In 1893, the Ghirardelli family bought a sloping block of land bounded by North Point Street, Larkin Street, Beach Street and Polk Street in San Francisco, and constructed a red brick factory complex to carry on the chocolate making company founded by their ancestor, Domingo Ghirardelli in 1849. The factory complex was built between 1900 and 1916. The family enterprise was bought by the Golden Grain Macaroni Company in the early 1960s and moved to San Leandro, California.
The factory buildings were fine industrial structures, solidly built with well-executed brickwork. They were, however, decaying and the site was abandoned apart from a small segment for a limited continuing operation of the company. The site offered considerable potential for redevelopment. The centre of the complex was open to sunlight and to views of San Francisco Bay. The question then was what to do with it.
The financially rewarding option for a property developer would have been to demolish the factory and build apartment buildings on the site. The constraint was that the zoning code limited the height of buildings along the city's waterfront in order: (1) to prevent any obstruction of the view of the San Francisco Bay from Russian Hill and (2) to maintain the character of the city derived from its rolling topographical contours. Concerned that no public benefit would result from building an apartment complex, William Matson Roth, a public-spirited San Franciscan, and his mother purchased the block with the eye to renovating it. He hired the architectural firm of Wurster, Bernardi and Emmons to carry out a study of possible uses for the complex. In conjunction with landscape architects Lawrence Halprin and John Matthias they developed a program for the block and carried it out. It was a total renovation project.
The project was carried out in two phases. The first was completed in 1965, and with the departure of the remaining chocolate works, the second was finished in 1967. The problem was to fit in 68 retail
stores and 15 restaurants into the complex and to create on-site parking for 300 cars while retaining the open character of the square. Placing five levels of parking under the complex solved the parking problem (see Figure 6.16b). The retail stores and restaurants were placed around the square and the square itself was redesigned to contain an interwoven set of plazas, courtyards, and passages on a number of levels of the sloping site.
The renovated complex became a much-loved place well used by San Franciscans and tourists alike. Its economic success also created problems for it. It generated similar uses in the areas surrounding it that came to compete with it. It also, however, became an exemplar of what could be done with robust industrial buildings. In San Francisco itself Joseph Esherick and Associates renovated the nearby Cannery.
By the beginning of 1980, years of heavy use were beginning to take its toll and the demand for the type of retail outlets was changing. The Roths sold the complex to the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company and Real Estate West in 1982. These two organizations hired the Edward Plant Company, a retail leasing and development firm, to manage and upgrade the complex. The owners and consultants formed a team to develop, market and lease the development. William Roth suggested to the Plant organization that Benjamin Thompson and Associates of Cambridge, Massachusetts and Lanier, Sherrill, and Morrison, a San Francisco architectural firm, be hired to design the renovation.
Thompson was a commercial tenant of the square - his Design Research store was located there. He had also served on the honour awards jury of Progressive Architecture when Ghirardelli Square received a citation so he knew it well. Albert Lanier had long been an advisor to Roth. The design team's goal was to provide an environment that would increase the retailing activity on the site. Its objectives were: (1) to update the retailing image of the square, (2) to solve some of the intricate circulation problems created by the variety of levels of the building, (3) to eliminate some of the dead ends that made retailing difficult and (4) to create a 10,500-square-foot (980-square-metre) anchor store.
Shopfronts were redesigned to increase their visibility and modernize their image. Large hand-carved wooden signs and directory boards were introduced to aid way-finding, banners that flutter in the breeze provide some additional visual life to the setting, and neon lighting was introduced to selectively enliven the place. Meanwhile the brickwork was re-pointed, the roofs resurfaced and landscaping restored. All the changes had to be compatible, as deemed by San Francisco's Landmark Preservation Board, with the historic character of the area.
It was not only the design that was changed to enliven the square but also the administration. Special events such as art shows have become a regular feature of life there. New leasing arrangements were made to include more high-fashion stores to appeal to young people and, similarly, more casual outdoor restaurants were added. In short, the 'old-fashioned' image was replaced by a more 'festival market' one. In the space of 4 years the gross retail sales increased by 50% and net operating income by nearly 60%. Some observers decried the changes. Lawrence Halprin said 'They have Rousified the place' - the Rouse Corporation being a major suburban shopping mall developer. Perhaps the greatest success of the Square has, however, been its demonstration that decaying areas on the edge of central cities can be renovated with financial success provided the behaviour of the market is understood. Ghirardelli Square became a precedent that many other designs throughout the world have followed. Both major renovations there were carried out as total collaborative designs. Are renovation/redesign products such as Ghirardelli Square urban design projects? The square's rehabilitation was not a product of public policy-making. It could have been given the public interest concern of the Roths. It, however, was not!
Today (2004), the complex is finding it difficult to compete with the Cannery and with discount stores that offer similar goods at lower prices. Will it be changed yet again?
Attoe, Wayne and Donn Logan (1989). American Urban Architecture: Catalyst in the Design of Cities. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, xiii-iv.
Barnes, W. Anderson (1986). Ghirardelli Square:
keeping a first first. Urban Land45 (May): 6-10. Freeman, Allen (1986). 'Fine tuning' a landmark of adaptive use. Architecture 75 (11): 66-71.
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