Tranquility in an Intersection: The Castro Commons
I’m often most pleased with a garden project when once completed it feels like it’s always been that way: the flow and energy of the space seem natural. “Castro Commons” (also named Jane Warner Plaza after a long serving Castro SFPD patrol officer) has really settled in nicely. It takes only a moment’s sunshine to have all the seats filled with chatting neighborhood friends.
The project was completed in 2010 by a team headed by Andres Power, urban designer with the SF Planning Department, as part of the city’s “Pavement to Parks” program. We collaborated with Seth Boor of Boor Bridges Architecture , who did the overall space design, Nibbi General Contractors, and Paul Cesewski who fabricated marvelous wheeled gates.
ABOVE: Leucadendron ‘Jester’, Aloe striata, Aeonium zwartkop, Chamaerops humilis (Mediterranean fan palm) Cordyline ‘pink champaign’, Olea europaea, Brachychiton populneus
ABOVE:Leucadendron ‘Jester’ and Chamerops humilis in the planters, which also serve as benches.
The Pavement to Parks project seek to temporarily reclaim unused swaths of concrete and quickly and inexpensively turn them into new public plazas and parks. In 2009, Public Architecture designed a plaza for the confusing and dangerous intersection where Castro, Market, and 17th streets all meet. The plaza was installed for the minuscule budget of $20k. The materials used were all selected to define the space as cheaply as possible. The plaza was an instant hit.
When we began working with Boor Bridges Architecture to create a more permanent plaza, the financial crisis was in full effect, and there is no way the city could spend millions to rework this intersection completely, so our task was to create a more permanent-feeling space, still working with a very, very tight budget.
The space has a ton of limitations, more than you can see by just looking at it. There are setbacks for the trains, access requirements for the wires overhead, and the necessity to retain passage for decommissioned train tracks that run through the space in case of an emergency in the Twin Peaks Tunnel. In the final design, we have covered almost every inch of space that was not off-limits for one reason or another.
It was clear to both Seth and me that we needed mass. Although people were happily sunning themselves in the plaza whenever they could, all agreed that there was still the feeling that you were just sitting in the street. Part of the appeal of the site is that you are indeed in the middle of an intersection, making it a great people-watching or meeting spot. But the site felt exposed and you couldn’t escape the feeling that you should not relax entirely.
Also, being in the middle of an intersection, you are surrounded by concrete and hardness on every side, and so I felt that introducing some real earth into the plaza would make it feel more relaxing. Seth’s design for the concrete planters uses them to define the edges of the space and create seating, and of course we filled the plaza with plants to give a garden feel.
Since 2009, the Pavement to Parks project has transformed the city, adding beautiful places to rest in streets all over the city. We’ve had the pleasure of helping to design plantscapes for many of them.
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