Last Wednesday David Stull, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music's president, announced a major $185 million construction project called The Bowes Center at the northeast corner of Hayes and Van Ness, aided by a $46.4 million gift from the William J. Bowes, Jr. Foundation. The venture capitalist was on the Conservatory board for decades, and he bought the land for the school four years ago before passing on in 2016.
Starting this summer a 27-unit apartment complex and the Lighthouse for the Blind will be torn down and replaced by a 12-story building that will provide housing for 420 Conservatory students, apartments for visiting artists and faculty, classrooms, a restaurant, a rooftop deck, recording studios, rehearsal rooms, and two performance spaces.
District 6 Supervisor and mayoral candidate Jane Kim gave a charming and articulate speech about how her doubts on the project being able to make its way through the city's bureaucracies has turned into joyful amazement that it is actually happening.
The architect Mark Cavagnero showed artist's renderings of what the building and its various spaces would look like, and though it looks sleek, modern and handsome, I saw one major problem.
Mark Cavagnero Associates recently designed the SFJAZZ Center and also the Taube Atrium Theater on the top floor of the Veterans Building, and none of those spaces have prosceniums, stages, or backstage spaces which makes presenting musical theater or opera problematic. The new Bowes Center calls for the same kind of layouts, which will look exciting as you are walking by the building on a Van Ness sidewalk but is not so nice for performers and audiences. The small Joe Henderson Lab at the SFJAZZ Center, for instance, feels a bit like being in a soundproof glass tomb, and the renderings for the Bowes Center look like more of the same.
One performance space is projected for the ground floor corner with the other to be situated on the roof with a view of City Hall's dome "and all the interesting light effects that happen there on a nightly basis," Cavagnero noted. My objection is that when trying to concentrate on a musical performance, the last thing that is needed is a distracting blue-and-gold light show for a Golden State Warriors playoff run. Plus, tiered seating and stages exist for the good reason that sight lines are terrible if only the first row can see the full show. In an $185 million building, one would hope there would be an attempt at constructing a decent small theater.
The press conference was held on the second floor of 100 Van Ness, the 28-story skyscraper that used to host AAA headquarters before they moved to the East Bay. The building was then gutted down to its girders in 2013 and reincarnated as luxury apartment rentals.
In fact, this is where the tenants from the 27 rent-controlled units will be living for two years before they return to their new building in 2020, surrounded by music students, which seems like a fabulous stroke of luck for them.
At the end of the conference, we were invited to the rooftop deck to check out the views, and I boarded an elevator with the San Francisco Chronicle classical music critic Joshua Kosman. It turned out that both of us have vertigo around heights so this was the closest either of us came to looking over the glass barriers at the sidewalks below.
I have lived in this neighborhood since the early 1990s and its transformation has been fascinating to witness. The Bowes Center looks like it could be the most wonderful addition yet.