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June 2019: Making Great Urban Places


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Midway Bayshore in Daly City. Image: David Baker Architects

DBA Urban Design enriches and builds neighborhoods driven by communities instead of guidelines.

June 2019

Urban design is inherently part of the DBA design process. Whenever we start a new project, we look for ways to improve the site and closely consider how buildings can define and shape their neighborhood. More recently we have taken on larger projects which have a neighborhood planning component to them, and even projects that focus on an overall masterplan and relationships between buildings and public space rather than a single building.

When it comes to urban design, we have two approaches:

  • enriching neighborhoods 
     
  • building neighborhoods
     

I know, these sound the same, but there is a difference between building a neighborhood and enriching one with buildings. Hear me out:

In most architectural projects, we are enriching neighborhoods. The zoning is set, the easements exist, the street right-of-way is defined, and even if the scope covers multiple buildings or multiple blocks, those urban parameters are in place. When we are enriching neighborhoods, we focus on creating great streetscapes, walkable blocks with ground-floor interest, and privileging pedestrians and cyclists over cars. We try to think about designing places that we would want to live in, would feel safe walking in, and where we can always find a bike rack near the front door.

On the other hand, when we are building neighborhoods, many of those urban parameters are not set. There may be a street grid that dead-ends into the site, but no proposed connection, or a general plan streetscape section that does not fit the community scale and character. That’s where DBA Urban Design comes into play—we think at the larger urban scale, looking at site connections, transportation needs, streetscape scale, and of course, neighborhood input and feeling.

When building neighborhoods, we want to create well-loved places that last generations, places that serve both existing needs and future ones. In both modes of urban design, we believe that the right design moves can act as multipliers of good and set a neighborhood up for success throughout its evolution. There are a few ways that we do this.

Enriching Neighborhoods

DBA has always considered urban design a significant part of building design, and it has become especially important as we have taken on larger projects—such as Potrero 1010 and 855 Brannan—that occupy a full city block and have the potential to redefine the neighborhoods they are in.

Our design process for these types of projects begins by learning from the site and existing communities. We give extra attention to the interface between new and existing construction, street-level feel, and providing flexibility for buildings to change over their lifetime.

Buildings should influence a wider population than just their residents, and we work by framing active urban places through building design. Buildings can also be designed to create porosity and interconnectivity within the street fabric. By re-weaving urban fabric that has been ignored or underutilized, we can improve neighborhood connectivity and make places that feel safe, walkable, and vibrant.

Potrero 1010 replaces an irregular disused industrial site with 453 new homes and a 1-acre public park. Image: Bruce Damonte

Tassafaronga Village: We connected isolated local amenities, including the library, school, and city park, with new landscaped paths and traffic-calmed roads. Image: David Baker Architects

It is critical to prioritize active building uses—such as neighborhood-serving retail and residential stoops—at the ground floor to make buildings more public and able to be enjoyed by neighbors, residents, and visitors alike. By focusing our early design energy and attention on building interface and neighborhood design, we create buildings that grow with their communities and become a significant part of the larger urban fabric.

Setting the building back from the property line allows 300 Ivy to offer a generous pedestrian experience. Image: Bruce Damonte

Building Neighborhoods

DBA’s larger-scale neighborhood planning projects represent a growing part of our practice. These projects give us the chance to make a greater impact by creating the framework for a neighborhood to grow over time. Instead of focusing on how a single building interfaces with its surroundings, we make sure that those surroundings are great places to interface with, and that building scale, street scale, and neighborhood character feel both appropriate and progressive. This means careful consideration to sidewalk widths, block sizes, open space layout, distribution of amenities, and neighborhood connectivity—just to name a few.

The RESHAP Alameda plan includes walkable blocks, diverse affordable housing and services, and a range of open spaces including an urban farm. Image: David Baker Architects

We do “people-first design,” which means we place emphasis on designing at the human scale, while keeping the urban context and the larger neighborhood in mind. We focus on creating walkable blocks and streets, active building edges, identity-rich neighborhoods, and on involving the local community to help residents feel part of new development. Increasing neighborhood density is a big component of successful urban design. 

Density is very important in places like the Bay Area, where there is a lot of pressure to maximize development potential and housing production. Using density strategically can help activate and add vibrancy to cities. But density needs to be carefully considered in terms of how it relates to the human experience of the streetscape. It is important to consider the relationship of building massing to pedestrian experience, and to find the right balance between the two.

The RESHAP Alameda Point community center, central plaza, and urban farm. Image: David Baker Architects

Neighborhood Advocacy

At DBA we work in the same communities where we live. Our work directly affects our everyday lives—a constant reminder of how it may affect yours, too—and we are involved in both short and long-term projects to improve the city. At the urban scale we have an opportunity to both enrich neighborhoods and build neighborhoods.

Interactive design exercises help us to learn about community needs, desires, and how they think about future development. Image: David Baker Architects

Learning Through Doing

What sets DBA apart is our ability to incrementally change neighborhoods and learn through building. Decades of creating housing developments in diverse urban environments has given us a deep understanding of how buildings positively affect neighborhoods and vice versa, and the cumulative impact of DBA’s built work has shaped the streets and activated communities. We regularly revisit and study our buildings to understand their impact within the urban realm and how they change over time. 

Reweaving the urban fabric: 388 Fulton (left) and Richardson Apartments (right) present complementary curved forms on adjacent sites that were freed for development after an earthquake damaged San Francisco's Central Freeway. Image: Bruce Damonte

On the Boards

We are currently working on two exciting large-scale projects the Midway Village Redevelopment and RESHAP Alameda Point. Midway Village is a plan for a neighborhood of 555 new affordable homes across 15.5 acres in Daly City, replacing and adding density and services to the 150 existing residences. A collaboration with MidPen Housing and the San Mateo County Housing Authority, the plan also includes a 3.3 acre park, a neighborhood-serving childcare center, and a community center. We have completed the development site plan, and we're now desiging the first phase of the new homes.

RESHAP Alameda Point is the redevelopment of 10 acres on a former naval air station on the west end of the Alameda island. This unique collaboration between with MidPen Housing and three local nonprofit organization—Alameda Point Collaborative, Building Futures with Women and Children, and Operation Dignity—will house up to 267 families. The project will move forward in tandem with an adjacent market-rate development that will help create a new vibrant mixed-income community in Alameda.

It is a natural extension for DBA to move more explicitly into neighborhood design and continue to positively impact our surroundings. We have been enriching neighborhoods for years, and are excited to be building neighborhoods with the growing DBA Urban Design studio. 

Three development blocks within the larger Hunters View master plan, Hunters View Phase 2 includes a hilltop community hub with a neighborhood-serving child development center and a range of affordable family housing stepping down the steep sites along new and reconnected roads. Image: Bruce Damonte

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As DBA’s new Urban Design Lead, Associate Laura Williams is excited to bring her background in urban design and planning, as well as architecture, to build new neighborhoods and positively impact the experience of the Bay Area and beyond through the built environment. You can contact Laura here.

Midway Bayshore in Daly City. Image: David Baker Architects

Potrero 1010 replaces an irregular disused industrial site with 453 new homes and a 1-acre public park. Image: Bruce Damonte

Tassafaronga Village: We connected isolated local amenities, including the library, school, and city park, with new landscaped paths and traffic-calmed roads. Image: David Baker Architects

Setting the building back from the property line allows 300 Ivy to offer a generous pedestrian experience. Image: Bruce Damonte

The RESHAP Alameda plan includes walkable blocks, diverse affordable housing and services, and a range of open spaces including an urban farm. Image: David Baker Architects

The RESHAP Alameda Point community center, central plaza, and urban farm. Image: David Baker Architects

Interactive design exercises help us to learn about community needs, desires, and how they think about future development. Image: David Baker Architects

Reweaving the urban fabric: 388 Fulton (left) and Richardson Apartments (right) present complementary curved forms on adjacent sites that were freed for development after an earthquake damaged San Francisco's Central Freeway. Image: Bruce Damonte

Three development blocks within the larger Hunters View master plan, Hunters View Phase 2 includes a hilltop community hub with a neighborhood-serving child development center and a range of affordable family housing stepping down the steep sites along new and reconnected roads. Image: Bruce Damonte