CityGuides II – SF Architecture and Private ‘Public’ Spaces

If you read my last post, you know I’m a fan of San Francisco City Guides, a volunteer-run series of wonderful walking tours within the city. When I last visited, in June, I wanted to take their Tales of the Castro tour, but it had been cancelled for Pride Weekend (probably a wise decision given the other events scheduled for the area that weekend).

Instead, I opted for a walk called ‘South of Market Architecture Stroll,’ which promised to focus on architecture and history in and around the Financial District. To my delight, it not only delivered on that promise but also included a look at a number of privately owned ‘public spaces’ (or POPOS, as they’re called in San Francisco).

More about those in a moment. First, however, a look at the Bell Building’s amazing interior space – primarily the lobby, but  quite a show. Located at 140 Montgomery Street, the Bell Building was built in 1925. Parts of its exterior walls on one side of the building still have a bell motif with ‘telephone book’ pages above them.

Bell Building, San Francisco

One side of the Bell Building, at 140 Montgomery Street. Note the ‘telephone pages’ motif at the top, with repeating “bell” symbols at the bottom.

Inside the lobby, the Art Deco motifs are stunning.

At one point, there was discussion of turning the building into condos, which didn’t happen. Today, the primary tenant is Yelp (not all their employees, just some).

Much of the rest of our tour (although not all) involved seeing POPOS, or ‘privately owned public open spaces.‘ Since 1985, San Francisco has required developers constructing projects in defined areas of the city to provide publicly accessible spaces in the form of terraces, parks, atriums, and other spaces for use by the public. These spaces may be inside a building, on top of it, or completely outdoors. Buildings with such spaces are required to post signs (which must be a specified size or larger; apparently initially some building owners used miniscule signage to discourage people from learning about their POPOS!). Like this.

A 'Public Open Space' notice at 101 Second Street in San Francisco. Note that open hours are specified since this is interior space in a building.

A ‘Public Open Space’ notice at 101 Second Street in San Francisco. Note that open hours are specified since this is interior space in a building.

Some of the POPOS have food and/or restrooms available (although you may have to look a bit for the latter). Some have quiet spaces away from the bustle of the street, in case you are between appointments or want a place to hang out other than a restaurant or coffee shop.

A privately-owned but publicly accessible space in the form of an atrium at 101 Second Street. There is a coffee bar under the mezzanine area.

A privately-owned but publicly accessible space in the form of an atrium at 101 Second Street. There is a coffee bar under the mezzanine area.

Tucked away at the back of 55 Second Street is this spacious, large space sometimes used for meetings by City Guides volunteers.

Tucked away at the back of 55 Second Street is this spacious, large space sometimes used for meetings by City Guides volunteers.

The outdoor spaces are equally impressive, and often include art funded through the city’s “1% Art Program” which requires that large projects in  Downtown and nearby neighborhoods provide public art that equals at least 1% of the total construction cost.

There are so many POPOS that an entire CityGuides walk is devoted to them. You can also find a map online and lots of reviews by city natives of their favorites – just Google “POPOS.” I  hope to see more when I next return to the City By the Bay.

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Garden Shoots will be on vacation for the month of August. See you in September!

Explore posts in the same categories: architecture, Environment, photography, Travel, urban photography

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2 Comments on “CityGuides II – SF Architecture and Private ‘Public’ Spaces”


  1. Great walk, thank you!


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