South S.F. transit village is a nothingBy John King
According to the jargon and buzzwords of planning today, South San Francisco's new Solaire transit village should be heaven on earth.
No such luck. It is an architectural purgatory and a cautionary tale.
The basic moves are great: Three and four-story buildings filled with apartments and retail space are on busy El Camino Real instead of somewhere on the region's outskirts. There's a BART station next door, and 70 of the 361 apartments are reserved for lower-income residents. There's even a Trader Joe's, a grocery chain of cultlike status.
But this showcase of so-called smart growth comes packaged in the most generic structures imaginable, an inept cross between Stanford University and Orange County. The best thing about Solaire is that, with luck, it will be a wake-up call to other cities -- reminding them that the quality of what gets built is every bit as important as the planning theories involved.
That's why this otherwise-forgettable project deserves attention. There are more Solaires headed our way.
Local governments see mixed-use projects as a way to steer growth into older suburbs and cities. The idea is that housing and shops should be next to buses and trains, so residents can leave their cars at home or not own one at all.
Enlightened planners and politicians understand something else: Density can be a virtue. A stylish, well-built district can enrich a terrain once defined by shopping centers and housing tracts.
A logical place for this sort of growth is at BART stations such as the one that opened in South San Francisco in 2002. So the year before, the city rezoned the land around it to allow extra height and density. Another goal is to create "a safe, convenient and walkable environment for residents, employees and visitors to the area," according to the plan by San Francisco firm Van Meter Williams Pollack.
Solaire is the first project to go up near the station. It also will be the largest, filling 7 acres on either side of McLellan Drive between BART and El Camino Real. Storefronts along McLellan are buffered from traffic by wide sidewalks and diagonal parking; along El Camino, ground-floor apartments come with their own individual stoops, a nice domestic touch.
Though the height and scale go beyond the suburban norm, Solaire doesn't feel overwhelming. Quite the contrary -- you can imagine a semiurban district growing up around BART, tying together older neighborhoods to the east and west.
But to play this urbane role, a transit village should be a highlight of the landscape. And highlight isn't a word that describes the project erected by Fairfield Residential, a San Diego company with projects in 13 states.
The buildings read as what they are: horizontal containers in three shades of beige. To break up the tedium there are crude bays here and there -- some topped with cartoonish cornices -- and underneath the bays are storefronts executed with the sort of care normally reserved for a suburban garage.
The issue here isn't architectural style, or that the buildings don't look modern. The problem is that they don't look like anything at all. They're forms wrapped in plywood and then sprayed in stucco.
By all accounts, Solaire never hit a groove.
An official at Fairfield Residential said the company is "very pleased with the way it looks" but admits there was a tough process. The architects for Fairfield, San Francisco firm Kwan Henmi, describe a design concept blurred by second-guessing each step of the way.
Once construction started, city planners battled with Fairfield as the firm changed design details on the fly. For example, windows on the corner bay of each building were designed to be deeper and wider than what got built.
This doesn't sound like a big deal, but it ends up giving the corners a two-dimensional appearance.
Similarly, the storefronts are trimmed with tile, almost the only hint of added expense. But the tile stops 1 to 3 inches above the sidewalk at various spots, making it appear as though the building is levitating.
"Purely on a site planning basis, it follows what we planned. In terms of how it looks, we're not particularly thrilled with what's there," said Mike Lappen, a South San Francisco planner. "The city had higher expectations in terms of the quality of the construction."
Honestly, there are worse new projects in the Bay Area than Solaire. But this isn't a barebones strip center behind a parking lot, or entry-level housing off a distant freeway exit. It's a large complex on a major artery in the heart of the region.
Transit villages can be more than a gimmick: They can be enduring places that evolve and thrive. But if the end result is more projects like Solaire, the only people who benefit will be the residents upstairs.
Copyright ©2007 San Francisco Chronicle. Published 05/30/2007.