Seven Bay Area urban landscape features that can’t be ignored

The Bay Area’s economic boom brings a steady stream of new buildings and spaces around us, plus the political and social tumult that can make physical changes seem beside the point.

Some of them, though, deserve attention.

The reason is that the quality of our lives is inseparable from our surroundings. Alterations to skylines or familiar streets can bring pleasure or dismay, as well as surprise. They also offer insight on what sharpens a region’s sense of place.

Which leads me to seven snapshot critiques of fresh additions to our landscape. Short and mostly sweet, with full awareness there’s plenty more change on the way.

Cellular Origami

UCSF parking garage, 1630 Third St., San Francisco

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The screen known as Cellular Origami on the UCSF parking garage on Third Street in Mission Bay is seen from the Chase Center, where the Golden State Warriors play.

(Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

The most captivating architectural flourish that greets visitors to Chase Center isn’t the $1.5 billion arena where the Golden State Warriors gamely toil. It’s a parking garage.

To be more precise, the jangly aluminum curtain that drapes UCSF Mission Bay’s huge garage along Third Street. It’s a drape assembled from 1,504 blob-like panels, some flat and others folded, that are locked into place but constantly shimmer.

“The idea is a DNA strand,” said Lisa Iwamoto of IwamotoScott Architecture. “We wanted something that felt like a three-dimensional mural. But it can’t move, so we’re using the (ambient) light around it instead.”

The marching orders from UCSF were that the screen had to fit onto the support rails installed for a prior screen that failed. IwamatoScott came through, working with a team that included Acosta, the panel fabricators.

Now we have a billboard-scale piece of 21st century eye candy served up on a tight budget — unlike the glitzy realm across the street.

Fox Plaza

1390 Market St., S.F.

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Pedestrians waiting to cross Van Ness Avenue at Market Street are treated to the new light show at Fox Plaza — thick bands of LED lighting along the slab’s broad girth, emphasizing the tombstone shape of the 29-story slab all the more.

(Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

You can’t blame the newish owners of Fox Plaza for wanting to freshen up the glum slab that has loomed over Mid-Market since 1966, when it replaced the beloved Fox Theater.

But Swift Real Estate Partners has now made things even worse — by adding thick bands of LED lighting along the slab’s broad girth, emphasizing the tombstone shape all the more.

Besides outlining a 29-story mistake, the lighting captures that awkward moment when a trend goes too far. Nearby City Hall uses computerized illumination to accent the delicate grandeur of its dome. Fox Plaza just looks obliviously lurid.

If Swift wants to upgrade the lobby, fine. That belt of aqua-blue paint across the slab’s midriff is pleasantly harmless. The lighting? Maybe there’s still time for a refund.

500 Folsom St.

Rincon Hill, S.F.

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The newest tower to rise near San Francisco’s Transbay transit center is the 42-story apartment building at 500 Folsom St. — a box stacked on top of a box stacked on top of a box.

(John King / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

So many towers have risen on or near Rincon Hill that newcomers can escape notice. Even a 42-story apartment building that resembles a stack of nine-story-tall blocks set one atop the next.

Urban Design with John King

The design by Skidmore Owings Merrill doesn’t soar, but there’s a visual twist in the interplay of box upon box — because of tightly spaced metal fins, cubes that are glassy when viewed head-on are silvery solid when glimpsed from the side. More depth is provided by the notched vertical bands of red terra-cotta that hold multistory balconies.

If 500 Folsom sounds cerebral, somewhat detached — you’re right. Fortunately, it rises from human-scaled wings designed by Fougeron Architecture. As residents move in, let’s hope they add a domestic feel to the austere show.

Patricia’s Green

Octavia Boulevard and Hayes Street, S.F.

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View of Patricia’s Green seen looking toward Hayes Street at Octavia Boulevard on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, in San Francisco, Calif.

(Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

Patricia’s Green has been a Hayes Valley oasis since it opened in 2005, a gathering spot that concludes Octavia Boulevard with a play structure, a lawn, a simple plaza and a sculpture that changes every year or so.

Now there’s another feature, an act of subtraction rather than addition: The traffic lanes on either side of the green between Hayes and Linden streets have been closed.

The block is only 145 feet long, but the bollards installed in December prevent cars cutting from Octavia to Hayes. Instead, there’s a calm pedestrian zone amid the ever-more-hectic Hayes Street scene.

The next challenge is to make the car-free strips flourish as something besides the site of a symbolic victory over automobiles. They’re still classified as fire lanes — but if there’s a way to add movable tables or chairs, the transformation could be more inviting.

Presidio Theatre

99 Moraga Ave., the Presidio, S.F.

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The rebuilt Presidio Theater at 99 Moraga Ave. in the Presidio of San Francisco has undergone a $40 million restoration courtesy of philanthropist Peggy Haas.

(Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

We take the ongoing revival of the Presidio for granted and, with it, the extent to which our shared landscape is the beneficiary of our region’s ample wealth.

Inside the newsroom

Like the news articles that The Chronicle publishes, our columns seek to be thoroughly reported, using interviews and data to back up the writer’s observations. But columns allow writers to offer readers their own perspective on the issues they’re examining. John King’s columns on urban design and architecture are drawn from his exploration of the Bay Area landscape as well as research into projects; interviews with planners, designers and residents; and on-site visits. Based in The Chronicle’s newsroom, King gets his ideas from readers’ observations as well as the buildings and spaces that catch his eye.

Then you enter this mock-Spanish theater from 1939 that sat empty after the Army handed off the Presidio to the National Park Service in 1994 and marvel anew.

The landscape is fitting and fresh, the exterior sparkles with life. The interior feels like a welcoming club, with abundant historic details but also 600 wide, comfortable seats. As for the discreet addition, it includes what I’m told is an uncommonly generous women’s restroom.

Credit for all this goes to philanthropist Peggy Haas, who funded the $40 million restoration with a project team led by Hornberger + Worstell architects.

The impulse was hers. The payoff is ours.

East Cut plazas

Transbay district, S.F.

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An urban park on the corner of Howard and Main streets in San Francisco is one of two oases that will give way to construction staging areas — if and when the rail extension eventually reaches the transit center.

(Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

They’re the funky antithesis of the Transbay transit center’s lavish rooftop park, and they’re right across the street — two playful plazas conceived with the idea that someday they’ll be razed.

One is at Main and Howard streets. The other is around the corner on Beale Street. Hillocks wearing artificial turf rise amid blue asphalt traced with swirls of blue paint that add a hint of topographical mystery. The abundance of sturdy lampposts signals that these spaces are open around the clock.

The laid-back oases were paid for by the developers of Park Tower, the 46-story shaft between them at Beale and Howard. When (if?) work begins on the rail extension to the transit center, they’ll be replaced by construction staging areas.

“We were able to convince everyone to allow an interim use, something that can be deconstructed when need be,” said Emily Rylander, a principal at Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture. Until then? Consider them small pop-up pleasures in a district where everything else seems super-scaled.

The Broadway

3093 Broadway, Oakland

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The Broadway at 3093 Broadway in Oakland.

(Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

If I were doing a full architectural review of this six-story newcomer to Oakland’s Pill Hill, there would be plenty of nits to pick in the formulaic design.

The saving grace: They’re not Bay Area formula — those boxy crates of infill housing along freeways and transit corridors that have flat facades and a few random bays. Instead, the Broadway has a thick, prow-like form with deep balconies and a streamlined Art Deco air.

Sure, people would roll their eyes in Miami. Or in Santa Monica, where designer VTBS Architects is based. But in Oakland, settled in like a cruise ship docked near Interstate 580, it’s a welcome sight.

John King is The San Francisco Chronicle’s urban design critic. Email: Twitter: @johnkingsfchron

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