Designing For Public Spaces

If you’ve ever considered designing for public spaces there are unique issues you will encounter. All public design projects involve red tape, but if a design project involves lots of public money and a high-profile location the entire creative process slows down and becomes even more complex.

Before ideas can be developed, qualified design teams must be reviewed and selected. As the proposals take shape, the public and relevant political bodies must be included in the process. Once the design is finally complete it can take months before construction contracts are signed and work can begin. The New Presidio Parklands Project in San Francisco is a classic example of this process.

This particular project draws heavily on the qualities of a unique site. Designers were asked to merge geography and history with contemporary use.

Aerial view of Presidio in San Francisco

The Presidio of San Francisco is a 1,480 acre park at the far north edge of the city. It’s where the Golden Gate Bridge (Highway 1 coming down from Marin county) connects to San Francisco. Its western edge faces the Pacific Ocean and its northern edge borders the San Francisco Bay. Clustered throughout the park are repurposed military buildings and facilities dating back to the 19th century.

Historic view of Presidio

The Presidio was established in 1776 by the Spanish. In 1846 the U.S. Army took possession and it remained an active military base from then until the first Gulf War in the 1990s. At that point the base was decommissioned and the U.S. Congress mandated that it become privatized and financially self-sustaining. To oversee this privatization, Congress established the Presidio Trust and gave it control over 80% of the former base including nearly all the buildings. The beaches and coastal areas are managed by the National Park Service.

Any major change to the Presidio inevitably involves Congressional representatives, the Presidio Trust and the Park Service. Since the 1990s there have been a few significant changes in the Presidio but the groups in charge of the park have been very protective of its appearance and the type of activity allowed. The most notable changes include replacing Letterman Hospital with the new Digital Arts Center housing Lucasfilm’s corporate headquarters and transforming the old military air strip into a restored wetlands and public recreation/beach area known as Crissy Field. Other proposals to build two imposing art museums in the Presidio have been rejected.

The State of California is currently in the final stage of replacing one of the major highways that connects downtown San Francisco to the Golden Gate Bridge. This busy four lane freeway – Doyle Drive – cuts across a major portion of the Presidio and separates Crissy Field from the central parade ground with its collection of repurposed historic buildings. Both the state and the Presidio Trust want to make sure the new replacement highway is not a visual or access barrier separating one part of the Presidio from another. To that end they are enclosing a large portion of the new Doyle Drive and putting a roof over it.

The Trust is conducting a major design competition seeking proposals for projects that will span over the top of the enclosed highway and create a multi-use pedestrian area midway between the park’s main buildings and Crissy Field. The goal is to have continuous access with unbroken visual sight lines from the Bay to the heart of the historic Presidio.

The process of designing the New Presidio Parklands started in 2014 with the “imagine” phase where conversation and input from the public was accepted. James Corner Field Operations, an internationally known landscape architecture design firm, was selected from a group of five prestigious design firms as the lead design team. Field Operations’ previous projects include the Highline Park in New York City, Chicago’s Navy Pier, and Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London. Field Operations teamed with local architecture design firm EHDD, known for their work on the Monterey Bay Aquarium, The Children’s Zoo in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, and the new Exploratorium at Pier 15 in San Francisco.

Proposal for New Presidio Parklands by the CMG team

Proposal by CMG

Proposal for New Presidio Parkland by James Corner Field Operations

Proposal by James Corner Field Operations

2015 is the year of the “design” phase where preliminary proposals are presented. Public input is being solicited at interactive design labs, workshops and presentations. Additional avenues for public input include mail, e-mail, an online survey and a discussion forum. If everything progresses as planned, a draft of a “conceptual design” will be presented to the Presidio Trust Board of Directors on May 14. After more public comment and an environmental/historic review, a draft “schematic design” will be presented later this Summer. A final design proposal is expected by the end of this year. Construction is scheduled to begin in the Fall of 2016 and should be complete sometime in 2018.

The New Presidio Parklands Project is just one example showing the intricacies involved in bringing a public project to completion.

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