New Gensler-designed PRC center in San Francisco tackles community’s toughest issues
By Jack Stubbs
“The constant challenge is how to help people to understand [these issues] and helping people to not tire of [them]. San Francisco is at an interesting inflection and tipping point; there’s a heightened level of frustration around homelessness and mental health and the ways in which to address [these issues],” said Brett Andrews, executive director and CEO of Positive Resource Center (PRC), a San Francisco-based non-profit established in 1987 whose mission is to assist people living with HIV/AIDS or mental health disabilities through legal advocacy, residential services, supportive housing and workforce development programs.
PRC recently achieved a landmark moment in its continued efforts in supporting the city’s local ecosystem. On May 15th, the organization celebrated the opening of its new Integrated Service Center to Reduce Homelessness, a 25,000 square foot project located at 170 9th Street in San Francisco’s SoMa (South of Market) neighborhood. The Integrated Service Center — a collaborative effort between San Francisco design firms Gensler and Revel Architecture along with CRI, OfficeMorph, Touhy Furniture, CCI, WHM, Zendesk, and aided by philanthropic support from donors — will serve as PRC’s permanent service center and headquarters and will deliver multifaceted interventions to break cycles of poverty, ill-health and homelessness among 5,000 individuals each year.
San Francisco is at an interesting inflection and tipping point; there’s a heightened level of frustration around homelessness and mental health and the ways in which to address these issues.
Although the Integrated Service Center recently achieved a watershed moment in its evolution, the undertaking represents a culmination of a multi-year effort on behalf of PRC and its project partners. In many ways, the new development is the latest chapter in a much longer story, said Andrews, “When you’re storyboarding and creating a project, it’s often about where you want the story to begin…PRC was started in 1987 in response to the AIDS crisis. We were gratified to learn that AIDS had moved from a terminal illness to a chronic illness…we knew that in order to stay alive in San Francisco, we had to expand our services, scope and relevance to a wider population.”
In August 2016, PRC announced its merger with AIDS Emergency Fund (AEF), a financial assistance provider for low-income residents disabled by HIV/AIDS, and Baker Places (BP),
another local nonprofit that provides a comprehensive array of residential treatment services to people with mental health, substance abuse and HIV/AIDS-related issues. In June 2018, PRC signed a long-term ten-year lease with the option-to-buy.
Through the merger, PRC hoped it would be able to consolidate its services under one roof and streamline its delivery practices to serve a wider population. “We have 11 other facilities around the city that are basically small clinics for up to 10-12 people that address substance use and mental health issues through treatment. We own seven of those 11 facilities, so this is a portfolio of real estate holdings that has allowed us to leverage the equity that we have in those properties, which ultimately led to a stabilization of the organization,” Andrews added.
Of PRC’s 260 personnel, eighty full-time employees were relocated to the new building from various locations across San Francisco. The revitalization of the asset — an Art Deco building originally constructed in 1934 — reflected a collaborative design effort between PRC, Gensler and the other project partners to offer a more holistic, community-driven approach through a series of conversations that began more than a decade ago.
“The story about PRC and Gensler goes all the way back to 2003 when I met Colin Burry [at Gensler]. We quickly got to work on the goals for the building and what it should [become] for PRC and the community. Gensler created a really solid team,” Andrews said. “[The building] had great bones, but it was a shell of a seismically upgraded space, which was essentially a blank slate to work with. We wanted it to be open, warm, welcoming to take advantage of the high ceilings…[Gensler] did an offset roof that is a significant design feature throughout the building.”
The various moves made to enhance the building were all in line with PRC’s ultimate vision for the space, according to Collin Burry, design director and principal at Gensler, with PRC’s prior merger with AEF and BP a consideration throughout the design process. “I think it’s an incredible story, and what really drew us to the project was PRC’s amazing mission…they started brainstorming and talking about the synergies between the three organizations and what that really meant for their clients…it’s really all about integrated services and this continuum of care,” Burry said.
The three-story Integrated Service Center includes a 12-student learning center and the Education and Training Center, a 24-user computer lab for education services and job training, along with 40 one-on-one counseling rooms for PRC staff and their clients.
“We wanted a modern feel to the layout, so we moved from private offices to an open floor-plan. From a programmatic perspective, you can’t really be in treatment without having supportive services wrapped around that. While someone is in treatment, there’s no reason why they can’t have access to job opportunities, computer training and healthcare…we wanted to bring these services together under one roof, allowing the space to provide the services in a really comprehensive way,” he said. On the first two floors, PRC provides direct services through its employment services program and legal counseling and emergency financial assistance program with its supportive housing case managers, along with a community cafe and consultation rooms on the third floor.
Very much in line with the community-oriented objectives of the project, the building itself came together as a result of a collaborative effort between all of the project partners involved. “Everyone was responsive to the goal of how to stabilize PRC as an organization and how to create a permanent home for us, so we definitely benefited from the design community,” Andrews said. PRC launched a “Chair the Love” fundraising campaign in February 2019 to furnish the space, with multiple furnishings donated by Gensler and Zendesk, among others.
More broadly, Gensler’s hope was to create a focal point for PRC through a more human-centered approach towards design in a wider effort to combat the long-standing AIDS crisis in the city of San Francisco, according to Burry. “For us, it needed to be a space that didn’t look like excess in any sense, but at the same time, the question was how to give PRC a contemporary space and environment to come to that would work, and equally important is the fact that ultimately their clients are people,” Burry said. “For me, personally, what was really appealing was leveraging everything that was learned in the AIDS crisis, because there wasn’t a lot of government support [at the time], when everybody was trying to figure out how to tackle these problems, especially around homelessness.”
At a time of change for the continually-evolving city of San Francisco, efforts like this to give back to the community will hopefully enact a greater shift in mindset for the city as a whole, thinks Burry. “Everybody was completely willing and open to helping us, whether it was with furniture donations or discounts; it made everybody feel a bit better about having the opportunity to give back, considering all the prosperity that we’ve collectively had,” he said.
“We live in such fascinating times in the Bay Area with the tech explosion and with all this money rolling around, and innovative new ways of working and major shifts in corporate norms, we all collectively felt that it was important to create transparency and a culture where everyone feels included and celebrated. We all live through times of incredible prosperity. But I’m not sure if we’ve all collectively done our part, and this was an opportunity to do that.”
In terms of the potential wider future impact that the Integrated Service Center might have on the city’s character as a whole, Andrews is optimistic, though wary of the fact that challenges — financial and otherwise — still remain for an evolving city during a time of transformation. “San Francisco is a city that cares and is known for its model of care. There are more non-profits per-capita and square foot than there are anywhere else in the world, which goes to show how much people want to help in the community,” he said. “But the challenge is that that also creates competition…for every 11,000 people, there’s a billionaire…it can be challenging to get in front of those folks who have deep pockets and great resources..[so] it’s about trying to stay relevant and present in the current zeitgeist of the community.”
In spite of the challenges that lie ahead, there is growing optimism that projects like the Integrated Service Center nonetheless represent a step in the right direction for both San Francisco and the Greater Bay Area, says Burry. “Our hope is that since we’re all collectively shining a light on these issues, maybe other members of the design community, and members of the business community at large, can attract people’s attention and help them realize that participating in society comes with these types of responsibilities,” he said.
In order to continue the positive momentum made through PRC’s new focal point in SoMa, the first step in the process will continue to be opening the lines of communication between the city, non-profits and members of the business community — with the hope that this dynamic creates a domino effect further down the line.
“Organizations like PRC need to communicate that they are actually doing good work. Non-profits are often able to do what the city cannot, and at a lower cost with a greater outcome,” said Andrews. “Attention usually leads to resources and funding, and that’s what we’re working really hard on. We want people to know that we are more comprehensive in our size, scope, scale and impact, so that’s our challenge over the next year.”
The challenge in the longer term is how to continue to align loftier visions with concrete actions when tackling broader social issues in a region that continues to evolve significantly. “That’s the whole thing about the Bay Area, is that we are a great community…[but] this is a time where we’re wondering whether we’re still the same community of 25 years ago where we did roll up our sleeves and help each other,” Burry said. “It helps to be shining a light on the people out there who are actually doing things and putting themselves out there…I’m optimistic about the future, because not only are we doing something, we’re also starting to see some of the results with these societal challenges.”