UCSF Launches Process to Reimagine Parnassus Heights Campus

By Lisa Cisneros

aerial view of UCSF's Parnassus Heights campus
UCSF has launched a process to reimagine its Parnassus Heights campus, which is the University’s oldest and largest campus. 

UC San Francisco has launched a planning process to define a bold, long-term vision to revitalize its historic Parnassus Heights campus to sustain its excellence across research, education and patient care.

UCSF’s oldest and largest campus, the Parnassus Heights site comprises robust basic science, clinical and translational research programs, four top-rated health professional schools, California’s highest ranked medical center, a thriving dental center, clinics, a library, administrative offices and myriad campus housing, services and programs.

“We are committed to re-envisioning the Parnassus Heights campus to ensure it retains its vital role as a critical hub of learning, discovery and patient care,” said Chancellor Sam Hawgood, MBBS. “We are also dedicated to improving how the campus interacts and connects with the surrounding Parnassus neighborhood. UCSF is a world-class university and our Parnassus campus deserves to be a world-class environment.”

The three affiliated colleges of dentistry, medicine and pharmacy completed their buildings at the base of Mount Sutro in 1897. Photo courtesy of UCSF Archives

Bedrock of Biomedical Breakthroughs

Tracing its founding to the late 1880s, the California College of Pharmacy and Toland Medical College affiliated with the University of California in 1873. In 1881, the College of Dentistry was created by the UC Board of Regents as the third “affiliated college.”

The University moved to the inner Sunset after Mayor Adolph Sutro donated 13 acres of land on what is now the Parnassus campus, which began at the base of Mount Sutro with three new buildings for dentistry, medicine and pharmacy, all completed in 1897. The UC Training School for Nurses was established in 1907, becoming the fourth affiliate.

After purchasing additional land, the University built its first hospital, now called UC Hall, in 1917. After successive name changes, the campus was officially named the University of California, San Francisco in 1970.

The original UC Hospital, which opened in 1917, is shown from Parnassus Avenue circa 1920.

Over the last century, the campus grew into an acclaimed health sciences center and changed the world of health. UCSF claims many feats on this 107-acre site: three Nobel-Prize winning discoveries in cancer, prions and telomeres, co-discovery of the AIDS virus, the birthplace of biotechnology, the first fetal surgery, and many more.

Parnassus Heights has also been a center of UCSF’s social justice movements that define an era – from the founding of the Black Caucus 50 years ago by staff to White Coats for Black Lives recently formed by students. Many other calls to action, marches and teach-ins occurred over the years to fight for civil rights, protest wars and protect health care.

Reimagining the Parnassus Heights campus, with an intent to both foster advances in the rapidly changing fields of health sciences and harnesses the power of new data-driven technology, marks an important milestone for UCSF and for the roughly 11,000 faculty, staff, students and trainees who work and study there today.

“We are thrilled to be launching a comprehensive and strategic planning process for the Parnassus Heights campus,” said Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Dan Lowenstein, MD, who has been leading the process. “This represents the next step after two years of work with a group of committed internal stakeholders dedicated to sustaining the excellence in all mission areas at Parnassus.”

Recent news of a generous $500 million commitment from the Helen Diller Foundation for a new, world-class hospital at Parnassus Heights, coupled with the decision to fast track design and construction of central research laboratories and other improvements, are fostering a sense of optimism about the future of the flagship campus among both faculty and staff.

“There’s a new spirit here that feels much more positive,” said Robert Wachter, MD, chair of the Department of Medicine, the largest in the UCSF School of Medicine with nearly 1,000 faculty, trainees and staff based on the Parnassus campus. “The challenge now is to envision how innovative research, education and patient care will be integrated here. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine Parnassus for decades to come.”

Chancellor Hawgood asked EVCP Lowenstein and Senior Vice Chancellor Paul Jenny to co-lead a master planning process for Parnassus Heights with broad input from the UCSF community. The process also will include input from the broader Parnassus community and neighborhood. The goal is to have a completed comprehensive plan in July 2019.

With recommendations from the deans and other leadership, Lowenstein and Jenny convened a steering committee representing diverse perspectives and priorities with members that include all four schools, UCSF Health, Real Estate, Campus Planning, Capital Programs and University Relations, among others.

“The committee will be working very hard over the next year, with the expectation that everyone will think holistically about the needs of the entire community, in addition to representing their constituencies,” Lowenstein said.

Chancellor Hawgood first announced his commitment to revitalizing the Parnassus Heights campus during his State of the University address last October.

“We now stand ready to face the challenge of rejuvenating the facilities on Parnassus Heights so they match the excellence of our researchers, clinicians, students and staff,” Hawgood said at the time. “Just as the Mission Bay campus was a 25-year journey from conception to today’s reality, the rebuilding of Parnassus Heights will be a decades-long journey. But, now is the time to start. The enormity of this task cannot and should not be minimized but it will be a priority for me, and my successors.”

Turning Attention to Parnassus

After gaining widespread philanthropic, civic and community support that enabled UCSF to turn its lofty dreams into reality in the making of the 60-acre Mission Bay campus, there is widespread consensus within the UCSF community to now focus on Parnassus Heights.

Recently appointed Vice Chancellor for Research, Lindsey Criswell, MD, MPH, a longtime professor and 1986 graduate of the School of Medicine, is actively involved in the plans for improvements to the Parnassus campus. She is well aware of the challenges of Parnassus campus where half the buildings are at least 50 years old.

“The lack of investment in the Parnassus campus has led to the deterioration of the physical infrastructure and real concern among the faculty,” Criswell said. “It’s affecting our ability to recruit and retain the best faculty, some of whom would rather be at Mission Bay.”

Parnassus Heights Master Planning Timeline

March: Interview planning and design firm

April: Confirm overall vision and strategy

June – July: Initial site analyses

August – March 2019: Exploration of alternatives with cost estimates

April – May 2019: Draft and review plan

June 2019: Final plan with cost estimates

Criswell was among Parnassus-based faculty members who described a sense of urgency to restore and rejuvenate the campus and offered their assistance in a letter to the Chancellor. “In recent months, faculty from multiple research groups at Parnassus Heights have worked together to develop a unified, bold, and impactful proposal to rejuvenate the Parnassus Heights campus,” they wrote. “As we have indicated in the past, we are eager to help you in any way that we can to enable you to make a bold and transformative change” for Parnassus Heights.

Criswell, Mark Ansel, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, and several other faculty members who offered to help, are now serving on the planning committees.

Ansel, an alumnus of the UCSF Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program, left his position at Harvard to return to UCSF in 2008, because of the high caliber of colleagues and students in the vibrant community at the Parnassus Heights campus.

“The Parnassus campus remains one of the most exciting places in the world to do research and treat patients,” he said. “People love this place. They really like being here, they just need to see that we are on an upward trajectory that will make the most of new technologies and take advantage of this campus’s great connectivity in a way that maintains that level of excitement.”

While the focus of this master planning effort is to look at the Parnassus Heights campus, the vision – ultimately translated into a physical design and plan – will also consider the future development of UCSF’s other two primary locations at Mission Bay and Mount Zion.

The Student Success Center opened in late 2017 in a newly renovated space in Millbery Union West. Photo by Susan Merrell

UCSF expects to name a design firm to be partners in this endeavor in the coming weeks. The firm will be encouraged to bring a fresh perspective to the process and will have access to various studies and reports conducted over the past few years.

“We are looking for an executable, successful vision for the redevelopment of the Parnassus Heights campus over the next few decades,” Jenny said. “We want [the design firm] to propose a blue-sky approach for a built environment at Parnassus Heights, understanding its relationship to Mission Bay and Mount Zion. This will be a long-term process, but that’s not to say that we will be ignoring the need to make some improvements faster.”

In recent months, UCSF has invested in several improvement projects, including the opening of the Student Success Center in Millberry Union West, remodeling the School of Nursing mezzanine, adding security cameras in the health sciences towers and renovating bathrooms.

Constructed in 1932, the Clinical Sciences Building is being renovated to meet seismic safety requirements and to incorporate an open plan design. It is expected to re-open in late 2019. UC Hall also will be seismically supported, although plans to convert it into office and campus housing have been put on hold to allow the University to prioritize the construction of central research laboratories.

Creating Central Research Labs

The first project out of the pipeline in the Parnassus Heights master planning process is the creation of central research laboratories (CRL) to address the critical need to provide researchers with state-of-the-art tools and resources in a space that fosters collaboration. A subgroup leading this effort is expected to recommend to the steering committee in April the activities, staff, location and equipment for the lab, which is slated for completion of construction by December 2019.

Lori Yamauchi stands outside at the Parnassus Heights campus
Lori Yamauchi, associate vice chancellor for Campus Planning, stands outside the Clinical Sciences Building on the Parnassus Heights campus. The building is currently being renovated. Photo by Susan Merrell

“This will be a rapid, visible expression of UCSF’s commitment to improving the Parnassus campus,” said Lori Yamauchi, associate vice chancellor for Campus Planning. “This is a significant project and will actually happen fairly soon.”

Key to any plans for the Parnassus Heights campus will be its interaction with the surrounding neighborhood. In 1976, the UC Regents – in response to neighborhood concerns – limited the maximum amount of gross square feet that could be developed at Parnassus and set geographic boundaries for any growth.

David Erle, MD, a pulmonary physician-scientist who was tapped to lead the CRL subgroup to plan the central research labs, understands the challenges of this project. He says subgroup members agreed to evaluate proposals based on a set of goals, including that the CRL “should positively impact as many of the researchers as possible and help build a stronger sense of community among them.”

Matthew “Max” Krummel, PhD, a professor of pathology, is also a member of the CRL subgroup. He is one of the masterminds behind the broader concept of “ImmunoX,” a proposal to build on UCSF’s expertise in the fundamental sciences of immunity, immune cell biology and autoimmune disease. The idea is to create a human immunology hub that combines fundamental research, cores and technologies of the CRL, education and training with direct access to the treasure trove of data and tissue samples from patient cohorts and clinical trials.

Matthew “Max” Krummel, PhD, a professor of pathology, is a member of the central research laboratories subgroup. He also is one of the masterminds behind “ImmunoX,” a proposal that would build on UCSF’s expertise in the fundamental sciences of immunity, immune cell biology and autoimmune disease. Photo by Maurice Ramirez

“What we’re proposing is totally new for universities,” Krummel said. “It is really important to create a new research model that fosters the sharing of resources, expertise, best practices and data to study and treat disease. This is the confluence of computing and data storage and biology where we are all thinking about each other. It takes research from its traditional way of balkanization to integration.”

Wachter, who co-chairs UCSF Health strategic planning committee, agrees that plans should capitalize on all of Parnassus’ strengths – the “closeness to everybody, the compactness of the site, and the proximity to the large clinical enterprise, the schools and basic and translational research. Anything we can do architecturally to promote those communities, perhaps creating some sort of spine that becomes the Champs-Elysees of Parnassus where people can walk through the entire enterprise, will enable collaboration.”

Since the Parnassus master planning process coincides with UCSF Health strategic and site planning process underway for a new hospital on Parnassus, it’s important that the two efforts are aligned and well coordinated. James Bennan, vice president of UCSF Health Adult Services, serves on both groups. He’s looking forward to the many possibilities the future may hold for a new hospital, but notes that meeting the growing patient demand for care is essential.

“There are a large number of patients who desperately need the services that only UCSF can provide,” Bennan said. “From a practical sense, we’re looking to increase the number of beds to provide more services for the people of San Francisco and beyond. We’re operating at capacity.”

Parnassus Medical Center
The Parnassus planning process coincides with a UCSF Health planning process underway for a new hospital on Parnassus. Photo by Noah Berger

The commitment from the Diller Foundation to plan for a new hospital, is a testament to the quality of the patient care provided by the clinicians and staff and gives some hope that more donors will step forward to support the promise of Parnassus.

“People are looking for tangible evidence of the commitment to transform Parnassus Heights into a shining star and that commitment shows that it’s starting to happen,” Wachter said. “If we can create an environment and vibe where donors are excited about the work we do, then that will help realize a new vision for Parnassus.”