Opening Up Boeddeker Park: A Conversation with Brian Milman and Jennifer Isacoff

Opening Up Boeddeker Park: A Conversation with Brian Milman and Jennifer Isacoff

San Francisco’s Tenderloin is the City’s densest neighborhood, and most of its residents live below the poverty line in small apartments—many of them single-occupancy—without access to back yards or green space. Re-built in 1985, Boeddeker Park was riddled with problems. Attempts to address safety concerns resulted in a maze of fences dividing up the park, and visibility across the space was poor. Neighbors called it “Prison Park.” In response, The Trust for Public Land, in close partnership with the City of San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department, teamed with WRNS Studio to redesign and completely rebuild the one-acre park and clubhouse to meet the needs of the community. The Trust for Public Land found WRNS through Public Architecture’s 1% pro bono program, which led to both the Hayes Valley and Boeddeker projects. For Boeddeker, WRNS provided work at a discounted rate, donating overhead and profit. We asked Jennifer Isacoff, Director of The Trust for Public Land’s Parks for People program in the Bay Area and Brian Milman, partner of WRNS, to talk about the process.

Q: How did you get involved with Boeddeker Park?

Jennifer: The Trust for Public Land’s mission is to create places that support healthy, livable communities for generations to come. In the Bay Area, our Parks for People program is working in underserved urban neighborhoods to help give everyone a vibrant, quality park within walking distance of their home. Boeddeker Park has been on our radar since about 2006. Over fifty thousand people live within a half-mile radius of the park, and over 10,000 of those are living below the poverty line. The need in the Tenderloin was so great, and the park had such potential to thrive.

We frequently partner with the Recreation and Parks Department, which manages over 4,000 acres of land, 34 recreation centers, nine swimming pools and is the City’s largest provider of the Trust for Public Land’s services. In 2007, we began a San Francisco initiative to rebuild three parks in high-need areas, catalyzed by the generosity of five lead donors: Banana Republic, Levi Strauss Foundation, McKesson, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, and Wells Fargo. Working with the City, we leveraged their initial $5 million into $16.5 million of public and private funding. That money enabled us to work with Recreation and Parks to completely redesign and re-build three parks: Hayes Valley Playground (also with WRNS), Balboa Park and Boeddeker Park. We knew from the start that Boeddeker would be the most complex.

Brian: As for WRNS, we had signed up with Public Architecture’s 1% pro bono program to provide design assistance to nonprofit organizations. The Trust for Public Land contacted us about helping with the design of Hayes Valley Playground. We donated a couple of phases of work, and then for the rest of that project, as was the case with Boeddeker Park, we essentially provided all of our work at cost, donating our overhead and profit.

Q: What were your impressions the first time you visited Boeddeker Park?

Brian: In the old park, you would walk down a main walkway, and it would feel like you were cut off from all the programmatic activities. There were raised benches and low walls on either side of that walkway that divided the green space, the basketball court, the playground. You had to walk around these walls to get into many of the spaces. So it took a lot of effort to participate in the park. And because the entry to the park was a good distance from the clubhouse, it was difficult for the recreation director to watch what was going on while running programs from the building. The building itself had a nice, voluminous space. But its walls had a sawtooth configuration that alternated solid walls with glass, cutting off sight lines, and the main level of the building was 4 feet underground, which further separated it from the park.

Previous Site Condition

Q: What was the community process for redesigning Boeddeker like?

Jennifer: We conducted extensive community outreach, holding public meetings and forums where everyone could come together to join in what we call ‘participatory design’. We invited people to the site and we also had focus groups at various places—youth centers, senior centers, churches—wherever local people were likely to come. Residents from the Tenderloin participated, as well as representatives of service organizations like the YMCA, Boys & Girls Club, Youth with a Mission, and City Academy. Key decisions were made at those community forums.

Brian: There is a lot of housing for seniors in the neighborhood. And the Tenderloin population has one of the highest percentages of children in San Francisco. But the kids and the families and the seniors weren’t using the park very much. We needed to create a space where adults could enjoy the park on their own or with children, while also making room for kids with their family or in groups. The park had to allow people of all ages to coexist at the same time, while also providing a safe space. This is the kind of issue that came out at the community meetings and informed our design response.  

Q: What surprised you the most about what the community wanted?

Brian: The northern end, in the existing park, was a beautiful, quiet space in the middle of a busy urban area. I was surprised at the great reception from the community for nurturing that and keeping it as a quiet area for community gardening, senior activities, and adult fitness.

Jennifer: At one of the first meetings, a hand shot up and a participant asked, “Can we have solar panels on the roof? Can we be off the grid? Can we have a community garden?” I hadn’t expected that the principles of sustainability would have been such a priority.

Q: This was one of the first projects in the Sustainable SITES Initiative, is that correct?

Jennifer: That’s right. The park has pervious concrete and bioswales and a stormwater infiltration system under the lawn. The plant palette has a lot of California natives, which we’re excited about, because the Tenderloin has a lot of new immigrants to California. So the park gives them a little taste of California.

Brian: A signage program throughout the park indicates sustainable elements, and a key map at the front door to the clubhouse explains each element. The clubhouse is completely heated by a geothermal system—it’s one of the first public projects in San Francisco to implement geothermal. About eight cores under the basketball court go down about 200 feet, and they extract heat from the earth and transfer that into heating which feeds radiant tubing in the concrete slabs. The main spaces in the building have no air-conditioning. The cathedral-like space in the main recreation room makes use of the stack effect to bring air through and up, so there’s no need for ceiling fans in that space. In the meeting room, we didn’t quite have that volume, but there are operable windows all around and a ceiling fan. Only a couple of offices have air-conditioning. 

Q: How did you address security concerns?

Brian: Security was a big issue. The community appreciated the idea of creating safety through transparency rather than through gates and enclosures and walls. Now, once you enter the park, you can access lots of different places from one point. You don’t have to go through a playground to get to the lawn, for example.

Jennifer: During a meeting with the Boys & Girls Club, we asked what would make the kids feel comfortable in the park, and one teenage boy said, “I want to know that I am seen by an adult when I come into the park.” We shifted the entry so that everyone has to walk right past the new clubhouse.

Brian: The old clubhouse was sunk four feet below grade, so rec directors couldn’t see from the building to the park. The new one is raised, and it’s all glass, so when people walk in, the recreation director is going to notice them.  Elevating the clubhouse enables building program activities to be visible from the street, which promotes this as a safe center of the community.  Also, we took down heavy, wrought iron fences and put in new, visually lighter fencing around the park. It’s still secure, but you can see through it.

Jennifer: From the very beginning of the project, we told the community, “Design is only going to be part of the solution.” The other part is going to be working together with the Recreation and Parks Department, with the police department, and with all of the different user groups to make sure that the operations, maintenance, stewardship, and programming are working together well. This park is going to be opening at a time in which the social fabric around it is a lot stronger and more cohesive than when we started design. Boeddeker is a place where the different groups can unite. The park will have a lot more programming than it used to.

Brian: This kind of project doesn’t come up very often in historic urban neighborhoods that have a great need for open space. It is just a wonderful opportunity to make something better.