Associate Capital Offers Historic Preservation Alternatives to Development Plan

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Strikingly ugly, or beautiful building blocks of the future? Proposed designs for the Potero Power Plant redevelopment site. Image: Courtesy of Associate Capital

Associate Capital presented alternative Potrero Power Plant development designs to the San Francisco Planning Commission last spring, which included restoring the 300-foot concrete smokestack and adjacent 131-foot Unit 3 control room, as well as preserving elements of Station A. Claus Spreckels, who founded the company that became the Western Sugar Refinery, built Station A in 1901 to generate power and compete with San Francisco Gas and Electric. 

Mike Buhler, San Francisco Heritage president, said that while his preservation advocacy nonprofit hasn’t yet endorsed any specific Power Plant design, he’s encouraged by Associate Capital’s potential inclusion of more historic structures in its plans. 

“Our organization’s projects and policy committee has toured the project site and met repeatedly with members of Associate Capital’s team over the past year. We have been providing feedback on different iterations of possible concepts for preservation of Unit 3 and Station A, with a particular focus on Station A. Even though half of the building was demolished in 1983, it is the most significant of the remaining brick structures. It has the greatest potential for adaptive reuse,” said Buhler.

Adaptive reuse is a redevelopment approach in which all or part of a historic structure is repurposed to showcase its history or meet a need like storage space.

According to Buhler, a number of brick buildings on the site, including the Meter House, Compressor House, and Station A Turbine Hall, Switching Station, and Machine Shop Office are eligible for the California Register of Historical Resources. The Planning Department’s Historic Preservation Commission supports adaptive reuse of all the Potrero Power Plant’s historic brick structures.

“We have been working to compile potential case studies showing creative adaptive reuse of former industrial buildings,” said Buhler. “So far, we have provided Associate Capital with six case studies, from the former Union Iron Works Machine Shop at Pier 70 to a concert hall and mixed-use project built atop a former warehouse in Hamburg.”

The Potrero Power Plant is located on a 29-acre site along the Central Bayside waterfront. Associated Capital wants to construct between 2,200 and 2,600 housing units there. About 1,800 would be on the former Potrero Power Station site, the remainder at the Hoe Down Yard. Also included in the plan is 600,000 square feet of office space, 600,000 square feet for research and development activities, and 100,000 square feet of retail. Associate Capital wants to increase existing allowable height limits from up to 65 feet to 300 feet to accommodate the existing smokestack. The redeveloped area would feature more than six acres of parks and open space, a specialty hotel at the former steam power facility, restaurants, and shops. 

Peter Linenthal, of the Potrero Hill Archives Project, said Associate Capital’s willingness to incorporate Station A into its development is encouraging. “Preserving the historic buildings are the main concern. A couple of the plans create door-like openings in the east wall of Station A so people could come inside the building. It would be great to use industrial machinery in the building as sculptural pieces,” said Linenthal.

Linenthal said he’d like to see Associate Capital utilize existing structures to interpret the history of the many industries that once occupied the property, including a gunpowder magazine, California Barrel Company, Spreckels’ Western Sugar Refinery, North’s Shipyard, San Francisco Gaslight Company’s coal-powered plant, and Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s (PG&E) natural gas-fueled generating station. 

“The plans Associate Capital has made so far show general massing at this point. General massing (means) the shape of the buildings and how the buildings occupy space. More detailed plans…materials used on the exterior and the style of windows will come later…will be critical to how the development will eventually look,” said Linenthal. 

Linenthal has collected 1,400 signatures on a petition calling on Associate Capital to preserve the Potrero Power Plant’s brick buildings, some gathered at Christopher’s Books, but most amassed on Change.org, where Linenthal posted it “so anybody in the world can sign.” Linenthal intends to submit the signatures to the Planning Commission at its next meeting regarding the site.

Linenthal said historic preservation advocates support holding community design meetings hosted by San Francisco Heritage. “We’d love to see a brainstorming session, a charrette, with several architectural firms looking for ways to adaptively reuse the site’s industrial brick buildings,” he said. 

“We reiterate the need for the designs to be presented to the community, with the project sponsor Associate Capital as an active participant,” Buhler said. “We see an opportunity for the Potrero Power Plant project to result in two new City landmarks, one for Unit 3 and the smokestack and one for Station A.” 

“Having seen the alternatives, I am optimistic there’s a straightforward pathway for the approval of this project,” said J.R. Eppler, Potrero Boosters president. “The new plan handles the historic component quite well, incorporating the height and movement of the tower. It also takes care of concerns regarding shadows. Station A contributes to public open space, making the area more accessible.” 

According to Associate Capital spokesperson PJ Johnston, most Planning Commission members voiced their preference for an earlier version of the plan, which called for smokestack preservation, Unit 3 rehabilitation, minimal Station A reuse, and more housing. The developer proposed the alternative as an option to preserve more of the site’s historic structures. 

“Station A was built at the turn of the 20th Century. It closed in 1965. More than half of the structure was demolished in 1983 and its roof was removed in 2001. It has had no roof for two decades…is essentially a ruin. Any use of elements of Station A would be the rehabilitation and repurposing of a ruin, incorporated into a new building,” said Johnston. “We’re looking to get the most out of the housing mix. Our concern is the new alternative would result in a loss of about 400 housing units, from a maximum of 2,600 units to 2,200.”

Buhler said it’s important that different public objectives, such as housing and historic preservation, be balanced in the final project design. “Shifting or relocating some height and density off Station A would result in a more successful preservation outcome. Associate Capital’s most recent plan proposes to reduce the height over Station A and add a new tower on the parcel immediately to the east,” said Buhler.

According to Buhler, pending state legislation, Senate Bill 451, might ease concerns regarding the cost of reuse. SB 451 would create a state historic tax credit to promote adaptive reuse and preservation of historic buildings. As of late May, SB 451 had unanimously passed a State Senate committee and was progressing towards legislative approval. 

Johnston said Associate Capital will return to the Planning Commission for a general plan initiation later this summer, a necessary procedural step towards final project approval. In the fall, it’ll return to the Commission for its endorsement. 

“The ultimate plan may incorporate significant elements from both the plan as initially proposed and the alternatives,” said Johnston.

Associate Capital hopes to present a Commission-approved plan to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors by the end of the year. 

Before the project breaks ground, PG&E must clean-up the Potrero Power Plant’s offshore sediment area, an effort it expects to complete by 2020. “You will notice…large barges, excavators, and a crane, working in the Bay and working along the shoreline…an increase in truck traffic in the immediate area around the site. All efforts will be made to minimize the impact of these activities to the surrounding neighborhood and nearby businesses,” said Andrea Menniti, PG&E media spokesperson.

Menniti said the company has remediated most of the rest of the site. The switch and general construction yards will remain “an integral part of San Francisco’s electrical infrastructure and continue to operate.”

According to Menniti, PG&E recently completed cleanup of the site’s northeastern area, including a portion of Pier 70, where the operations of a former manufactured gas plant left petroleum hydrocarbon compounds and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the soil. “PAHs are organic chemicals that can be found in petroleum and are associated with the gas manufacturing process. As part of the cleanup, a cement binding agent was mixed into impacted soil…manufactured gas plant residues in the soil immobile,” said Menniti.

Menniti said the chemical residues the manufactured gas plant left below the surface would be difficult to excavate because they’re so deep and close to the Bay. “On the Port of San Francisco Pier 70 property, manufactured gas plant residues at shallower depths were excavated and transported to permitted disposal facilities. Clean soil, gravel, and/or low strength concrete was used to backfill the excavated areas and a durable cover was installed,” said Menniti.