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What in the Heck Is Starchitect Renzo Piano Doing in Suburban San Ramon?

Ian Eck | June 11, 2014 | Story Architecture

At a time when young, educated people are flooding into cities, suburbs have never been more unfashionable. Buying a house in the ‘burbs? You might as well chain-smoke in your Hummer with a Whopper in hand.

So you can imagine our surprise that San Ramon real estate firm Sunset Development Company has selected Renzo Piano to design a mixed-use space in the East Bay hamlet. For those who aren’t familiar with Piano, his firm’s resume boasts the California Academy of Sciences, the New York Times Building, and seemingly every new museum renovation since the late 90’s. So why is the firm that built this "organic creature" working on a plot of retail and housing near the 680 freeway in sleepy San Ramon?

"Suburbs often lack moments of surprise," says Sunset Development’s Alex Mehran, Jr., whose father and grandfather built San Ramon’s Bishop Ranch thirty years ago. But, says Mehran, that definition is now evolving. Throwing around phrases like "reinventing the garden city," Mehran's design plans seem more parklet than picket fence. "For many years we’ve wanted to plant the seed of a lively downtown,” he says.

With more and more people looking to the Bay Area as a hub of future job growth, it’s become all too clear that we can’t squeeze everything into the city. Just as San Francisco grows into an alpha city by upping its architectural wardrobe (see: Foster, Koolhaas, Pelli), it makes sense that Bay Area suburbs try and do the same. That's why Mehran has tapped Piano and his company to design what is envisioned as a 350,000 square foot retail space, including an open plaza, to be followed by a 169-room hotel, four office buildings totaling 800,000 square feet and 479 residential units. Mehran outlined the plans at a San Ramon City Council meeting last night. While the first phase begins with retail, the grand plan is to create an ambitiously designed “social hub,” complete with an open-air theater, a children’s playground, and a “water mirror” surrounded by greenery. The first phase of retail is expected by 2016.

Catching a prize as big as Renzo Piano is not easy—or cheap. Named one of Time's most influential people in 2006, the 76-year-old Italian has a reputation for firing clients he doesn't agree with. He even walked out of the initial pitch meeting to attend to other business, according to Mehran. But Piano, like Mehran, comes from a family of builders, and he was eventually won over by the young developer's enthusiasm and vision.

As Antonio Belvedere, partner at the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, states, “The City Center is a porous, permeable urban architectural composition. Inside is open and oriented to the piazza, and with the same force and conviction, the outside is open to its surroundings.” High-minded design-speak for a sleepy suburban town. Is that what it takes to draw the top talent in the Bay Area?

In a big city, spectacular architecture can stand as a landmark that unites its citizens—its something to talk about when you have visitors, something that makes you feel a common bond with the million strangers milling about you every day. In the suburbs, however, these look-at-me structures run the risk of alienation, like a Parisian fashionista strutting into a Sunday afternoon barbecue. But Mehran says he has no intention of offending the town's suburban sensibilities. He just wants to add a little zest. "We've created this perception that the suburbs are passe, which is just wrong. With this City Center, we want to create something beautiful and enduring."

There you go. The Bay Area is now disrupting the suburb.

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