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Mr. Hartman's neighborhood

Pamela Feinsilber | April 23, 2010 | Home & Real Estate Lifestyle Story City Life Architecture Profiles News and Features Neighborhoods Home Life Real Estate

Three years ago, at a two-day retreat in the Presidio, San Francisco architect Craig Hartman appeared before a crowd of urban-planning types at a meeting organized by his well-known global architecture firm, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, to give a talk on “holistic urban ecology.”

Self-effacing, trim, and unrumpled, Hartman is as low-key as they come. Even when expressing frustration over getting something built in this town—Hartman has been at SOM’s San Francisco office since 1990—he sounds as if he were posing a mild complaint about weak coffee. But behind his Clark Kent demeanor lies a passionate proselytizer. On that day in the Presidio, Hartman laid out a future in which companies such as his will design not just great-looking green buildings but whole neighborhoods that are so technologically advanced and well planned, they can actually begin to repair the damage we’ve done to the planet.

At that point, Hartman’s office had already won awards for green buildings, including one for the library on the new UC campus in Merced. His colleagues were aware of “smart growth,” known to some as the New Urbanism, which promotes putting high- and midrise residences in city centers, within walking distance of public transit, markets, and shops. They may even have realized that homes and workplaces consume more energy and emit more carbon dioxide than anything else, even the cars and buses we use to travel between them. If we live closer together in more intelligent structures, Hartman argued, it will not only have an effect on global warming, but also inevitably lead to more and better ideas for change. “Cities can be citadels of great intellectual capital,” Hartman told me recently, echoing his Presidio speech. “Most patents and other metrics of innovation come from places of high-density living. It’s possible to make environments that help to elevate and enrich this.”

Hartman wanted to see every building his office worked on “advance the cause” in some way. “It was very exciting,” recalls San Francisco managing partner Gene Schnair, who says Hartman was one of the reasons he moved here from SOM’s Chicago office. “He’s the one who began articulating the broader view, who said, ‘Let’s think beyond sustainability to regeneration.’”

When the books on 21st-century urban forms are written, Hartman will surely have a prominent place in them. He has already received acclaim for his architectural work. In 2001, his California colleagues in the American Institute of Architects gave him their Maybeck Award, presented for sustained achievement over at least 10 years; at 51, Hartman was the youngest recipient ever. Over the past decade, he has designed a number of other greatly admired buildings, most of them in the Bay Area. Two recently completed masterpieces—the awe-inspiring, sunlight-filled Cathedral of Christ the Light, in Oakland, and the serene yet dynamic U.S. Embassy complex in Beijing—put him in a class with starchitects like Frank Gehry.

But Hartman is more than an architect with a singular vision. He’s an urban philosopher on the same plane as influential writer Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities). After taking on four massive redevelopment projects in the past decade—two in San Francisco and two in China—he has become a master of neighborhood reinvention.

You’ve seen the renderings for the post-Navy Treasure Island? Hartman came in after the original plans, which proposed spreading housing across the entire island, were nixed. As his office’s design partner, Hartman led work on plans for a much denser mini-city of up to 20,000 people, who would live in buildings from 3 to 65 stories high, nearly all located less than a three-minute walk from ferries, buses, or shuttles, with dry cleaners and cafés also footsteps away. His proposed revamp of Parkmerced, the 1950s housing development just south of San Francisco State University, involves creating a much more compact web of pedestrian- and bike-friendly streets; replacing aging apartments with three-to-six-story buildings and midrise towers to nearly triple the population, to around 21,000; dramatically increasing access to public transit; and developing a major organic farm.

Hartman’s work in China is even grander in scope. In Beijing, SOM’s master plan turned 11 million square feet of industrial land into a new Wall Street, complete with 24 buildings, in seven years—well in time for the Olympics. And along the Pearl River, in Guangzhou, a high-speed ferry ride from Hong Kong, Hartman is overseeing work on an epic, 13.5-square-mile project that involves 8,800 buildings (5,600 of them new), a realigned subway line, and new canals to mitigate flooding.

For each of these projects, Hartman organized teams of architectural designers, structural engineers, and landscape architects, and he seems to be equally engaged in every aspect of the work. For instance, the design for an office building at 350 Mission Street, near the someday Transbay Transit Center, calls for using concrete instead of steel. But how to use less concrete more efficiently, so the ceilings can be higher and more light can come in? This is the type of thing Hartman thinks about. In this case, he prompted SOM’s top structural engineer, Mark Sarkisian, to try tightly binding bales of plastic bags and pouring the concrete around them, which dramatically reduced the amount of concrete needed and reused millions of plastic bags. “I just sort of said, ‘Wouldn’t this be an interesting idea?’” he adds modestly. “Mark was generous enough to share the credit with me.” Now there’s a patent pending.

The breadth of Hartman’s passions was apparent when he was growing up in rural Merr­iam, Indiana, a boy interested in art and science and math. His goal back then was to be a rocket scientist. So, when he was in high school, his parents took him to the U.S. Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs, to look into its aerospace program.

“I found out immediately that I probably didn’t have the focus or maybe the ability in math to do that level of work,” Hartman says. “It had the only contemporary, serious level of architecture in a military academy, and I was impressed, especially by the chapel,” which is considered one of the country’s most beau­tiful buildings.

Not long afterward, Hartman noticed that the architectural-studies program at a cousin’s college combined all of his interests. Then he heard about the new school of architecture and planning at Ball State University, in Muncie, Indiana, which stressed not only architectural design but also environmental design and structural engineering. Taking that mix of courses fed him intellectually. And now, unlike some architects, “I know what makes a building,” he says.

At Ball State, Hartman met Walter Netsch, the senior design partner at SOM’s Chicago office—it turned out that he had designed the Colorado Springs campus Hartman had admired—who came to Ball State twice a week to teach an architecture-design class. (“I thought that was pretty exotic, flying down from Chicago to teach,” Hartman says.) Impressed with Hartman’s work, Netsch invited the young man to work with SOM. “I was like, ‘I don’t know—it’s a big corporate firm,’” Hartman remembers. “This is the ignorance of youth.” He wanted to become a college professor and have a small practice, “a serious design practice. The dean of my school said, ‘Just go for a few years, and then you’ll always have that in your background.’”

After Chicago, Hartman worked at the firm’s Houston and Washington, D.C., offices, then came to the Bay Area, where his buildings quickly drew attention. AIA awards juror Zahid Sardar lauded Hartman’s 2000 international terminal at San Francisco airport for its “breathtakingly open interior and a floating quality,” while San Francisco Chronicle urban-design critic John King called his St. Regis Hotel the city’s “most ambitious high-rise in a gener­ation.” King also praised Hartman’s office building at 101 Second Street, describing the four-story, glass-enclosed public lobby that opens to the street on sunny days as “a wonderful urban creation.” Hartman’s Cath­edral of Christ the Light earned him U.S. archi­tecture’s highest awards—two AIA national honors, giving him eight so far—as well as a knighthood from the Vatican. Recalling Lewis Mumford’s description of San Fran­­cisco as “a torrid dazzle” of light, Hartman says, “All the build­ings I do here try to make us aware of light and its presence.”

From the start of his own career, he says, architects knew something was going wrong in the environment: “When we saw the problems of acid rain and had the energy crunch, we learned the importance of addressing these things,” meaning pollution, consumption, and our overdependence on oil. Later, in the 1990s, as large numbers of people began returning to live in cities, the world’s population continued to escalate, and climate-change science began to emerge, Hartman noticed the interconnections and decided that “we have to rethink our patterns of settlement.”

Essentially, he understood that architects could help mitigate global warming. “Cities are the primary answer to climate change,” he stresses. “There is so much untapped potential there, if we begin using infrastructure more effectively.” By that, he means implementing the kinds of ideas you see in his master plans: the massing of energy-efficient, vertical structures near public transit, for starters. “High density—is that a negative or a positive?” he asks. “Right now, the planet has 6.8 billion people on it, and in 40 years, it’s going to have more than 9 billion. In the Bay Area, we’ll be growing by at least a million people over the next 20 years—a 20 percent increase. Those people have to go somewhere.”

With their recreational facil­ities and organic farms, their water-recycling systems and wind turbines, SOM’s 21st-century versions of Treasure Island and Parkmerced are all about promoting a healthy lifestyle and minimizing waste. (That includes squandered time: “The Bay Area,” says Hartman, “has one of the highest levels of wasted productive hours—commute time—that you could be applying to, say, research on your computer.”) With their inclusion of “smart meters” that charge visitors more than residents for parking, and electronic cards that provide free access to public bikes, these master plans incorporate the most advanced thinking and technology available while encouraging the use of new ideas as they emerge. Hartman will never be mistaken for James Cameron, but his new neighborhoods are the Avatars of urban design.

Even so, these envisioned neighborhoods draw inspiration from the past. In these master plans’ community kitchens and workshops, pocket parks and small cafés—“socially vibrant” places where neighbors can mingle, interact, and share—Hartman has taken cues from preindustrial neighborhoods in such cities as Amsterdam, London, and Paris. Closer to home, he thinks of the older sections of Boston and Manhattan, as well as corners of North Beach. “There’s a humanity about these places,” Hartman says. “Not only in the scale of the buildings and streets, but in the finer grain of human interaction, down to the hand-set cobblestones. I think we can have that scale of experience today.”


Approval awaits for Hartman’s island of sanity.

His vision: One of the world’s greenest, most technologically advanced and urbane neighborhoods—“a place,” he says, “that embodies San Francisco culture but also reflects what’s been learned over 60 years about intelligently settling the planet.”
What’s there now: The decommissioned Navy base has spectacular city views, memories of the fanciful edifices created for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, lots of cement (the island is manmade from dirt dredged from the bay), a makeshift community of 2,162 people, one corner market, and no gas station. “It’s not what you’d call the epitome of sustainability,” Hartman says.
Who’s trusting him: The Medusa’s head of developers (including suburban giant Lennar, San Francisco–based Stockbridge Capital Partners, Kenwood Investments, and one of the revamped Ferry Building’s creators, Wilson Meany Sullivan) turned to him after the developers calculated that the initial plan didn’t include enough housing.
Out-of-the-box idea: Laying out the street grid off-kilter to buffer the buildings against the mean westerly winds.
Estimated cost: $1.5 billion to upgrade the island’s infrastructure; another $3.5 billion to build it out.
NIMBY watch: “The only neighbors are seals and cargo ships,” says Hartman. “So I’m very optimistic. Intentions are good on all sides: the city, the developers, obviously the design team. There’s enor­mous political will behind making this happen as a national model.”
Where things stand: An environmental impact report is due in June. Final approvals from the Board of Supervisors and the development group are expected by the end of the year.
Finished: Anywhere from 5 to 20 years after ground is broken, depending on the real-estate market.
More than an architect: “The island is about being a place of cultivation—of talent, of produce, of creativity—and promoting a nonconsumptive lifestyle,” Hartman says.

Hartman’s plan for Eden 3.0 is all about the details.

His vision: To transform what in the ’50s was a cutting-edge, semisuburban haven of apartment living into a denser, transit-smart city neighborhood that stays on the cutting edge.
What’s there now: The 7,500-resident development, built by MetLife after World War II in the fog belt near San Francisco State, includes almost a dozen 13-story towers set amid flowing courtyards, 1,500 garden apartments that require constant expensive repair, and a once admired but now outmoded layout of wide, curving, autocentric streets radiating from Juan Bautista Circle.
Who’s trusting him: The ownership group led by Stellar Management hired SOM to master plan a whole new complex without dramatically changing the layout. “They are pointing the way to something replicable,” Hartman says.
Out-of-the-box idea: To totally urbanize the neighborhood. That means almost tripling the number of housing units, to 8,900 (first by building on nonresidential pockets of the property, then by replacing the signature garden apartments with three-to-six-story buildings); rerouting Muni’s light-rail line directly into the com­plex; and adding neighborhood retail.
Estimated cost: $1.2 billion.
NIMBY watch: Some residents and sympathizers want to preserve many of the garden apartments and Thomas Dolliver Church–designed courtyards and are actively opposing Hartman’s plan.
Where things stand: An environmental impact report is being prepared. The developers hope to have the project before the Board of Supervisors later this year.
Finished: 15 to 20 years after ground is broken.
More than an architect: “My first reaction to the existing towers was, ‘Let’s tear them down. They’re so ugly,’ ” Hartman says. “But those are really the most functional buildings. And as much as I would like to put a beautiful, pencil-thin tower in the middle of them, it’d be wrong on the west side of the city.”

For renderings and information on SOM's Treasure Island and Park Merced projects, view SOM's website

Pamela Feinsilber is a San Francisco contributing writer and book editor based in Marin.


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