Aug 022011

POPOS (Privately-owned Public Open Spaces) in San Francisco. Does your city have them?

On Rick Evans’ Architecture Walking Tour of San Francisco’s Financial District, there are many interesting aspects of the tour, not the least of which were four of the city’s POPOS (privately-owned public open spaces). Among the regulations in the “Downtown Plan” of 1985 is a requirement that private owners create and maintain areas such as gardens and terraces for public enjoyment. Largely unmarked and unadvertised, they are located at some of the most noteworthy buildings in the city.

Our group’s meeting point was the Galleria Park Hotel at 191 Sutter Street where Rick had us gather by the elevators to start the tour. It seemed like an unusual place to start an architecture tour, but we soon found out why. Our first stop was one of the POPOS, a rooftop garden next to the Crocker Galleria and accessed from the third floor of the hotel.

Visible from the rooftop directly across Sutter Street is an architecturally significant block in San Francisco. There, the Hallidie Building (currently obscured by scaffolding for inspection projects) and 3 others built between 1906 (post earthquake and fire) and 1917 are located. The Hallidie Building was the first in North America to have a glass curtain wall, which was a shocking change from the stone and brick construction of the time. It was designed by Willis Polk, the architect responsible for many of San Francisco’s notable structures. It seems fitting that the headquarters for the American Institute of Architects (AIA) are located there.

Rick then led us to a stairway into the glass-domed Crocker Galleria where there are many shops and cafés on three levels. There is actually a second urban garden on the other side of the Crocker Galleria on the roof of Wells Fargo’s flagship bank. Had Rick not been leading the way, I would never have found it. It’s a lovely spot where a few workers were having lunch, but it seems to be another well-kept secret POPOS.

From here, we could see the landmark Hobart Building designed in Renaissance and Baroque style by Willis Polk and completed in 1914. The plain, flat wall was exposed when a building next to it was demolished.

Also visible from the garden is the imposing 111 Sutter Street office building, completed in 1926. It was designed in French Romanesque style by the same architects who designed the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. Rick pointed out the similarities.

Citigroup Center has a more welcoming and visible public space on its main level at the corner of Sansome and Sutter. It’s glass roof, palm trees, fountain, sitting areas and a crêperie make it a pleasant spot to relax or have lunch. But if I had just been passing by, I may not have noticed or thought that it was open to the public.

The last of the POPOS that we visited was at One Bush Street, once the headquarters of Crown-Zellerbach Paper Company. Completed in 1959, it was the first high-rise built in the city after World War II. The glass office tower with an open “jewel box” lobby and mosaic tile elevator column was designed by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill.

Below street level without an obvious entrance and a moat-like design, this POPOS may deter most passersby. There’s no seating provided, but a few people sat on the concrete and river rock covered ground to eat their lunches. People do like to sit along the walls on Sansome Street above the garden.

Another view from One Bush Street is of this narrow (20 feet wide) building. Unfortunately, the future of this 1910 gem is currently undecided as it does not have protected status. To the right is the art deco Shell Building which was dedicated on October 1, 1929 just before the Great Depression.

There were no further building developments downtown until the construction of the Zellerbach building directly across the street in 1959.

I couldn’t resist taking a photo of the reflection of the Shell Building in the glass Zellerbach tower.

I’ll be following up about other architectural highlights — past, present and future — in upcoming posts.

For more information:

San Francisco Architecture Walking Tour

San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association

  37 Responses to “Views from POPOS”

  1. Nice way of keeping the town beautiful, POPOS!

  2. This is a great for a walking tour. It sounds silly, but I have not really thought of searching out POPOS (not had I ever heard the acronym before this article). I wonder if there is an app that details all the POPOS in any given city? I need to check that out.

    Thanks for a great article. Love that Hobart building, BTW. That flat wall has always seemed so incongruous – but it somehow is my favorite part of the building.

    • Caanan – thanks very much! I don’t know if there are apps for finding POPOS, but it’s a great idea. The link at the bottom of the article is to the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association’s listing of the 68 POPOS in S.F.

  3. Nice! Actually, it’s funny that they refer to them as POPOS. I didn’t know that and I’ve designed a few POPOS in NYC. BTW, NYC is full of POPOS! 🙂

    • Norbert, I’d love to see the POPOS you’ve designed — you’ll have to let me know the locations next time I’m in NYC.

  4. Wow, I didn’t know about these. I will definitely check them out when I am in SF. It’s possible to tour them without being in a group? Also, I loved your pictures of the architecture. What a nice day it must have been!

    • Thanks, Jenna. The POPOS are open to everyone. There are 68 of them listed in the document that I’ve linked to at the bottom of the article by the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association.

      But I highly recommend Rick Evans’ architecture tour to get a sampling of them and other architectural highlights of SF!

  5. What a great find!! I’m not sure if LA has them… but I really want to find out now. Lovely shots of all the buildings, too!

  6. Fascinating mix of architectural styles.

  7. Nice post Cathy!
    Never heard of POPOS until reading this article, and it would be nice if this rule would be used in some other cities around the world. It makes for some scenic views of town and some great places to catch a moment of relaxation.

  8. I’ve never heard of POPOS. It seems like a cool idea, though. I guess the only similar thing I remember seeing is the Mormon church grounds in Salt Lake City, where everyone can go inside and stroll around.

    • I hadn’t heard of POPOS either until I took this tour. Norbert, a commenter above, mentioned that NYC has many of them. I believe Chicago does, too. I want to find out more about them in other cities.

  9. Wonderful photos! Also a very interesting and informative article. Can’t wait for more.

  10. San Francisco does have some great architecture…I never got around to taking a tour though – sounds great!

    • I have a better appreciation for SF architecture after the tour. I think tours are great for pointing out things that you might not notice on your own and I highly recommend Rick Evans’ tour of the Financial District.

  11. One of my favorite things to do is take a walking tour in San Francisco some of which are free! It is great fun to focus on a specific neighborhood. Thanks for sharing this one! I didn’t know about the POPOS but need to look into them.

    • I’d like to take more SF walking tours to explore the neighborhoods. It’s nice that walking tours are becoming available in many places.

  12. Taking an architecture tour sounds like a really fun idea. Great photos–I love the reflection one at the end!

    • Thanks, Michael! I know that’s a pretty popular spot to take photos. I’d like to try it from a few different angles sometime.

  13. I have to admit that I have never been to this area! Need to check it out next time I am in SF!

  14. I LOVE rooftop gardens! They always seem so unexpected.
    And I love taking tours. There’s so much to learn, isn’t there?

  15. At first glance I thought POPO is a city in Greece. I just got schooled there, huh. Thanks for your feature about it. At least now I know what POPO’s are.

  16. What a cool concept. I’ve been to San Francisco and I never knew those existed. That is a great way to enjoy nature within the confines of a city. I love the front of that Citigroup Center Builidng.

    • I really like that part of the Citigroup Center Building, too. It’s very open and bright — I’ll have to try the crêperie sometime.

  17. How interesting! I’ve tromped around San Francisco for ages and haven’t really noticed any of these. It’s funny what you don’t see when you’re not paying attention….

    • Thanks! That’s why I think these tours are nice — they point out places that you’d just walk by otherwise.

  18. Well, I’ve never heard of “popo” being a term for police, so I guess we both learned something!

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