(Editor’s note: This is part of a series of architectural commentaries and critiques that will run in San Diego Uptown News every other issue. The opinions are those of the author.)
By Eric Domeier
Location: North Park Way and Grim Avenue, North Park
Architect: Foundation for Form, Golden Hill
Project type: 33-unit apartment building (studios, one- and two-bedrooms)
North Park Post Office (NPPO) is one of the newest kids on the block. It was a challenging and unpopular project for some of the community, but its benchmark qualities and future commercial vitality will make it a welcome addition to our growing neighborhood.
NPPO is brought to us by modern-design stalwarts Foundation for Form. Both architect and developer, Foundation for Form exercised its design talent without client-imposed limitation. Nonetheless, city of San Diego Historical Resources exercised their authority in some surprising ways to influence the final outcome.
The owners of the 33-unit apartment complex have achieved 100% occupancy. A lease deal has been recently struck with Tribute Pizza for the ground-floor commercial space.
Built around North Park’s recently closed U.S. Post Office, the project is best described as “outside the box.” While at its core the buildings are fundamentally plaster shoeboxes, Foundation implemented a sunscreen system to texturize and energize the building facades.
The project is evaluated for three qualities: community impact, design concept and effective sheltering.
With 33 units, Foundation is providing much-needed middle-income housing to North Park. Units range in size from 316 to 1,033 square feet.
At 25,000 square feet, the scale of the project is in alignment with the city zoning code. A medium-density zoning area, Foundation was actually allowed to build another 6,000 square feet. Similar-sized projects along North Park Way can be expected.
The post office has not been deemed a historic structure. Nonetheless the city’s Historic Review Department took a heavy hand with the designers. Preventing construction over the post office, the taller and more massive portions of the building are pushed south and east on the lot. As a result, the building towers over its neighbors in an oppressive manner.
Regarding the now defunct post office, the signage for the former tenant remains. This has created some confusion. To clarify: USPS collection boxes remain in operation, but the post office is closed.
The designers forwarded a strong idea about urban living and contextual form. The building creates a bookend at an otherwise dull intersection. With sweeping metal façade panels, diminishing courtyard spaces and off-grid stair paths, they desired to communicate the “complexity of the realities.” These are strong concepts and have been effectively executed in the building layout, site design and façade.
But just beyond the façade panels, there is great deal of irresolution. Many of the finer details fall short of full resolution.
Underneath the metal panels, the underlying buildings are without any significant relief and read flatly. Windows do not have sufficient depth to support the concept of layered complexity. Where a good wall-to-roof transition may have three or four steps of relief, those at NPPO feel clumsy and sudden.
Stair railings look as if they suffered last-minute value-engineering. They are a visually noisy element without precedent on the project. Two pop-out balconies are clad in vibrant sheet metal, a successful thought. But this thought does not resonate with other design elements.
In some views, the metal panels frame scenes of excessively busy lines over starkly flat elevations. The resulting project represents a great idea with mediocre resolution. While the designers have demonstrated excellent resolution in other projects, these issues may be the result of budgetary restrictions.
It is assumed that the building was designed and built in compliance with current code. If so, the building does not leak in the rain and will stand up in an earthquake.
But beyond code requirements, the building has certain details that are not as durable as they could be. Plate-steel guard rails and unit-gates are flimsy and will likely require significant maintenance or replacement within five years.
In addition to providing environmental shelter, a building needs to also provide emotional and psychological shelter. This is done through good interior planning and design of effective buffer zones. NPPO effectively satisfies these requirements.
The project is arranged around a central courtyard. Open to the adjacent streets, the area maintains an atmosphere of privacy and exclusion. The first layer of separation from the public sphere, stairs and breezeways come out of and circulate over this space. The result is a sufficiently complex entry sequence to allow the mind to separate from the public sphere.
Unit floor levels are typically above street level, accentuating the separation between private-public. Walkways and entries maintain good sight lines of the public areas providing visual security for the occupants. Unit privacy is respectful to both occupant and public. These residents are not on display and can assume a certain level of repose while in their homes.
On balance, NPPO is a good project. An occupied commercial space will synergize with neighbor Hess Brewery. The critical eye is nonplussed by some of the finer details but the project will mature in time. Foundation has set a bold precedent for future development on these city blocks. It will be interesting to watch as NPPO influences new projects and becomes framed in a future context.
—Eric Domeier lives in North Park and practices architecture from his Grim Avenue office. Visit his website at dome-arch.com or call him at 619-531-0010.