BART 24th & Mission Street Station SW Plaza – Circles, Light and Totems

Location: 24th & Mission Street, San Francisco, California
Client: Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART)
Cost of Project: $2.5 Million
Design Services: Architecture
Project Type: Placemaking, Parks & Open Space, Community, Public, Plaza
Design Team: Architecture – Robin Chiang & Company (RCC)
Landscape Architecture – Haygood & Associates
Electrical, Mechanical – YEI Engineers
Prime, Civil, Structural – URS Corporation

The 24th and Mission plaza (24M) is a celebrated centerpiece of the Mission neighborhood in San Francisco, host to weekend vendors and performances representative of the multicultural neighborhood that may not otherwise find a venue. Before the improvements, drug deals, crime, abuse, loitering and vandalism plagued the plaza. After receipt of funding and reassessment of budget with the program, 24M’s architecture was pared down to basics with the aim of making the plaza safer and cleaner.

24M Plaza BART entrance

The street level BART entrance at 24th & Mission Station SW Plaza

24M borders 3 city streets with 2 intersecting sidewalks where bus lines make frequent stops. Design improvements at this site required the participation of various Public Agency stakeholders. Robin & Chiang & Company was tasked with helping BART to coordinate this multi-agency project, facilitating conceptual design discussions and bringing consensus between BART and the San Francisco Department of Public Works (SFDPW), San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) and the San Francisco Planning Department (SF Planning).

Throughout the design cycle, Robin Chiang & Company also participated with BART and SF Planning in community meeting presentations that helped to illustrate, inform, bring consensus and approve each iteration of the plaza design. The community meeting process was at times contentious but was ultimately enlightening and gave the design team an insight to the needs of this neighborhood.

Clear to designers and community members alike was that the physical attributes of the old plaza enabled destructive behaviors. Overgrown trees and shrubs sheltered clandestine activities. Fencing segregated space, interfered with visibility and reinforced a dangerous prison-like environment. Osage Alley in particular, was protected by two layers of metal fencing and a dark grove of trees and had become a haven for drug activity and violence.

24M & Osage Alley

On the left of this picture is Osage Alley, which is adjacent to the west perimeter of the plaza, now porous and bright after the removal of security fencing and other barriers.

Under the On-Call GEC program, as a sub-consultant to URS-B&C, Robin Chiang & Company spearheaded the modernization effort for 24M, which endeavors to promote productive community use of public space. The unselfconscious design simply proposes an empty canvas offered as a stage for community activity. It maximizes transparency within the plaza and porosity across its boundaries by removing physical obstructions and introducing an uninterrupted topography that integrates the adjacent alley. Openness and visibility create a safe space for social interaction.

The re-design removes almost all surface objects from the plaza – trees, benches, planters and security fencing – leaving the original brick plaza, the parapet wall around the circular core, and a roughly 18” grade difference between the flat plaza and Osage Alley. A new plane is inserted, flush with Osage Alley, gently sloping down in one direction and stepping down at the edge to meet the plaza. Where there were once fenced-in planters along the neighboring building and Osage Alley, will now be a continuous circulation path varying from 6’-50’ wide.

24M Minimal Design

The two totemic posts in the foreground were placed to formalize a stage area already used as such by the community. Otherwise, most vertical elements were removed to open up the plaza.

The plaza was originally designed along with the underground station in 1970. The basic configuration is an open plaza paved in a concentric brick pattern that radiates out from a large circular opening in the center. The opening comprises the main station entrance, containing a stair and escalator column with recessed semicircular planters on either side.

The circular opening offered the design team a powerful theme. The circle form not only ties together design elements throughout the plaza but attempt to also communicate universal notions. The circle is an ancient form used by many civilizations. It was universal and almost always represented the sun and thence fecundity, society and important values.

Emerging from the underground BART station, one ascends through a large round opening and greeted by the round colored spotlights from portholes of the cylindrical beacon tower

Emerging from the underground BART station, one ascends through a large round opening and are greeted by round colored spotlights projected from sunlit portholes of the cylindrical beacon tower

Eliminating the security fencing revealed the existing great circle—being able to enter and emerge from such a shape is an unusual experience even in a famous city. The cylindrical tower (necessary to protect the existing spiral stair) acts as a beacon for the station and recalls an ancient Maya astronomical observatory. It has a south-facing skylight through which the sun illuminates colored portholes. Emerging from the circle passengers will catch a glimpse of colored sunlight—but the light will not again appear in the same spot for an entire year. Of identical shape to the tower are shiny bollards (necessary to prevent vehicle intrusion from the alley) that are positioned in various angles to reflect sunlight at different strengths when seen from a distance. Throughout the plaza can be found variations on the theme of circles, light and totems.

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