Seeking Serendipity @ 5th & Mission

Developers of San Francisco’s Fifth and Mission project bring art and street vitality to work

THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED IN THE ‘Q’ – THE REGISTRY’S PRINT PUBLICATION – IN APRIL 2012

By Brad Berton

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hat neighborhood environments, workspace configurations and cultural and commercial amenities will San Francisco’s high-growth technology startups and creative enterprises prefer in 2025? It’s a tough question. The team now designing a redevelopment plan for one of San Francisco’s largest, contiguous urban palettes has been asking it for a couple of years—no matter that a decade’s worth of phased construction probably won’t start for another 24 months or longer.

Professionals pondering redevelopment of the San Francisco Chronicle’s four-acre headquarters site at 5th and Mission streets are trying to translate prospective occupants’ desire for creativity, collaboration and interaction into design.

Hearst Corp.’s Western Properties division (Hearst owns the Chronicle) and Forest City Enterprises Inc., its development partner, probably won’t submit the so-called 5M project’s formal building plans to the city for some time. But some intriguing elements are emerging. The plan sprinkles entertainment, arts, community and event space into the mix, along with housing and an ecclectic combination of eateries, said Alexa Arena, the Forest City vice president overseeing what she calls 5M’s “experience-driven design.” A likely two-year public review process has just commenced, and no specific building plans have been proposed.

With architects from Gensler’s San Francisco office playing a lead role, the 5M design team’s aim is to make people feel they are experiencing the high-energy contemporary culture and economy of the area south of Market Street, not merely “working in an office building,” Arena said. As much as the overall siteplan and individual structures, the approach entails facilitating interaction through the design of doorways, lobbies, alleys, balconies, façades and even rooftops.

The preliminary project assessment filed with the San Francisco planning department in November envisions 1.3 million square feet of commercial space in low-, mid- and high-rise office buildings; 172,000 feet of cultural and retail facilities; and 700 residential units, largely in a high-rise tower. The to-be-renovated Chronicle building serves as the key “cultural marker” for the project and neighborhood, including an expansive rooftop gathering spot, Arena said. Its 260,000 square feet already are fully occupied by some 2,000 entrepreneurs, artisans and artists.

Eventually, some 5,000 people are slated to work at the development a block or so west of the Moscone Center and Yerba Buena Gardens. Taller towers would be sited along the busiest thoroughfares and across from the Intercontinental Hotel at 5th and Howard streets, with heights stepping down toward the traditional SoMa district.

Along with a central plaza hosting near-continuous events, the plan envisions multiple public and semi-public gathering and lounging spaces along and overlooking the pedestrian-friendly streetscape (parking would be subterranean). The vision also calls for bustling alleys and other pathways between buildings, along with lots of roll-up glass doors creating inviting entries into street-level spaces.

Commercial building lobbies would be designed and operated with an eye toward fostering interaction. Instead of an antiseptic corporate environment with security personnel eyeing every visitor, lobby areas would offer retail experiences along with a rotation of programs such as art exhibitions and other cultural events. “Ideally you wouldn’t notice any building security until you reach a [limited] area right at the elevators,” Arena said.

One consistent theme of the prospective occupant feedback is that diverse offerings of artistic distractions and cultural experiences help facilitate the level of collaboration these companies thrive on.

The planning team is aiming for “constant change and motion” on 5M’s building façades generally, as Arena puts it. “We aim to create a sense of gathering and dynamic change—not rigid buildings with no sense of life.” This would include regular rotations of artwork—and even entertaining the public with films screened on exterior walls.

“There’s nothing like art when it comes to attracting people to a neighborhood that’s starting to see dramatic changes,” said Deborah Cullinan, executive director of non-profit Intersection For The Arts, which moved to 5M a year ago and expects to stay for the long haul as the property is redeveloped. In mid-September, Intersection received a $777,000 grant for placemaking at the 5M Project from ArtPlace, an initiative of 11 U.S. foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts and seven federal agencies that puts the arts at the center of economic development.

IFTA is one “cultural anchor” the 5M team designated early on to help establish the development as something of an “innovation cluster,” as Arena puts it. Other notables on that roster are TechShop, Square, The Hub SoMa.

The 5M team held numerous focus-group sessions with neighbor groups to create inviting entry points to the future complex and to tear down “social barriers” inhibiting visits, as Arena puts it. They also queried brain trusts at numerous highly innovative local companies about the characteristics of business facilities that support and enhance their enterprises.

Rather than looking to collect rent from anyone willing to pay, the team targeted categories of prospective tenants: new tech outfits and other entrepreneurial types, including coworking outfits and business incubators; numerous arts-related and cultural organizations; and various other groups who tend to frequently host events. It wasn’t so much the tech sector as an emphasis on entrepreneurship and interaction-oriented cultural activities, Arena said: “They’re large and small, profit and nonprofit—but they all help create social interaction. The intersection of all these communities is a key part of the place-making process, and it all revolves around creativity.”

The only existing development the 5M planning team is tapping as something of a model for the approach is Forest City’s own University Park at MIT, an award-winning 27-acre mixed-use project adjacent to the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But, Arena said, 5M really represents the ongoing “evolution” of the clustering concept, as the mix of participants is much more diverse than the biotech-heavy cluster at University Park. “5M can provide so many more of the things we love about cities.”

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