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05.27.2009
Silver Spur
San Francisco's urban watchdog gets new home
The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association has finally found a home, designed by Pfau Long Architecture, as ambitious as its mission.
Keith Baker Photography

For 50 years, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) has been advocating sound planning through investigating local decisions, making counterproposals, and conducting community outreach. As of tomorrow, it will finally have a welcoming space to match its community-oriented goals. The new space (which replaces cramped offices on the upper floors of a building on Sutter Street downtown) not only projects light and openness, it also provides SPUR with a street-front space to host exhibitions, panels, and lectures.

Designed by local firm Pfau Long Architecture, the four-story, 14,000-square-foot headquarters is located on Mission Street in the South of Market neighborhood, just around the corner from SFMOMA. Its white, modern facade stands out on a block of traditional brick buildings. But the $8.5 million building still fits well within its context. It’s a simple whole made up of intricate parts, a crisscross of thin louvers, small, operable grid-like windows, clear expanses of glass, and glowing, translucent rectangles.

The unifier is the glass, particularly the large, vertically oriented translucent section that fronts the building’s stairwells, opening the space to its neighbors during the day and glowing at night. It also encourages locals to walk right in, where they’re greeted on the first floor with a tall, open space informally divided into a welcome hall, an exhibitions gallery, and a conference room.

All four floors are similarly tall, open, and pristine white, with exposed mechanical systems to increase height and keep the architecture honest. “People are desperate for ways to learn about having an impact on their city,” said Diane Filippi, the Urban Center’s director. “This new space will encourage them to come in and learn these skills.”

The new building has also changed SPUR itself, forcing employees to interact with people wandering in, and removing the cubicles that had once divided them. On the second floor, the open-plan space is divided only by a full-height glass wall that encloses the assembly hall, the new home for lectures, symposia, and other events.

Unlike its old assembly space, where columns obstructed views, this one is column-free. The open layout of the third floor offices is reminiscent of a newsroom. The fourth floor contains a conference area, library, and a small balcony, with a “green roof” that is more of a small patch of plants than a rooftop garden.

The first exhibition at the Center, which opens on May 29, is also ambitious. Called Agents of Change: Civic Idealism and the Making of San Francisco, the show documents the history of progressive urban planning in the city, featuring movements as varied as the classicists, the regionalists, the moderns, the contextualists, and the eco-urbanists.

SPUR has raised $13 million of the $18 million needed for the project; they hope to garner significant revenue from renting the space out, among other things. The building is seeking a LEED Silver rating, impressive for the rest of the country but only a middling rating for eco-crazy San Francisco. Overall, however, the building is a triumph, not just architecturally but socially. It boasts a collection of the best traits of architecture centers around the world, constantly connected to the city with no walls in its way.

Sam Lubell