting. “I was disappointed. They didn’t make any changes whatsoever. And they didn’t show the views,” she said.

One attendee suggested that the developer cut off the building’s top floor. Massih responded that such an approach wouldn’t make sense economically. Instead, he asserted that breaking up the building into subdivisions would mitigate the issue of scale. Carpinelli believed that lowering the height of the two southern-most subdivisions would solve both the view issue and concerns of it looking out of scale with the neighborhood. “I don’t think it is too much to ask them to bring the height of the buildings down on the south end. It will fit into the neighborhood a lot better,” said Carpinelli after the meeting.

The buildings’ heights also meant that it would be more prominent along 280, potentially shielding the neighborhood from freeway-related air pollution and noise. “I think it is a huge benefit to block off 280,” said Massih. Residents might notice less dust on their windowsills, and it might become a quieter. Proper ventilation and windows within the complex would shield occupants from the freeway’s emissions.

According to Susan Eslick, DNA vice-president, early in the development process the language used by Archstone caused some Dogpatch residents to fear the creation of a monolith blocking the neighborhood’s view. “They used the terminology “wall,” when they are not building a wall,” said Eslick. Massih echoed this point at the meeting, asserting that while the building would span the length of the development along 280, it would not look like an impenetrable wall, but simply be another side of the apartment building, complete with double or triple-paned windows.

Residents also expressed concerns over parking, or the lack of it. The 350 unit development would have 263 underground spaces. This balance was at least in part the result of the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, which eliminated parking minimums for new developments and replaced them with maximums. In the case of 800 Indiana, .75 spaces per unit – 263 total – is the maximum number of spaces allowed by the City. Neighbors worry because this amount of parking may not be enough for the people who will be living there, which could cause street parking to become even scarcer. According to Massih, while he’s sympathetic to parking concerns, the City believes that fewer spaces are needed in Dogpatch because of the close proximity of Muni’s T-line and Caltrain. “Basically, we are boxed in,” said Massih.

Six meeting attendees identified themselves as tradespeople who knew that a large development meant jobs. When Danny Campbell, from the Sheet Metal Workers’ Union 104, asked Archstone to make a commitment to pay the prevailing wage set by the State of California to the 300 full-time construction workers it plans to employ, Massih was quick to reply. “There is only one way I can answer that question: No.”Massih explained that he wasn’t saying “no” to union labor, but that he couldn’t promise the contractor he’d chose would be one hundred percent union. “If you are qualified and competitive, we would love to work with you,” said Massih.

Campbell retorted that a contractor couldn’t both be competitive and pay a wage that enabled laborers to afford to live in San Francisco. The state establishes a prevailing wage for state-funded construction projects as a way to prohibit contractors from under-paying laborers to win contracts. A carpenter, who was attending the meeting with his wife, stood up and said,“I made $28 dollars an hour at my last all union job, that’s not much at all. If they are going to go non-union I am not going to support it. You need jobs that support middle class families. Our union hall is only two blocks from here.”

Carpinelli thought that the union representatives had made good points. “Other projects are using union labor, like the one at 23rd and Tennessee.” She said. “Here we are talking about bringing in housing for people, what about the people who already live here and are trying to get jobs?”

At the end of the hour and a half meeting some attendees expressed frustration with the developer. One woman summarized the interaction as, “we say we don’t want it, and you say “tough.”” Carpinelli agreed that the developers hadn’t been receptive to the residents’ concerns. “They said we have to do this, we want to do this. I really didn’t think that they were addressing our issues,” she said after the meeting.

Other residents were more positive. “I appreciate the different styles of architecture. Kudos. Smart idea,” said one attendee. One neighbor who had been at the presentation held last summer told Massih: “I continue to applaud. There is a lot I like about this. There is a sense about how much worse it could be.” Mc Allen, a Dogpatch renter who stood rocking his baby throughout the meeting, welcomed the project. “There is a chronic housing shortage in this City. It takes great courage to say here in our backyard, we want higher density housing,” said Allen. “For a family one of the greatest struggles is affordable housing.”

While the completed development is still years away — Massih estimated 18 months for planning approval and 27 months for construction — according to Eslick the important work with the developers is now. “Look they aren’t there yet, and they could get there,” said Eslick.

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