Apartment

Nineteen years in the making, this SF apartment complex might be the middle market’s last and best hope

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Trinity Place, a newly completed complex of 1,900 apartments in San Francisco’s perpetually troubled Mid-Market district, is a place of extremes.

It’s a bewildering yet alluring sculpture garden, and a case study in how politics shapes the urban landscape. Four interlocking slabs that delimit the community and two spacious squares that invite it. The architecture manages to be overwhelming and subtle at the same time.

Anywhere else in the city, a dense puzzle of right-angled shapes ranging from 17 to 24 floors would be deadly. At the corner of Eighth and Market Streets, Trinity Place may prove to be the anchor that brings the disparate blocks together.

The complex has been evolving since 2003, when the first concept designs were unveiled for the 4-acre site framed by Market, Eighth and Mission streets. The initial phase, a 24-story bar perpendicular to Mission Street with 18 stories of gray metal laid over six levels of glass, opened in 2010.

The newly constructed Trinity Place building at San Francisco Market and 8th Street could be one construction that brings this beleaguered part of the city together.

Gabrielle Lurie/The Chronicle

During that time, the project grew by almost 500 units – a change driven not by developer greed but by political dynamics in San Francisco.

The site housed a motel converted into 377 apartments and owned by Angelo Sangiacomo, whose battles with groups of tenants in the 1970s led to him being dubbed “the father of rent control”. So when Sangiacomo and his estate company Trinity Properties decided to replace the old motorhome with 1,410 apartments, campaigners fought until a deal was reached: Sangiacomo agreed that the complex would include replacements for each of the former rent-controlled units. . In return, the project was allowed to reach 1,900 units, of which 528 are either rent-controlled or below market rate.

This level of density is daunting — especially since the heights of the block are tightly capped by a 1984 election initiative that prevents further shadows from being cast on city parks, including near Civic Center Plaza. That’s why the easternmost building on Mission Street is 24 stories high, but the corner between Eighth and Market drops to 16 stories.

But it wasn’t until the opening this spring of a Whole Foods Market along Market Street that Trinity Place’s scale came into its own. It’s huge – no surprise. It’s also more inviting than you think.

A marble engraving of Angelo Sangiacomo and his longtime wife, Yvonne, developers of Trinity Place, can be seen in the courtyard of the complex in San Francisco.

A marble engraving of Angelo Sangiacomo and his longtime wife, Yvonne, developers of Trinity Place, can be seen in the courtyard of the complex in San Francisco.

Gabrielle Lurie/The Chronicle

The invitation is literal, with the new building along Market Street pierced by an eight-story, 45-foot-wide gate leading to a large courtyard. Another lower portal is carved through the building beyond.

Semi-public spaces are often designed and managed with cues to keep strangers out out, to let passers-by pass. Here it is the opposite. If the expansive portal doesn’t pique your curiosity, perhaps the herringbone pattern of the white and black marble cobblestones will. Nope? Then try to resist the allure of life-size classical figures carved from white marble and encased in thick clear glass. You’ll want to take a closer look – if only to confirm that you’re not hallucinating the juxtaposition of stark modernism and curvaceous Greek bodies, male and female.

Mark Guevarra (left), Daniel Morgan and Conway Gregory view a sculpture in Triinity Place in San Francisco.

Mark Guevarra (left), Daniel Morgan and Conway Gregory view a sculpture in Triinity Place in San Francisco.

Gabrielle Lurie/The Chronicle

I’m not saying Lawrence Argent’s statuary is high art. But the six figures arranged diagonally between the two portals achieve something more primitive. They attract you and make you appear.

Once inside there is plenty to see.

To the left is a public seating area where, again, white Carrara marble sets the tone – such as seating along raised planters that hold Chinese elms, or two long tables that (consumer beware!) can be hot in direct sunlight. The low portal leads to Angelo’s Piazza, which opened in 2017 and is dominated by a swirling 92-foot-tall “Venus”, also by Argent, rising from an artificial grass meadow in reflective swirls of steel stainless.

Below, sculptural pieces of marble dot the ‘square’. One is carved with beaming portraits of Angelo Sangiacomo and his longtime wife, Yvonne, who died last year.

The buildings themselves add to the slightly surreal air of Trinity Place, four structures that present cliff-like backdrops to public spaces and adjacent streets. They are designed by Arquitectonica, a company founded in Miami in 1977 by Bernardo Fort-Brescia and Laurinda Spear. Today, it has 10 offices on four continents and half a dozen buildings in San Francisco that showcase the company’s affinity for both sleek glass – like the Lumina condominium towers on Rincon Hill – and square geometric modernism like, well, Trinity Place.

The herringbone pattern of the white and black marble floor is seen from above at Trinity Place in San Francisco.

The herringbone pattern of the white and black marble floor is seen from above at Trinity Place in San Francisco.

Gabrielle Lurie/The Chronicle

Fort-Brescia’s design concept at Eighth and Market is nothing if not ambitious, with the facades of each structure treated like a Cubist collage. Or, as he wrote in 2016, “large-scale concrete and glass prisms (that) interact with each other to create a series of geometric compositions.”

He was more outspoken when speaking with The Chronicle in 2010: “These buildings must be slabs, and I was worried they would feel static, like monoliths.”

Good wishes aside, the “static” wins.

The walls of Eighth Street show this all too well: there may be great expanses of tall precast concrete here and beige precast concrete there, or multi-story rectangles of flat silver metal framing flat windows, but a slab is a slab. Instead of overlapping energy layers, it’s one big, monotonous facade.

The same haze of tones and materials hovers over Piazza d’Angelo and the courtyard between the portals – but within the complex they are softened by the down-to-earth effervescence of the landscape. Lavish fantasies do more than hold their own.

This is reinforced by the fact that fortunately the public areas of Trinity Place are starting to be used.

Customers emerge from Whole Foods, which is tucked underground in a 35-foot-tall basement with a cavernous grandeur all its own, and settle on a bench or under a tree for lunch. People come through the portals as they cross the block, some on skateboards and some walking dogs. Visitors stop here to vegetate and check their cell phones in exotic comfort.

People pause in the courtyard of Trinity Place in San Francisco.

People pause in the courtyard of Trinity Place in San Francisco.

Gabrielle Lurie/The Chronicle

Even with construction completed, there is still a long way to go to see if this mega-project will succeed beyond a real estate transaction.

BART is rebuilding its station entrance outside the Market Street portal, meaning Trinity Place still looks like a construction site from some angles. The courtyard is lined with commercial spaces waiting to be filled. And the social ills that have long plagued this part of town remain tragically apparent; look no further than the squalid scene of Eighth and Mission streets, just across from the second phase of Trinity Place.

Trinity Place may not be moving the needle in a positive direction, down like every other supposed middle-market hi of the past few decades. But public gestures are truly engaging. Hopefully things will only get better than here.

John King is the urban design critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @johnkingsfchron


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