Safe and Sound

Safe and Sound

We are at a moment where the relationship between law enforcement agencies and communities is under increasing scrutiny. While nationwide news outlets report the tensions and conflicts, a new Public Safety Building campus quietly opened in San Francisco’s Mission Bay district this past April, just two blocks from AT&T Park.

Jointly designed by HOK and Mark Cavagnero Associates, the project houses multiple law enforcement departments for the city: the police headquarters, a district police station, and a fire station—in one building—along with the Arson Task Force and a community meeting room in a renovated 1928 historic fire house that faces Mission Rock Street.

“We needed to respond to the district and impact to the neighborhood in a positive and constructive way, through an evolving discourse between the police and the neighborhood homeowners associations to minimize negative impacts,” said architect Charles Higueras of the San Francisco Department of Public Works, who co-managed the project, including construction, interiors, and the restoration of the historic fire station.

In 2010, 79 percent of voters approved the $412 million Earthquake Safety and Emergency Response (ESER) bond, which funded the $243 million Public Safety campus project. A “two-percent-for-art” city initiative funded both public art installations on campus, overseen by the San Francisco Arts Commission.


Spiral of Gratitude, by artist Shimon Attie with Vale Bruck is a glass sky-lit memorial. A poem honoring fallen officers is etched into the glass cylinder. “Let us turn together in this circle of remembrance as the light shines through our words” the poem begins. The public plaza designed by Paul Kos also features art installations, with an over 20,000-pound bell, a star, and a conifer, respectively representing the city firefighters, police, and paramedics.

The six-story Public Safety Building clocks in close to 300,000 square feet, which is more than 40 times the size of the historic fire station.

Trying to navigate this difference in scale posed a challenge. “It was about getting the right balance to not overwhelm the civic space,” said Paul Woolford, design principal at HOK’s San Francisco office.

“We wanted to evoke a symbol of civic pride, we wanted it to be beautiful, inviting,” said Mark Cavagnero, founder and principal of Mark Cavagnero Associates. “And enduring,” added Woolford.

The building is adjacent to future development sites. The lots to the east and west will be affordable housing. If approved by voters, the San Francisco Giants will develop the northern lot as part of their office and residential Mission Rock project that is set to include an over 200-foot-tall tower.

One way to create a connection between the building and its context, explained Cavagnero, was to bring the dark surface of the plaza into the main lobby of the building.

The two 65-foot-wide wings of the Public Safety Building are narrower than traditional office building floor plates. “We wanted to maximize natural daylight. No one is more than 30 feet from a window,” said Woolford. The building incorporates expansive glazing on the east and west sides to evoke a feeling of transparency, which includes a fritted pattern to minimize glare. A zinc screen wraps the building from north to south to also help decrease heat gain. The screen also creates an air space above the roof to hide mechanical equipment. “It’s like a modern day architrave,” remarked Cavagnero.

Another obstacle was designing for the extensive U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) safety requirements. The architects couldn’t go into specifics for security reasons, but they said that the building must withstand both earthquakes and other impacts, whether natural or human-caused. The building is blast resistant and bollards line the property to prevent car ramming. “We had very unusual [security] requirements and we had to make them disappear so you’re not looking at a fortress,” said Woolford.

Designing for the unstable site was difficult. “We had to build in mud,” said Sam Chui, an architect with the Department of Public Works and co-manager of the project and construction. The groundwater is four to five feet below street level. The foundation took one year to build and required 230 piles, 210 feet below grade.

Chui also discussed two other challenges: one was ensuring maximum dependability and durability. With an earthquake or other event, the building will need to be reliable off the grid, providing potable water, and enough energy, power, and also sewage management for four days.

The project also includes underground parking for over 200 cars, which eliminates the double parked, and at times, triple parked police cars that were the norm at the mid-century Hall of Justice on Bryant Street, the former police headquarters and southern district police station built in the 1950s. The Hall of Justice did not meet seismic safety or modern day work requirements and renovating was out of the question, said Higueras, as it would have put the cost at an exorbitant $1 billion.