A few blocks from San Francisco’s Financial District and the tech wealth of SOMA is the Tenderloin, the city’s densest neighborhood, where the homeless line up for free meals, and many low-income tenants live in windowless rooms. Boeddeker Park, redesigned by WRNS Studio, serves as a desperately needed escape valve for the neighborhood. The one-acre square of greenery is flanked by SROs, a mission, and a school. Named for a respected pastor, Father Alfred E. Boeddeker, it was known colloquially as “Prison Park” for its maze of fences, which provided cover for drug deals and muggings. Dead bodies were found there and locals were fearful of venturing inside.
As with Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan, a few simple moves transformed a menace into a magnet. The Trust for Public Land, the San Francisco Department of Recreation and Parks, and the architects of WRNS Studio consulted with neighbors and community groups to reimagine the park as an amenity for a wide spectrum of users. For WRNS Partner Bryan Shiles, the key improvement was to replace the old clubhouse—which he described as a closed and defensive bunker—with a light-filled, L-plan structure that creates a sense of place and symbolizes the uplifting spirit of the re-landscaped park. Its 4,000 square feet include a meeting room, an all-purpose recreation space, restrooms, offices, and storage. Shiles stretched a modest budget to raise the roof—sharply angled gables provide volume and skylights while serving as a heat chimney for the naturally ventilated interior. The ground floor is expansively glazed, and the upper level is clad in zinc panels. A porch opens up to one corner of the park. Interior walls are tiled for easy maintenance, and the building achieves a high level of sustainability with its solar panels, geothermal heating, operable windows, and recycled materials that include shredded denim insulation.
The landscaping was as important as the architecture in making the park feel safe and accessible to a diversity of users. The forbidding steel of the boundary fence was replaced by green chain-link that almost disappears from 20 feet away. A broad entry path ascends to the clubhouse, another encircles the lawn, and a third winds through an intimate garden to a sheltered corner that has become a favorite retreat for seniors. These concrete-paved paths knit the park together as a whole while demarcating its varied amenities.
On a typical day, the park is alive with tai chi classes, kids shooting hoops on the basketball court, and people of all ages using the exercise equipment. Equally important is its role as an oasis of grass and trees, a place to rest in an environment that has become safe because it is so open and intensively used. It is a model urban intervention, shaped by and for the community, in stark contrast to the over-designed, underused Pershing Square in downtown LA, which falls short of its potential. Every city needs refuges of this kind, and the sustainable features of the park and its edible garden provide lessons for park-goers who return home to their own backyard. WRNS (which worked pro bono on Boeddeker) collaborated with the same partners to design the Hayes Valley Playground in another densely settled city neighborhood, and their success should encourage similar developments throughout San Francisco and beyond.