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Are Planners Overstepping Bounds Telling Architects What to Do?

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On June 24, the Planning Commission takes up the case of 1601 Larkin, a derelict Nob Hill church with quite a history. For the unfamiliar, the six-year journey of First St. John's United Methodist Church goes in a nut like this: developer John McInerney of Anasazi Properties wanted to turn the site, not used as a church since 2004, into a six-story condo building (the church-to-condo phenomenon is nothing new). The Board of Supes, led by then-pres Aaron Peskin, strode in to prevent the development by trying to landmark the church — only to be overruled by a 1994 state law that allows religious institutions to be exempted from local landmarking. That state ruling was last year. Next month, 1601 Larkin should finally get its day at the Planning Commission, but it'll face a different beast altogether. If the renderings above look familiar, it's because the 28-unit building was designed by Stanley Saitowitz, who just over a week ago succeeded in getting his vision for a Hayes Valley development approved — at the expense of the Planning Department-blessed terra cotta version. Saitowitz won that battle, but it looks like it may have only been part of a larger war, the next round of which is shaping up to be 1601 Larkin.

In a letter to developer McInerney, the Planning Department says that their issues with the proposed building's "massing and materiality" have led to an "impasse" between them and the development team, and the "most productive course of action" would be to take the project to the Planning Commission for a hearing. The department's citing the city's Residential Design Standards (PDF), a 60-some-page document that for better or worse lays down "guidelines" for buildings that cover everything from the shapes of rooftops to exterior finishes (at one point, the department was said to have requested that 1601 Larkin be finished in stucco instead of metal). The Standards used to be called the Residential Design Guidelines — the name change, noted on the department's website, suggests the benchmarks are no longer just helpful suggestions, but now collectively set a bar to be met. The problem with that bar, as an architect at Saitowitz's firm says, is it gives the Planning Department "extremely broad latitude and the ability to exercise personal taste in evaluating a project."

Planning Director John Rahaim, who happens to have bachelor's and master's degrees in architecture, admits as much in his letter, saying that "standards and guidelines involving design are inherently subjective." But the architect above says that San Francisco planners have taken a turn in the last two or so years, having moved from code enforcement more into the realm of building design. The department, in fact, had a number of issues with Saitowitz's 555 Fulton that went beyond design — among them the number of parking spots, an issue that they won on in the Planning Commission's ruling. But design was probably the most obvious issue, if only because of the significant rework they'd extracted from the Saitowitz team. A frustrated Rahaim said during the hearing that the original design was "all glass and ... a continuous facade in a block and in a neighborhood that did not have such facades" — in other words, no coloring outside the lines. Rahaim didn't respond to a call last Friday, but in the 555 Fulton hearing, he'd actually already said his piece on accusations of overreaching:

I take great offense to the community comments that staff has no role in the design process. Staff's role in fact is exactly not to rubber stamp everything that walks in the door. ... Our role is to really look at the context and understand how a building fits into the context.
A stance that makes the issue seem believably like another case of San Francisco's conscientious exceptionalism — we meddle because we care, right? Another Bay Area architect, one who does work here and all across California, had this to say: "The San Francisco planning staff seem to regard themselves as part of the design team in a way that exceeds the 'collaborative' effort architects are accustomed to making as part of the entitlement process in any other city." But it's also a bit more than that: "The planners have an unwritten agenda that must be satisfied, and to the uninitiated it seems like a game of Marco Polo." Apparently a very annoying game of Marco Polo — the Saitowitz architect said that the firm has been repeatedly sent back to the drawing board by planners for not doing enough, even after they've ostensibly met all the criteria of the Residential Design Standards. OK, but has it really gotten worse in recent years? "Hard to say," says that other Bay Area architect. "It certainly hasn't gotten any better."

For the moment, it seems developer, architect, and planners will have to punt to the Planning Commission, a ruling body whose members have themselves often called design issues a matter of taste. On 555 Fulton, one commissioner vastly preferred the initial Saitowitz design, agreeing the revised one was "dumbed down," while another said she liked neither. Yet another said that even if the architects are the "brain surgeons," it's the "nurses," i.e. the planners, who get the patient better. In any case, many openly confess to not having design backgrounds, at which point they just punt on the issue too. In the case of the Hayes Valley development, the commission sided with the community, which showed up in droves to support the original, glassier design. Stanley Saitowitz's team says that the public hearing on 1601 Larkin promises to be a replay of that night — the community wants the Saitowitz design to remain unmolested, and they'll most likely not be shy about it.

Update: The opposition showcases the existing church superimposed on the proposed building, and who's more of a one-trick pony: Stanley Saitowitz, or the Planning Department?

· Letter: John Rahaim to John McInerney (PDF)
· Court Rules: Nob Hill Church Can Go Condo If They Want [Curbed SF]

1601 Larkin St, San Francisco, CA