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Edgar Lopez: City Architect Has Plans Big and Small 

Wednesday, Feb 27 2013

Propositions and ordinances will come and go, a politician's legacy of laws can always be undone, but buildings tend to stick around. So the city's official architect must keep in mind not only public interest, but less-concrete things like aesthetics, or the shadow a proposed building might cast. People forget about city politics, but an architect risks having his name cursed twice daily during commutes if an unfortunate bit of brick or mortar lands on a street corner — or if it goes over budget.

So Edgar Lopez has a lot to keep in mind. A 23-year veteran of the Department of Public Works, Lopez, who began as a draftsman, has wended his way through the ranks of government and was recently named city architect and deputy director for buildings in San Francisco.

Lopez is taking over at what's considered to be a "crucial" moment in the city's architectural history; bigwig civic buildings are both under construction and hurtling down the pipeline, including the new San Francisco General hospital, the $500 million expansion of Moscone Convention Center, and the renovation of the historic War Memorial Building.

Lopez's new role will also place him at the helm of all in-house projects — typically smaller, but sometimes more intense than large-scale undertakings — as historic renovations require a surgical attention to detail.

"With little jewel projects like the Bernal Heights Library, we have to make sure the quality and attention to design is applied at all levels," says Lopez. "We're intense in process. We don't lose oversight that design matters. We meet the building objectives, but we do it in a way that pays close attention because it contributes to the fabric of San Francisco."

Lopez believes San Francisco's architecture, topography, and building process are unique, and they create a challenging environment requiring the organization of several infrastructural elements and a painstaking appreciation of aesthetic context.

Taking architectural advantage of San Francisco's renowned hills and sweeping views is at the forefront of Lopez's designs, which frame Bay Area vistas whenever possible and try not to cast shadows onto other buildings.

"Public buildings are designed to last generations; they're our most important institutions and often become iconic," says Lopez. "We say to ourselves, 'This building has to last 100 years, we have to get it right.' It has to be made durable, and it can't be trendy."

Lopez cites the San Francisco Airport as an example of a building that must transcend its particular time, be visually arresting but not trendy. Since it may be the first (or only) interaction a visitor has with the city of San Francisco, he says, that initial impression is significant. And with more than 35 million visitors traversing its gates every year, it's important that SFO remain "modern and relevant." Even as the controversy over what to call the thing rages on, the building itself continues to present its own message.But San Franciscans are known to have opinions about all aspects of city design, and, living in a smaller city, Lopez says the constituents and stakeholders are neighborhood groups that are "very much involved" in all facets of pending public architecture.

"It's a very local, hands-on kind of community with high numbers of public meetings and participation," he says. "In S.F., you don't go ahead and build something and then have people react to it."

But does the city benefit more from investing in larger projects or smaller ones? Lopez works on both, but sees cumulative advantages in two major projects looming large on his radar: the new San Francisco General Hospital and expansion of the Moscone Convention Center.

The hospital will sit on Potrero Avenue between 22nd and 23rd streets on the main lawn of the current hospital campus. The project's bond measure, passed through Proposition A in November 2008, is slated to cost $887 million and be completed by 2015. DPW will manage the entire project, working with Fong & Chan Architects of San Francisco for design and Webcor Builders for construction. The hospital represents the height of organization and fiscal responsibility of Lopez's position. So it's guaranteed that its execution will be much scrutinized, not just in terms of aesthetics but of cost in a city that often enjoys going over budget on large-scale projects. A lot of taxpayers sit in the shadow of that one.

But Lopez is confident there won't be late-stage cost overruns, due to the way the project itself is designed. "Part of the success of the project being on time and on budget has to do with the project delivery approach," he says. That approach involves getting everyone in the room at the outset. Rather than designing the hospital, then passing it on to contractors who then have to troubleshoot the problems that inevitably emerge in the construction process, here the architects and consultants and contractors all collaborate from the outset to, he says, "find problems with constructability" — technical problems like walls not working the way they're designed, or a beam not being long enough when translated from the page, head-slappers that add months and millions of dollars.

"All of that collaboration happens early, so that when we start construction, a lot of that coordination is behind us," Lopez says. "It's a smart way of building." One innovation he notes in the hospital project is wall panels that can be removed and replaced to allow equipment to be moved around during construction. The advent of more advanced modeling tools also allows the designers and builders to sit together and make sure the beams really are the correct length.

"Having the long view for the project comes as a result of the dialogue that takes places between the builder and the designer," he says.

Meanwhile, the Moscone Convention Center is currently going through a $500 million expansion because, says Lopez, the facility is at capacity and "key clients," including the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, are demanding more space.

"Conventions are getting larger and we don't have the space to meet the demands of the clients," says Lopez. If the DPW decides not to expand the convention center and clients decide to book elsewhere, the city would lose a significant slice of revenue. "Tourism and concessions are a huge economic driver for San Francisco." But it'll take a lot of conventions to cover $500 million.

This may be the part of Lopez's job most subject to controversy — whether the city invests in big projects whose benefits might trickle down to the local economy (fat-walleted orthopedists roaming the streets in search of thrills, for example), or in more, smaller projects that please the various communities.

Lopez says that his department "strive[s] for a balance in our projects" — big ones like the hospital as well as small-scale works like building and restoring libraries, swimming pools, and recreation centers. A 10-year Capital Plan can aim to keep the city in good shape, attractive and seismically sound, but its implementation will never please all of the people. Buildings aren't just street decoration; they're economic drivers, too.

And while Lopez says that community groups do get "impatient" when they hear there's no funding to initiate capital improvements in their districts, "for the most part, they tend to be understanding and recognize that the city doesn't have sufficient funds to fix all the problems at once."

He also urges community groups to remember the multi-faceted benefits they receive as a result of large events like conventions. He makes the trickle-down argument: From filling up the city's restaurants and hotels to generating tax revenue that funds everything from street repairs to arts programs, keeping an eye on vital clients' requests can be a huge boon to the community's fiscal well-being. Major projects benefit the local communities. But whichever scale he's working at, there's only so much space, and a lot of toes to potentially step on.

"We have 49 square miles — we're land-bound and small. There's no more space we can grab, so we're strategic about how we do our work."

About The Author

Katie Tandy


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