Resolution and Renewal

This theoretical urban design plan explores the completion of the San Francisco Civic Center's unfinished axis from City Hall toward Market Street. The plan resolves the axis with the addition of a tower at the Market Street terminus. A monument and a traffic circle at the intersection of the Civic Axis and Market Street create a new node on this important commercial spine. A new school of international relations occupies the new tower, commemorating the area's importance in the founding of the United Nations. Residential infill and a renewed Fulton Street with a streetcar line add vitality to the area.

This design was created for the San Francisco AIA Design Awards in 2008. All design graphics by the author.

Unfinished Business

The 1912 plan for the San Francisco Civic Center created one of the grandest Beaux Arts civic centers in the United States. The location of the City Hall within a formal group of classically-inspired buildings achieved the City Beautiful ideal of impressive and inspiring urban spaces.

1912 Civic Center plan

The Civic Center is an impressive assembly of buildings and functions, but remains a work in progress. While the built fabric is largely completed as shown in the 1912 plan, some major gaps remain. Specifically, the buildings meant to frame the Civic Center Plaza at the northeast and southeast corners remain unbuilt, leaving the corners open and ragged.

Some of the public spaces also remain overly divided and unsatisfying. The portion of the Fulton axis between United Nations Plaza and Civic Center Plaza is open to automobile travel, but has the character of a surface parking lot, a use unfitting to its location. United Nations Plaza serves valuable civic functions and provides needed open space, but the design is in some ways inhuman in scale and texture, and spills out into Market Street without any real resolution or enclosure.

Civic Center Plaza at City Hall is little better. While responding to the City Hall axis appropriately, the existing design consists of multiple unrelated spaces. This wide expanse in front of City Hall feels ununified and unable to serve as a suitable foreground for the dramatic architecture which surrounds it.

However, the greatest shortcoming of the current Civic Center urban assembly is the unresolved axis between City Hall and the City's greatest thoroughfare, Market Street. A classic example of Beaux Arts design, the placement of City Hall created a dramatic axis along Fulton Street. This type of axis typically derives its power from the connection of important points. Some axes do remain unresolved, however, in that they continue to infinity without termination. This is the case with the Champs Elysees in Paris, which continues from the Louvre west through the Arc de Triomphe, through La Defense, and on. The Civic Center's western Fulton Street axis is similar, in this case passing all the way through the city and to the Ocean.

East of City Hall, on the other hand, the Fulton Street axis terminates at Market Street. But, without an adequate monument or marker to terminate the axis and resolve the geometry with Market Street, the power of the axis to link the two important urban elements remains untapped.

Original Civic Center in perspective
Unresolved Axis

A Plan for the Future

The Civic Axis plan completes and revitalizes the San Francisco Civic Center by realizing unfinished formal connections and by adding activity and vitality to the area.

New Civic Axis plan

United Nations Building

The plan proposes a renewed emphasis on the Fulton Street axis, culminating in a tall new building at the Market Street end which serves as a complement and counterpoint to City Hall. This "United Nations Building" would contain a proposed school of international relations as well as museum space dedicated to the founding and worldwide activities of the United Nations. The new school, as a joint venture between the Bay Area's major universities, would be located in the Civic Center to commemorate the role of the United Nations in recent history and San Francisco's role in the creation of the United Nations.

Renewed Fulton Street

As part of the new civic axis, the plan reinstates Fulton as a street all the way from Civic Center Plaza to Market Street. The activity generated by the new street will open up the area, make it safer and generating new opportunities for retail activity.

Monument at Market Street

A monument to the United Nations is located at the meeting point of Fulton and Market streets. A traffic circle contains the monument in the center of Market Street, calming traffic as it provides a dramatic location for the monument. The monument creates a punctuation on Market Street's long expanse, marking the Civic Center as a recognizable point on the city's most important street.

Streetcar Line

A new branch of the Muni historic streetcar system runs on the new Fulton Street, then branches around Civic Center Plaza and City Hall. The new rail line adds more activity to the street and improves transit access. Beyond City Hall, the streetcar line continues westward to Golden Gate Park's Music Concourse via Hayes Valley, a destination similar to the proposed Muni G-Line route. On the Fulton Street portion of the route, the train runs atop a linear water feature which serves as a reflecting pool and as further connection along the Axis.

Civic Center Plaza

At City Hall, the plaza is renovated in a design similar to the original 1912 plan. This formalized arrangement is more suited to the Beaux Arts setting than the current design. New fountains add beauty to the park, while hardscape on the central axis creates a space for civic gatherings of all types.

Infill Development

Residential infill (light red on the plan) adds vitality to the area by adding diversity to the building uses in Civic Center. The current domination of civic uses leaves the area less occupied and thereby less safe in night and weekend hours. The two new buildings on the corners of Civic Center Plaza are designed in a more traditional manner to complement and complete the Plaza's surroundings.

Green Building and Smart Growth

The plan's environmental focus is on green building and smart growth strategies. Serving as an example for others as well as an homage to the leadership role of the United Nations, the new United Nations Building would be built as a showcase for green building technologies. From green roofs to daylighting strategies to efficient glazing, all available methods will be employed to make it a fitting companion to the new Federal Building located immediately to the south.

The urban design plan implements smart growth strategies by placing dense new mixed-use development near San Francisco's primary transit spine on Market Street, creating opportunities for people to travel without using automobiles. In order to keep residential unit costs as low as possible, in keeping with the area's proximity to the Market Street transit corridor, and to reduce carbon emissions, no proposed buildings in the plan contain automobile parking. The addition of a new transit line further reduces the need to drive. For those needing automobile access, existing public lots and street parking are available.


Seen in perspective, the Civic Axis plan's evolution of the 1912 plan becomes clear. The design takes full advantage of 100 years of civic construction which has been sensitive to the original plan, while filling in some gaps and incorporating a contemporary understanding of urbanism.

New Civic Axis oblique view

The formal arrangement of the 1912 plan is extended to Market Street along the new and renewed Fulton Street, linking City Hall and the Civic Center plaza to the new United Nations Building at Market Street. New residential infill appears throughout the neighborhood. The new streetcar line enlivens Fulton Street before embracing city hall on the way to the western side of the City.


The connection point between the Fulton and Market streets could be one of the most important symbolic locations in San Francisco. This point serves as the fulcrum between Fulton's civic axis and Market's commercial axis. The plan proposes to enhance the distinction of this location in a way suited to its importance.

Market Street circle

The United Nations monument occupies the center point of the connection. The monument's twisting strands refer to strands of DNA, suggesting the common origin and future of humanity as well as San Francisco's status as a center of biotechnology. The sphere which sits atop the strands symbolizes our common fate with the earth and our role in shaping that fate.

The monument sits in the center of both Fulton and Market streets in a traffic circle. By allowing placement in the center of the streets and diverting traffic around the monument, the circle and its small fountain give the monument physical as well as visual emphasis.

The buildings surrounding the intersection work to shape the enclosed area to create a new semi-circular space. The United Nations Building's curving facade creates a new, more shaped public space which directly addresses the monument and which adequately terminates the strong linear presence of the buildings along the Civic Axis such as the main library and the Asian Art Museum.

Architecturally, the building's lower floors respond to the classical formality of the surrounding Civic Center buildings with a restrained contemporary design. As the building rises above the formality of the Civic Center buildings, it transitions into a more sinuous form and a more contemporary aesthetic. At ground level, the United Nations Building has retail uses facing Market and Seventh Streets, a continuation of the retail streetscape of both streets.


The Fulton Street Civic Axis terminates in the new United Nations Building on Market Street. This building's height and location make it a fitting focus for one of the most important views in San Francisco. Its broader civic function as a school of international relations and United Nations museum give it symbolic importance as well.

View along the Axis to Market Street

The design of the United Nations Building responds to its context and place on the Civic Axis while adopting a contemporary form. Above the restrained and elegant base, the building's tower portion leaps upward, turning and fracturing as it reaches skyward. A projecting section topped with a small spire marks the vertical extension of the Fulton axis.

The plan places a new branch of the Muni streetcar system on Fulton Street. Keeping the streetcars in a separated right of way in the center of Fulton Street allows the creation of a water feature where the streetcars seem to float over the water. This feature provides another element of visual interest on Fulton Street and an additional marker of its importance.

Because the streetcar runs in a separate portion of the street, the auto portion of the street can be easily blocked off for the Heart of the City farmers market several times weekly without affecting transit operations. Shoppers can enjoy the market while the streetcars continue to glide by. This strategy of blocking off the portion of the street for automobiles but allowing the streetcars to continue operation can also be employed for the many parades and public demonstrations which proceed from Market Street up Fulton Street to the Civic Center Plaza.


The San Francisco Civic Axis builds on the genius of the 1912 design while renewing the Civic Center with new activity and access. The Civic Center already holds one hundred years of the history of the City. By creating a new monument to the United Nations and a new school of international relations, the Civic Axis plan marks the location as an important one in the history, and perhaps future, of the world as well.

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These images and further images and explanation have been assembled into a PDF report, downloadable here.