The Federal Building at 7th and Mission, which is now 14 years old, is undergoing a major redo of its beleaguered, often litter-filled plaza.
Architect Thom Mayne's bold design, which is actually a three-building complex including the low-slung "annex" and the restaurant/cafeteria space at the corner, called for an open plaza of crushed granite with a path snaking through it, concrete benches along the sides that doubled as security blockades for vehicle bombs, and a light element by artist James Turrell that appears to continue from the ground up through the center of the tower to the square light-well garden.
As the Chronicle reports, the $3 million makeover of the plaza includes new concrete pavers, greenery, and an imposing, eight-foot-tall, galvanized steel fence that's meant to secure the plaza at night. The fence is being cheered by neighbors in residential buildings nearby, who say that the Federal Building plaza has been a neglected, windswept and terrible space from the get-go, and in recent years it's served as a nighttime drug market.
The $3 million makeover is the latest effort to turn the prominent plaza at Seventh and Mission streets into what was promised when the San Francisco Federal Building opened in 2007: “a welcome civic space.” https://t.co/OfOINsknS8— San Francisco Chronicle (@sfchronicle) July 4, 2021
The General Services Administration (GSA), the federal agency that owns the complex, held a series of workshops with building employees and neighbors in 2019, and the plaza project came out of those discussions. And Supervisor Matt Haney was vocally critical of the feds around that time, calling on the GSA to take "urgent action" on this "public safety and public health crisis."
"The addition of the perimeter fence is necessary to address illicit activity that had been occurring and ensure the security... after business hours,” says a statement from the GSA, and they add that the fencing will "maximize the use of the plaza for employees, visitors and the public."
The fence is already basically up according to the Chronicle, and next will be soil, plants, and a new "pollinator meadow" along the berm at the building's base, with native plants meant to attract bees and butterflies.
When the building was under construction and completed in 2007, it was a flashpoint for locals, many of whom appreciated Mayne's design by many of whom never have. The narrow, concrete floor plates of the building with operable windows are meant to be naturally cooled with the prevailing breeze in San Francisco, but it's not clear whether these office floors ever really open their windows and shades as intended. The building is home to offices of the Department of Labor, USDA, Social Security Administration, and other federal departments, and is a supplement to the Philip Burton Federal Building on Golden Gate Avenue.
Chronicle architecture critic John King hailed the building as "both daunting and dazzling" when it was completed, noting the "origami whim" of the steel mesh curtain that folds its way down the main facade over one part of the plaza.
Mayne received the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2005, just as construction was getting underway on the tower. But this specific federal building was cited by critics in both the George W. Bush and Trump administrations as an example of designs that weren't traditional enough to deserve federal funding. Trump issued an executive order in February 2020 titled "Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again" that denounced all modern designs and declared "the classical architectural style stall be the preferred and default style" for all future federal buildings.
The Federal Building was the focus of multiple protests during the Trump Era, and messages about sending Trump to prison were projected multiple times on its Seventh Street-facing concrete facade.