Parnassus Campus Planning Begins to Address Myriad Issues

By Lisa Cisneros on August 27, 2005
Ugly. Drab. Dirty. Gray. Monolithic. Undistinguished. Confusing. These are but a few of the descriptions of UCSF's 13-acre flagship campus at Parnassus Heights, home of the top-ranked medical center and the highly acclaimed schools of dentistry, medicine, nursing and pharmacy. A mega-institution with its own zip code - 94143 - the UCSF Parnassus campus has evolved enormously since the first cornerstone of the medical school was laid in driving spring rain on March 27, 1897, according to UCSF historian Nancy Rockafeller. Read the history here. Today, the eclectic hodgepodge of buildings ranges in age and architecture from the once-grand UC Hall, which opened in 1917 as University Hospital, to the modern Kalmanovitz Library, the most recent building completed on Parnassus Avenue in 1990. The buildings have withstood the wrath of Mother Nature -- temblors, high winds, freezing rain and seemingly never-ending thick banks of misty fog - as well as the typical wear and tear of generations of students, scholars and staff, and piecemeal renovations as funds and priorities have permitted. Reinvigorating Parnassus The campus has grown piecemeal over the years and will continue to change as research and teaching programs move to the new UCSF Mission Bay campus and old, seismically unsafe buildings, currently slated for demolition, are razed to comply with the campus space limit. As UCSF builds the multibillion-dollar, monumental campus across town, campus leaders are aware of the stark contrast between the two major campuses. They are looking at ways to invest in and improve the overall design and function as well as to reconfigure academic, clinical and research programs on the Parnassus campus. Last year, Keith Yamamoto, executive vice dean of the UCSF School of Medicine, described the reinvigoration of the Parnassus campus this way: "UCSF will be changing by bringing in new blood while maintaining the richness of our existing programs, and much of the growth will take place at Parnassus Heights. Parnassus Heights isn't going to stand still while we build a new campus at Mission Bay." Read the full story here. In February, Campus Planning surveyed the campus community to find out what people like and don't like about the Parnassus campus. The survey kicked off a new project for developing design guidelines and a master plan for the Parnassus campus, says Judy deReus, project manager for Campus Planning. "The intent of the survey was to better understand how students, staff, visitors and neighbors perceive the aesthetic quality of the campus, identify issues and obtain suggestions for desired improvements," she says. Some 660 people responded to the survey with lengthy and thoughtful comments. Likes and Dislikes According to the survey results, the most frequently used adjectives to describe the campus were: ugly, drab, run-down, dirty, gray, monolithic, towering, industrial, institutional, undistinguished, hodgepodge, confusing, labyrinth, chaotic, difficult to navigate and direct, cramped and congested. On a positive note, most mentioned the outstanding views, which include the Pacific Ocean, Golden Gate Bridge and the park. While the focus of the survey was on exteriors of the buildings and campus site, respondents rated the campus's Kalmanowitz Library, as their favorite place for its peace and quiet, views, comfortable seating and spaciousness. The library was closely followed by Saunders Court because it is outdoors, peaceful, the only "green" space where it "feels like a campus" and where "you are more likely to encounter someone you know," according to survey respondents. Millberry Union trailed in third place for its fitness and conference center activities, views and potential for social interaction. Survey respondents also weighed in on what they least liked about the campus. Most of their frustrations are all too familiar to anyone who has spent quality time on the Parnassus campus. Their dislikes include: the lack of open space overall and lack of seating in Saunders Court signage that is confusing, inadequate and poorly maintained the fact that Parnassus Avenue, which physically and visually bisects the campus, is unsafe to cross; and buildings that elicit no "sense of place" due to the lack of architectural cohesion, attractiveness and spatial organization around open space, that need better maintenance and that have "windowless" corridors with blandly colored walls, unattractive finishes and lighting, and insufficient "seating and meeting areas." The campus's largest auditorium, Cole Hall, which accommodates 404 people for the most high-profile events, stands out as a constant reminder of the ongoing shortfall of state-funded capital improvement budgets. UCSF, like all public education institutions, must compete for a limited amount of state resources earmarked for facility renovations. While some upgrades have been made to the audio-visual equipment for the movie screenings, the aging of Cole Hall is obvious as termites destroy the original woodwork, and the walls, adorned with antique portraits of pioneers, are dark and dingy. Ideas for Improvements But for all the constructive criticism relayed in the survey, respondents also offered many suggestions to improve the historic campus. A common theme emerged among the respondents' ideas for improvements: a call for more and better open space. As for Saunders Court, respondents took issue with the inadequate seating, since the lawn is usually too wet to sit on. They would like to see more tables and chairs and usable space, and some say it should be more accessible from and to Parnassus Avenue. Most respondents support enhancing campus "gateways" to make them more noticeable and welcoming with better signage, landscaping, architectural features and art, and unifying Parnassus Avenue with lamp posts with potted flowers, colorful banners, street trees, extended brick paving and more benches. Many comments focused on way-finding improvements such as more strategically placed, standardized signs with maps, color-coded walks, sequential room numbering, wider walks, more covered walks, new colorful canvas tarps and more or faster elevators. Ideas for improving pedestrian access across Parnassus Avenue included bridging over it, tunneling under it, closing it to through traffic, reducing traffic and parking, installing speed bumps, additional signals and stop signs, longer crossing times, wider crosswalks, and clearer striping and signage. Many respondents recommended greater uniformity in architectural styles, more color variation and building details to add visual interest, new building designs with terraced rather than boxy forms, increased street setbacks for new buildings, larger lobbies, forecourts, more windows to maximize natural light and views, and treatment of exterior mechanical features to reduce their visibility. Next Steps As part of the planning process, UCSF hosted a half-day workshop on July 14 to begin discussions of Parnassus campus design issues. Campus and UCSF Medical Center staff, a community representative, members of UCSF's Design Advisory Committee, and project consultants BMS Design Group and EHDD participated in the workshop. The group discussed the types of design guidelines that would be most appropriate and how best to address the Parnassus Avenue issue. The group also discussed opportunities for more open space, other improvements that future building demolition and construction would create, topographic and climatic influences on building design and orientation, appropriate building heights, massing and styles, the need for a comprehensive way-finding system overhaul and the necessity of prioritizing improvement projects once they have been identified. The project is expected to take about 18 months, during which several public meetings will be held to get more feedback from the campus community. Some of the next upgrades that the Parnassus campus community may notice are the seismic and ventilation improvements, partially paid by state funds, slated to begin soon in the Medical Sciences Building. The good news is that the project will cool down the air during the hot fall months and will make the building safer in case of an earthquake. The downside is that the crews will use Saunders Court as a staging area for construction. And thanks to Friends of Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute, that building will get a new coat of paint. As for Cole Hall, UCSF officials have approved using campus funds to make cosmetic and functional renovations, including seismic safety upgrades. The specific improvements are slated to begin in fall 2006. Questions or comments about the Parnassus campus planning project may be directed to deReus, who can be contacted by phone at 415/476-8326 or by email. Source: Lisa Cisneros

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