Community Weighs in on Parnassus Development Plans

Sunday, April 18, 2021

The first caller was an architect who lived on Clayton Street. He lived within walking distance of the hospital, and he had a comment to make.

“I heard so many good things tonight,” he said, his voice slightly rippled over the computer.

“But when I saw some of the images, I just — I cannot put those two together. So, if nothing else, what I ask of you is, when you work on this hospital, please forget about doing a masterpiece.

“Do a building that belongs to the campus, that belongs to the community, and that respects the forest. That’s all. Thank you very much.”

It was just the first of several thoughts that the audience had about the project. Slated to take thirty years, the Comprehensive Parnassus Heights Plan, or CPHP, aims to transform, or “revitalize,” the UCSF Parnassus campus. And it promises several changes, including renovation of the existing structures, expansion of Aldea housing, and construction of a new hospital building at the Helen Diller Medical Center.

Held on February 16, 2021, the first community engagement Zoom meeting for the new hospital began with an hourlong presentation. Project members and architects shared tentative ideas for the building, providing the audience with a general overview of their vision. They then opened the floor to questions and comments from the more than 300 community members in attendance.

The thoughts that followed were varied, ranging from inquiries about the building’s effects on high winds, to concerns about the plans’ abilities to facilitate adequate social distancing. However, few were possibly as major as some other opinions that had recently surfaced within the neighborhood. Over the past few months, the CPHP has caused quite a stir within some community groups, such as the Parnassus Neighborhood Coalition, who are filing lawsuits against the project. They claim that the expansion may cause increased crowding, housing shortages, and severe pollution, among other repercussions.

Additionally, they state that UCSF is reneging on a promise it made in 1976 to keep from expanding any further. The groups’ proposed alternatives include moving the expansion efforts to other less-considered areas, such as Mount Zion, Mission Bay, and the Shipyard at Hunters Point.

It is currently unclear how UCSF plans to respond to these legal actions.

Inside the chat box, someone wanted to know if the new hospital would have a helipad.

No — at least, as of now, it wasn’t planned.

Fifteen minutes later, a woman unmuted herself and launched straight into her question. San Franciscans were pro-environment, she said. Over time, the heavy usage of freshwater had led to the extinctions of entire species, and to the collapsing of ecosystems in the Delta. How would construction and post-construction of the new hospital building respect the needs to conserve water?

There were no clear answers to that right now. But sustainability was a top priority, the project planners assured her. An engineering team dedicated to the project would figure out the details around conservation.

A few more callers down the line, a man introduced himself as a surgeon who worked at the hospital. His wife was a faculty member, and they lived just nearby. The initial design of the new hospital looked “gorgeous,” he began by praising.

But it looked like they were building a massive inpatient facility. Was all of that really necessary, especially with ambulatory care on the rise during the pandemic? Were they overbuilding?

They answered his question. Long story short — yes, they believed every bit of the planned space was needed. So no, they were not overbuilding.

“In terms of open space, we’re more than doubling the campus open space,” said Lily Wong, Associate Director of Community Relations, who managed the project’s external community engagement.

“This also includes making it more walkable, like having streetscapes and better wayfinding — one of the goals is to make the campus a lot more accessible and understandable. And in terms of transportation, our goal is actually to be a transit-first campus, so we’re trying our best to get people out of their cars and into public transportation.”

Adding passenger loading hubs on Irving Street, creating new public spaces such as a rooftop terrace, and seismically upgrading the Parnassus campus are just some of the proposed changes for the already existent hospital.

However, the new hospital building at Helen Diller is evidently an even bigger point of interest. Set to open in 2030, it aims to materialize the vision of a “healing habitat,” a space intertwined with nature to foster healing and wellness.

Switzerland-based architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, which also designed the de Young Museum, is in charge of designing the new hospital. Rather than conform to the “institutional” look common among healthcare buildings, they have chosen to pursue a “softer,” more inviting appearance.

According to them, the new hospital should integrate with its surroundings and connect with the natural environment. But at the same time, it still needs to fulfill all the functional duties expected of a hospital, while respecting mass and size limits.

It is a challenging endeavor, but the firm has some ideas in mind already. To minimize the dreaded “monolithic” look, for example, they plan to segment the building façade into slabs that taper towards the top.

This will not only reduce the perceived scale from the street, but also form the illusion of “stepping along,” or blending, with the surroundings. And as for connecting with nature, they propose to extend and bring the forest into the planned sixth level Mount Sutro Promenade. This will ideally create a green walking space, inviting both the hospital and broader public community into a “healing habitat.”

Ultimately, the goal is to welcome, not to intimidate.

“I hope that as this project evolves, people see it as a building that shifts away from the old hospital view, [and see] how care is integrated into architecture,” said Jason Frantzen, senior partner of Herzog & de Meuron, in the community engagement Zoom meeting for the new hospital.

“We believe that architecture can have a real impact on the healing process to make spaces that people feel comfortable in, and to make spaces that are great for the staff to connect people to nature. It’s a lot of thinking to go through and understand how to impact the health experience and treatment, and to hopefully try to make a paradigm shift in the way that architects think about hospitals.”

Clearly, plans for the building, as well as the overall CPHP, are already well underway. However, the aim is to create an “iterative” process that constantly evolves. Therefore, the development begins with a concept, and then consistently incorporates ideas from both project and community members as it moves forward. The result is a dialogue that represents as many perspectives as possible, and that allows the community’s voices to be heard at the forefront.

In order for this to happen, the community engagement process began early. It started in 2018 with a trilingual survey of the neighboring communities around Parnassus.

Over a thousand community members answered questions about their struggles, experiences, and activities within the Parnassus area, thus giving an initial sense of what needed the most attention.

The external community engagement team then created a working group of community leaders to advise and develop the CPHP, leading into a second community engagement process. Eventually, this culminated in a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, with the city and council of San Francisco.

Additionally, regular meetings open to the public allowed for real-time dialogue between community members and project leaders. After presenting their plans, project members would then shift the focus to attendees for questions and concerns.

Answers to some of the queries would not be apparent until much later, but it was a valuable opportunity for community ideas to enter the picture.

“We had a lot of community members talk about their experiences being patients, or alumni of UCSF — all of these ways that UCSF has impacted their lives,” said Wong.

She recounted a particularly memorable example. A community member had described a special plaque on campus that he would visit often to remember the plaque’s honored figure. Concerned that it would be lost during construction, he urged planners to maintain the plaque, and to place it somewhere visible, so that he could still find it in the future.

“So, as we execute this vision of the Parnassus Heights campus,” said Wong, “we want to make sure that we don’t lose sight of all of this history that the Parnassus campus has, and its importance to our neighbors.”

The possible loss of familiar campus features was not the community’s only concern. Other concerns included construction-related disruption, such as noise problems and traffic inconveniences.

City regulations, such as one that prohibits tower cranes on public roads after 6 am, may mitigate some of these issues. Moreover, the external community engagement team alerts the neighbors in advance of any construction activity to minimize unwelcome surprises.

However, other concerns, such as the CPHP’s impacts on water and nature conservation, still do not have solid answers. Expanding more of the campus underground also continues to be a topic of debate.

Despite these uncertainties, though, community engagement remains key throughout the CPHP’s timeline, with repeated emphasis on evolving through community input.

“I’m a community-based person,” said Wong.“In my experience before UCSF, a lot of the time, plans are just created without any consideration, or with very little consideration, of the day-to-day impact on our neighbors.

“But for this particular project, overall, I’m seeing that UCSF constantly wants to engage with the community. And it recognizes that people may not all be urban planners, but they have their own experiences, and that in itself has value.”