More Than a Plan, Less Than a Place

An assessment for Mission Bay

Urbanist Article August 1, 2005

Mission Bay is finally happening, and at a speed—especially at the new UCSF campus—that’s quite astonishing. If its northern half exists to provide needed, relatively affordable housing within a streetcar ride’s distance of downtown, and its southern half is there to keep UCSF’s formidable research presence in the City and attract stem cell research and co-locating urban biotech, then Mission Bay is clearly on the right track.

The projects at Mission Bay have attracted good architects and landscape architects, but the results so far are generally less than stellar. This may point to problems with the plan or with the way its owners and stewards administer it. This is an early view, of course. It will be much easier to assess the results in 12 or 15 years. SPUR asked for a critique of its urban design and architecture now, though, so this one is necessarily based on what’s suggested by its current patchwork of completed buildings, streets, and landscapes, along with several projects, mentioned here, that are under construction or still in design.

"B minus" was the grade that an old friend, long involved with the project, gave to the development there to date. It’s interesting that "like Mission Bay" has entered local parlance as a way to imply blandness and missed opportunities. I agree, but I found it to be more bleak than bland. While some of this reflects the nascent quality of the place, I think the bigger problem is the scale. The planning framework is writ large, which puts an extra burden on Mission Bay’s stewards to press for buildings and settings that, without sacrificing density, introduce the details and nuances of an urbane and human scale.

The New University of California, San Francisco Campus

Standing on the north side of UCSF’s Koret Quad, its width is "right" from the standpoint that you can see the sky over the wall of buildings that line its south edge. The quad feels as large as UC Berkeley’s central glade, but flat. Despite some grading, the only real vista point is the monumental entry stairs and porch that serve as an entry to Genentech Hall and the adjoining California Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research (QB3).

The decision to make an unrelieved wall of these two buildings may reflect a desire to recreate the internal circulation between research areas that characterizes UCSF’s main campus at Parnassus Heights. That would be fine if there were some effort to give the wall some north-south porosity, but it effectively blocks off 16th Street from the Quad.

From an architectural standpoint, the buildings around the quad are of varying quality, ranging from a spec office building (Rock Hall) to background academic (Genentech and QB3) to the more colorful Campus Community Center, designed by the same architect of Chiron in Emeryville and Solana near Dallas. This new building holds the west end of the quad very well, helping to bound it spatially when viewed from the east, but its stylistic replication of the architect’s past work suggests he saw no reason to do anything original.

West of Koret Quad, Owens Street runs at a diagonal, bordered by a series of building sites that back up to the 280 Freeway. The first of these, the Gladstone Institutes, forms the visual terminus of the pedestrian walk along the south edge of the quad. The building, which is aggressively plain and gray, makes no concessions to its location. It is evenly matched in this respect by the Campus Community Center parking garage, which appears to have been pulled out of that building like a piece of normally-hidden infrastructure, its concrete slabs covered in a metal mesh that hides nothing. This is barely architecture.

The new UCSF campus is neither urban nor suburban. It’s not a walled fortress, but it’s not NYU, either. What’s emerging is similar in density1 and look-and-feel to the science-and-technology precincts of other UC campuses. This is ironic, considering that the original campus master plan makes considerable reference to urban academic campuses in east coast cities like Providence as precedents. They make a greater effort to break up the building mass, introduce multiple "ways through," and define secondary open spaces.

One exception to the prevailing look is the still-unfinished housing complex northeast of the quad. Its precedent is the highrise dorms at UC Berkeley. Like them, it’s organized around an internal courtyard, but the facades of these late modern buildings are more variegated. The buildings are not far enough along for me to say if these details will be convincing in final form, but the architects have succeeded in defining an outdoor space with a more human scale and introducing eye-catching details, like a second-story bridge and outside exit stairs at the southwest corner, that will be appreciated by those who live and work at Mission Bay. The decision to make the building along Third Street taller than the rest also helps give the overall complex much more visual interest than its neighbors.

Mission Bay’s New Housing North of Mission Creek

While there are communal balconies in the UCSF housing, bays are their main facade motif, something they have in common with most of the Mission Bay housing further north. Along Lusk Alley between King and Berry Streets, the units of Avalon at Mission Bay phase one have balconies that bring an otherwise lackluster facade alive by reminding passers-by that real people live here. Terraces that open out to the street may do the same thing.

The Beacon, which spans Third and Fourth on the north side of King, reminds me of European new towns like Eindhoven in Holland that took a faithful but diagrammatic approach to their planners’ intentions. And that’s too bad, because King is a very wide street. As a pedestrian, you want to look across that distance to something good—and feel that your own side is also holding its own. One place where a visual conversation of this sort happens is at Third and King, where the ballpark (surely our century’s equivalent of having a cathedral in the neighborhood) faces the Glassworks, the only newly completed building in this part of Mission Bay that manages to hold its own architecturally.

Despite the Glassworks at the corner, the south side of King Street between Third and Fourth Streets has the something of the "monolithic wall" quality of the south side of Koret Quad. The facade of Rich Sorro Commons uses a rhythm of bays and windows, and of mock-arcades at street level, to try to mitigate this, but it’s too simple.

The still-in-design Signature I project along King at Fifth Street falls in with this pattern. Its south facade on Berry Street, partly lined with two-story townhouses and a public stair to its upper-level plaza, is a bit more interesting, but the building as a whole is an exercise in the Miami "big lattice" school. Like the Chiron replay at UCSF, this is the trademark look of its architects. They should be pushed to go beyond their own clichés.

In contrast, Signature II, at Fifth and Berry Streets, fronting on Mission Creek, has balconies and two-story townhouses at grade on all of its facades, and a courtyard terrace of usable size that looks out to the south and can be accessed by landscaped outdoor stairs from that side. The organization of its facades has a clear base and top, with the middle stories accentuated by the layered treatment of the facade. This is an exemplary project that should be pointed to by the Redevelopment Agency as a precedent for what follows.

Mission Bay’s Public Spaces and Infrastructure

Another wait-and-see aspect of Mission Bay is the public infrastructure that’s intended to weave it together visually and physically. There are parks at the waterfront and Mission Creek, and Mission Bay Commons, a panhandle-like promenade of substantial width that separates UCSF from the housing. There’s Third Street, the main road south, soon to have light rail service, and Fourth Street, Mission Bay’s shopping street, which will be deliberately damped down at the UCSF campus, the retail action shifting east to Third.

This seems reasonable, both to keep the campus from being cut in two by a river of traffic and to give the future biotech community somewhere to go—a setting they can share with their university colleagues. In its wisdom, UCSF appears to see the plaza that runs east from the quad along the south edge of the new housing as the entry to the new campus from that side. This led them to site their new parking garage and another building between it and 16th Street, blocking any view of the quad from Third Street. Because the plaza is seen by UCSF as the place for retail, the garage makes no provision for it along Third Street. As light rail activates this corridor, which seems inevitable—especially when the proposed new hospital across 16th Street comes on-line—that omission will be noticed, because the plaza is a long walk from there.

Based on looking at a rendering of Mission Bay Commons, it appears that Third Street will be a fairly major obstacle to its continuity, in the same way that the Embarcadero’s twin roadways interrupt the pedestrian plaza that connects Market Street to the Ferry Building. This is inevitable, I suppose—the traffic south has to go somewhere—but it will need to be managed in a way that gives pedestrians a fighting chance to get across.

Most of Mission Bay’s development is far from the Bay itself, so the parks on both sides of Mission Creek—and the views into it—will be quite important. At the UCSF campus and in the biotech area, the harbor appears in the distance, visible by looking toward the southeast, down the Bay. So it may be useful to consider overlooks on the roofs of the buildings there with views, something the UCSF housing will provide. (If the Redevelopment Agency and the Port could put their heads together, they might find a way to build a walkway along the creek so that people could duck under the Fourth and Third Street bridges and access the waterfront safely. That would be a real amenity.)

Making More of Mission Bay

Both the Redevelopment Agency and UCSF seem to be learning from the experience of building there, and several of their emerging projects, like Signature II and the UCSF housing, are useful precedents for future projects. What makes them so is their attention to human scale and to those nuances of architecture and landscape design that make a building and its settings a pleasure to experience.

These qualities are mostly missing in action at Mission Bay, because the emphasis has been on setbacks, mid-block separations, and other planning measures that are important, but won’t on their own ensure buildings or streetscapes of any real quality. The vara grid south of Mission Creek (which replicates the 275 x 412.5 foot blocks north of Market) won’t, either, although this pattern will provide a somewhat better framework for development than the larger, SOMA-like blocks north of Mission Creek. (The transition between these block types is not currently apparent, because nothing that would reveal their impact has been developed yet south of the creek. To me, the perception of bulk is due less to the configuration of the blocks as to the way the building mass is handled.)

Because Mission Bay is being developed in fairly big chunks, there’s a special need to break the buildings down visually along the street. The townhouses-on-the-street idea is a good one. Balconies and bay windows with a real view of the street, park, or creek will help give people below a sense of life above. Terraces with views and stairs do the same. A horizontally-and-vertically rhythmic facade like Signature II’s will be more interesting to passersby than the linear facades-with-setbacks and monolithic facades-as-lattices of its neighbors. An idea (now being considered) of setting the retail forward from the building wall could enliven shopping streets by making the stores more transparent and visible—but only if the architects are encouraged to push the idea, not apply it literally.

The UCSF housing shows that using the buildings to define courtyards with a human scale is a good idea. The idea of townhouses along the street is not applicable to UCSF’s buildings or their biotech neighbors, but efforts could still be made to reduce their bulk and increase their visual interest. The risk for these buildings is that they look suburban, so anything that adds urbanity—the way the housing does by articulating bays, making a feature of the fire stairs, and in other ways saying "we’re in a city"—is all to the good.

Making real amenities of Mission Bay’s open space elements is the second issue on which UCSF and the Redevelopment Agency should focus. Since the dimensions of UCSF’s quad are given, recalibrating it for human use will mean breaking down its imposed scale by, for example, bordering the quad’s south and north walks with a second order of built or landscaped buffer that can narrow its apparent width. Whatever its other defects, the Campus Community Center succeeds in defining the east end of the quad. Its width is more the problem than its length. (It’s too bad the housing wasn’t sited to the east of the quad with its tower element facing it to provide some welcome variation in height. Whatever is inserted between the garage and the quad still has this possibility.)


The challenge for Mission Bay Commons is to activate it as a destination by making room for things like farmers’ markets, pick-up soccer, and block parties. Some modest permanent facilities there could help support this. (In the rendering I saw, the Commons appeared wide enough to accommodate activities like this. If it’s not, it needs to be. It will be an important source of "breathing room" for the housing that borders UCSF, and if people there can’t really use it, the campus will end up taking up the slack.)

Mission Bay Can Still Be a Great Place

Sitting on SPUR’s Project Review Committee this year, I’ve been struck by what an impediment the entitlements process is for owners, developers, and their architects. It takes up all the energy that would otherwise go into the design process, so the results are often more like planning diagrams than real architecture.

Mission Bay has tried to resolve this problem. Its basic moves have been worked out in advance. There is still (my anonymous source reports) a degree of arbitrariness and the ever-present potential of bureaucratic delay built into the eight-month-long entitlements process, but there’s an established entity to deal with, not reactive neighbors, and, as mentioned, an evident learning curve on the part of both of its stewards. They have opportunities, now and in the future, to push developers and their architects to move new development at Mission Bay beyond a diagrammatic adherence to its plans and push for a level of care and thoughtfulness that, so far, is not much in evidence.

The Glassworks, Signature II, and the UCSF housing are not groundbreaking works of architecture, but they are solid, well-designed projects that aim to create a real sense of place. Although Mission Bay is essentially a new town, its development is taking place within a city whose best districts are memorable not so much because they’re full of stunning architecture, but because they speak to us in human terms through their attention to scale and nuance. All across San Francisco, we can find examples of what Joe Esherick used to call "ordinary buildings"—architecture that’s designed with this human context in mind. We need them at Mission Bay, too.spur logo



1 Net of open space, UCSF’s overall FAR, for example, is just under 1.75. This is not an especially dense development. If anything, it’s not dense enough.

Design Credits:

Avalon at Mission Bay I developed by AvalonBay and designed by Fisher-Friedman

The Beacon developed by Centurion Real Estate and designed by SOM with HKS

California Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research at UCSF designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

Campus Community Center at UCSF designed by Ricardo Legoretta with MBT

Campus Housing at UCSF designed by SOM with Fisher-Friedman

Genentech Hall at UCSF designed by ZGF with Smith Group

The Gladstone Institutes designed by NBBJ

The Glassworks developed by Catellus and designed by Brand + Allen

Koret Quad at UCSF conceived and dimensioned by Machado & Silvetti and Laurie Olin with Chong & Partners, and designed by Peter Walker

Mission Bay Master Plan by Johnson, Fain (derived from one by SOM’s John Kriken), with contributions by others like SMWM (for streetscape and major phase detailed plans)

Mission Creek Park developed by Catellus and designed by EDAW; with a pavilion designed by Tom Eliot Fisch

Rich Sorro Commons designed by SMWM and Paulett Taggart

Rock Hall at UCSF designed by Cesar Pelli with Flad

Signature I developed by Signature Properties and designed by Arquitectonica

Signature II developed by Signature Properties and designed by Leddy Maytum Stacy (with landscape architect Marta Fry for the third floor terrace and outdoor stairs)

Third Street Parking Garage at UCSF designed by Stanley Saitowitz

About the Authors: 

John Parman, a founder of Design Book Review, co-edits the Commentary section of Line ( and is a member of SPUR’s Project Review Committee. He thanks Amy Neches of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency and Kevin Beauchamp of UCSF. Their commitment to Mission Bay’s quality is evident and commendable. 

Get The Urbanist

Join SPUR and get our magazine in your mailbox

Become a member