Scenic as it may be, San Francisco's waterfront is in crisis. The once-bustling port served as a major economic engine for the city through the mid-1900s. But with the advent of containerized shipping, most of the business moved across the San Francisco Bay to the city of Oakland, which was quick to adapt to changes in the industry. That has left the Port of San Francisco holding a collection of underused, aging, and deteriorating maritime facilities that, in many cases, form a barrier between the city and the bay.
Among the decaying assets are the historic finger piers that line the city waterfront from Fisherman's Wharf to Mission Bay. All agree that the costs of repairing, seismically upgrading, and redeveloping these piers are staggering. But the city has begun taking steps to recapture its waterfront as a public asset—beginning with the removal, rather than replacement, of the raised freeway along the Embarcadero that was leveled by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. More recently, public and private investment has been targeted to the waterfront to build new places to live, shop, work, and eat.
A common thread running through the creation of many of these new public amenities is Tom Eliot Fisch, a San Francisco architecture firm headed by the experienced team of Douglas Tom, Amy Eliot, and Bobbie Fisch. Since joining forces in 1997, the trio has built its practice by consciously pursuing opportunities in the public realm. Likewise, the trajectory of the firm seems to have risen with the increasing commitment to development along the waterfront. That's not entirely by chance, as many of these projects are entangled in messy public review processes that the firm chooses to embrace rather than avoid. “It has become a way that we win jobs,” Tom says. But there are philosophical reasons for pursuing the work, he adds. “We would rather work on complex projects for noncommercial clients who have a mission other than the bottom line. We fortunately have found a niche in San Francisco trying to do something for the greater community good.”
Renewal on the Piers
Tom Eliot Fisch's work along the San Francisco waterfront traces back to the mid-1990s, when principal Douglas Tom, then a partner at Tom, Bloszies, Aguila, began work on the Crissy Field Center, an environmental education facility on the fringe of the Presidio overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.
Soon afterward, following the formation of Tom Eliot Fisch, the firm was hired to design new offices for the Port of San Francisco in the front portion of Pier 1, which sits immediately north of the landmark Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street. It was the first in a string of successive opportunities. Subsequently, the firm served as architect of record for three high-profile pier renovations—Pier 1½, Pier 3, and Pier 5—leading a multidisciplinary team to restore the aging infrastructure. (Other members of the team included design architects Hannum Associates and preservation architects Page & Turnbull.) In these cases, the key design challenge was to diminish the buildings' longtime role as a barrier between the Embarcadero and the waterfront, achieved by increasing the public's visual and physical access to the water's edge. Following their comprehensive repair and seismic upgrade, the piers now comprise 60,000 square feet of office space; 17,000 square feet of restaurant, café, and retail space; a public space along the perimeter of the project; and a boat dock. Tom Eliot Fisch also designed office interiors for two investment management firms located in the Pier 5 building.
New work is under way less than half a mile south of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge in the Rincon Point/South Beach area. In late 2006, the firm completed a new Harbormaster's Building that provides administrative space for the adjacent marina, facilities for a private yacht club, and a community multipurpose room. Other improvements in the vicinity by Tom Eliot Fisch include a small but cleverly detailed hut for bicycle rentals. Soon to come: Overdue improvements to Pier 40, which is in dire need of stabilization, underdeck repairs, a remake of its front façade, and completion of a city-mandated perimeter public access walkway. The meager $5 million budget will upgrade tenant space for a variety of boat-related companies and provide public parking.
The firm's commission for the 11,000-square-foot Harbormaster's Building, completed in late 2006, presented a unique set of site challenges. Set within a diverse urban context—including a mix of low-rise and mid-rise apartment blocks, the looming presence of the AT&T Park baseball stadium, a small urban park, and the historically significant Pier 40 shed—the building also offered a rare opportunity to design an object building in San Francisco, where infill projects are more often the rule. Several features, including the marina jetties, a new playground in the park, and a parking lot serving the marina, determined the building's orientation. But most critical was the location of an underground seawall that rests inland of the waterfront promenade and the disparate subsurface conditions on either side of it. Rather than straddle the wall and encumber the cost of seismically reinforcing it, the design team simply moved the building back. Even so, the support structure consumed a sizeable chunk of the budget: the 35-foot-tall building rests on 65-foot piles.
As design began, the clients advocated a maritime image suited to the building's site and purpose. “What seemed to have the most integrity was the language of the boats—the materiality, the marine environment,” says project architect Alyosha Verzhbinsky. “And the clients, to their credit, were very hip to that.” The resulting building is a long, low-slung form beneath a zinc shed roof. The enclosure is relatively opaque to the west and open to the east, providing views of the marina for the harbormaster's staff and the South Beach Yacht Club, the building's main tenants. A two-story lobby slices through the volume, creating a view corridor between land and water.
Because it is frequently approached from two directions, the building has no front or back. Reinforcing the strong modular composition of glass and cedar on the east side are lightweight steel-and-glass canopies supported by stainless steel cables that recall the compressed views of forestays, masts, and halyards on the marina's boats. The west side features a wood screen wall that shades the building from harsh afternoon sun.
A two-story lobby cuts through the middle of the building, separating the public spaces on the north end from the private yacht club that occupies the second floor to the south. A multipurpose community room, with direct access from the outside, occupies the north end of the building on the ground floor. In addition, a workshop and storage space for harbor operations are tucked beneath the yacht club. To foster a clear sense of place, the design team sought to provide views of the water or the city to every occupant.
Issues of sustainability were just gaining currency at the time the firm interviewed for the job. “We started the project with the idea that we couldn't go through the LEED certification process for cost reasons,” says principal Amy Eliot. But the firm was determined to make several strides in that direction. The building's narrow floor plate easily accommodated daylighting, which is aided by reflective ceilings and a roofline that flares upward toward the east. Cooling loads in the building were greatly reduced by providing operable windows, ceiling fans, and shading on the west side. Sustainably harvested ipe, which appears prominently on the exterior sun screen and decking, was repeated inside on stair treads, handrails, decking on the circulation bridge, and accents on the bay window that projects from the conference room. Carpeting with a high recycled content was chosen for the offices and community room, and ceiling panels are a sustainable wood-fiber product.
A nautical theme carries through the interior without going overboard. In the lobby, a dinghy called El Cinco is suspended like a chandelier. Bright yellow—the same shade as foul weather gear—was chosen as the sole accent color. Otherwise, the interior palette of materials took its cues from the marina's complement of boats, which are largely white, aluminum, and gray. Finishes were selected for durability, anticipating that many of the users of the building will be in boating gear, while also expressing the same economy of means found in boat design. Floors on the lower level are post-tensioned concrete slabs that span between beams, because the subsurface is unstable.
The building's signature is a gently curved, wood screen wall that sweeps for 200 feet along the west faÇade. It serves many purposes: It's an image-giving element, a sun-shading device, a windbreak, and screening for mechanical equipment on the roof. Because the screen would be so prominent, the design team knew that it needed to be well built. In the context of a publicly funded project built by a low-bid contractor, “the approach was to nurse them along so that they would take real pride in the project,” says Verzhbinsky. A framing and mounting system was designed that could be adjusted to compensate for dimensional variations in the wood-framed base building. The screen's support system's layers—the heavy tubular-steel superstructure, the galvanized steel frame that hangs from it, and the ipe 2x4s that hold the slats—were aligned with a laser level as they were attached.
The galvanized subframe components were fabricated in a shop and then welded together on site. “You can truck a larger piece,” notes Verzhbinsky, “but we had to be very conscious of the maximum size of local galvanizing vats.
The exterior ipe is unfinished to allow for natural weathering and minimize future maintenance. Boards that were laid flat are fastened from the underside to avoid creating a dimple on top that could collect water and create rot. The same slats are also angled slightly downward to encourage water to run off.