Apartment project rises to the challenge in Mission Bay

A view of Mercy Housing at 1180 Fourth St. in San Francisco from across Mission Creek. Picture originally captured by Liz Hafalia|San Francisco Chronicle
A view of Mercy Housing at 1180 Fourth St. in San Francisco from across Mission Creek.
Picture originally captured by Liz Hafalia|San Francisco Chronicle

The best buildings resonate in more than one way. They connect on several levels, trigger more than one smile in response.

Which explains our visit today to 1180 Fourth Street, the newest and perhaps most satisfying residential piece of San Francisco’s Mission Bay.

Architecturally, the six-story wedge of 150 apartments adds an assertive spark in a young district with too many boilerplate buildings. At ground level it’s engaging, a pleasure even before the generous retail spaces are filled. There’s a social payoff as well: The units are reserved for low-income families, adding youth to the neighborhood scene.

None of this is by chance, and it shows how planning priorities can translate to good city building — especially when determination and creativity are added to the mix.

The first step was the decision long ago to reserve the site for affordable housing. It’s a prime location fronting a park where Mission Creek is crossed by Fourth Street, the entryway to the 200-acre-plus southern part of the Mission Bay redevelopment district established in 1998. Setting it aside for lower-income residents was a symbolic reminder that economic integration should be pursued when and where it makes sense. But a well-meaning gesture isn’t the same as a well-done piece of architecture. That’s where smart design comes in.

The architectural effort was led by Daniel Solomon and Owen Kennerly, whose relationship goes back to the 1990s when the latter was a UC Berkeley student and an employee of the former. Kennerly now has one of the most visually inventive small firms in the city; Solomon, whose firm merged in 2012 with Seattle-based Mithun, is known for his fusion of architecture and urbanism that often is aimed at helping to strengthen battered communities.


For this project the two were paired by Mercy Housing California, the nonprofit developer, and the city’s Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure, which oversees the growth of Mission Bay.

“We wanted something that recognized the importance of the site, its relationship to the park and its role as a portal,” said Pedro Arce, a staff architect for the city. “We felt there was a need for an eye-catching element.”

That’s not as easy as it sounds, given the requirements for the 1.4-acre parcel. Most of the site is zoned for six stories, stepping down to five on the west. There’s a restaurant space at the northeast corner, framed by the apartment lobby on Fourth Street and a recessed entrance to the tenant courtyard that faces the creek. The west edge of the complex lines a pedestrian alley designed by landscape architect Gary Strang, with individual apartments along the way.

The architects responded to the broad, bulky dimensions with the same approach taken by others in Mission Bay — by using different materials and facade treatments to try and make a single chunk feel like a collage of distinct parts. The difference here is that the sleight-of-hand works.

Not only does the wedge-shaped corner facing the creek step up to form a prow, but 4-foot-deep sun shades of perforated metal add a gauzy depth that shifts with the light. The prow is given extra impact by topping it off with the building’s mechanical systems, so that the roofline is 82 feet.

The west half of the complex is skinned in deep stucco at super graphic scale, giving the surface the rhythm of jagged zigzags. At the southeast corner, the turn from Fourth to Long Branch street has a streamlined look with horizontal bands of smooth white stucco that give it an almost nautical feel.

But the big moves are delivered with conviction, so it’s not simply an array of wallpaper patterns. There’s also a surprising delicacy in such touches as the way the recessed entrance facing the creek is marked by a sundial-like oculus cut into the canopy. Or the shots of orange here and there as vertical touches amid window patterns.

Just a touch

“Orange is one of those colors that’s like a spice, like paprika,” Kennerly said. “You don’t need to use much to bring out the flavor.”

Architecture isn’t the only story here, of course.

Whatever you think of Mission Bay’s boxy ambiance, the city and citizen watchdogs deserve praise for insisting on a mix of affordability levels from the beginning, and then structuring the district’s economics to make it happen. Nor is the diversity confined to price levels. While 1180 Fourth is home to more than 200 children, Mercy Housing also built the low-income housing complex across the creek that has a public library and Philz Coffee on the ground floor.

As with its older sibling to the north, 1180 Fourth St. serves a larger population than the residents inside. All of Mission Bay benefits by the addition of a building that’s worth a second look, that adds distinction to the landscape. And with luck, it will raise the bar for other developers, architects and decision-makers across the Bay Area.

This article was originally posted by John King| San Francisco Chronicle
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