By Meghan Hall
The current pandemic has produced a lot of questions around the design and infrastructure of dense, urban cities and the future of compact environments. While many architects, landlords and urban planners are thinking at a granular level with specific types of cleaning protocols and building tweaks—ranging from touchless entry to new HVAC—Elizabeth Ranieri and Byron Kuth of San Francisco-based Kuth Ranieri Architects are going much further. The pair has begun to pitch the concept of the micro-hood: self-sustaining vertical neighborhoods, where all daily activities could be completed within a city block.
The initial inspiration arose, stated Kuth, as the architecture firm watched employees and loved ones combine their work, social and home lives into compact environment.
“It was interesting because COVID-19 just collapsed all of those worlds into one place, where people were working from home and tackling day-to-day challenges along with [addressing a need for] community and socialization,” explained Kuth. “The world is normally separated into different sectors and COVID-19 collapsed them all into this cohabitation of programming.”
Kuth Ranieri’s interest in the subject was spurred further by news of tenants vacating space in San Francisco, including PG&E, who announced it will be moving from its San Francisco headquarters to Oakland in the near future. PG&E called San Francisco its home for more than a century, and the block of space it will leave behind is significant. The firm’s complex consists of two adjacent office buildings at 245 Market and 77 Beale, which combined total 1.4 million square feet.
“Just at the time we were developing the thinking about this and the sort of program of what of this neighborhood would be, we picked up the paper and saw the PG&E building and that whole megablock complex would become vacant in 2022,” said Ranieri. “It was an example of the variety of buildings that exist on one block within a certain district and it became an opportunity for us to test some of these ideas in real conditions.”
Kuth Ranieri’s case study of the site envisions a transformation of the block and conversion of existing infrastructure. For the PG&E block, Kuth Ranieri would close Beale Street between Market and Mission to turn the space into a public green, creating an elevated connected garden within the block. Older buildings, particularly the early 20th century assets on Market Street, could be easily converted to a mix of multifamily housing types due to their double-loaded corridors and pre-divided floorplates. Office, which Kuth Ranieri state are often “hermetically designed” would be opened up to accommodate a variety of commercial uses.
The micro-hoods could have their own events, food and beverage spots and community amenities from galleries to daycares. Some micro-hoods might have schools, while others would have rec or higher education facilities. All micro-hoods would be off-grid, using advanced building management systems, solar arrays, digitized energy systems and smart meters. Systems that allow for urban agriculture and water treatment would also be incorporated.
“This is a really radical migration of people out of the city and into the suburbs, where they can get out of the kind of rigid patterns and rituals that belong to cites,” said Kuth. “…I think the modern city is based on these social structures, and I think what we’re proposing is new social structures, new rituals, new ways celebrate how we connect.”
Should a micro-hood like concept take root, Kuth Ranieri envisions micro-hoods taking root across the city over a number of phases, block-by-block. However, there are a number of major hurdles that would need to be removed for micro-hoods to become a feasible repositioning concept in urban centers such as San Francisco. Not only would there need to be a restructuring of real estate economics, but numerous changes to land-use regulations, funding, and maintenance of the micro-hoods once build-out is completed.
“Zoning policy would have to change and evolve; PPPs would have to be organized around a very robust stakeholder engagement process,” stated Ranieri. “There might [also] have to be a different type of equity system that drives the financial modeling of this.”
Moving forward would mean extensive community outreach and a new model of public-private partnerships not yet seen in the real estate industry. And, while the micro-hood concept may be years down the pipeline, those within the industry are already thinking about how the urban fabric will continue to evolve as a result of COVID-19, an evolution which is a question mark for many.
“People will return to the cities, and they will return to the cities in a different way,” said Kuth. “…As we return and reformulate our social structures, our rituals, the physical worlds and how we congregate will be different. This was a way to try to imagine that.”