Creating People-Places on the Urban Landscape
Thought Leader Simon Snellgrove

Photo Courtesy of Pacific Waterfront Partners
Simon Snellgrove, founder of Pacific Waterfront Partners, has an intuitive relationship with waterfront land. Born in Sydney, Australia, he grew up on the water, sailed early, and understood the complex connections between industrial growth, human need, and eco-sustainability.

His project development experience includes much of the recent waterfront development in San Francisco, including Piers 1&1/2, 3 and 5, the Embarcadero Center, and the Pan Pacific Hotel in San Francisco, Marina Square in Singapore, Peachtree Center, Atlanta, and the Portman Ritz Carlton in Shanghai. In these projects and multiple others, Mr. Snellgrove has brought a unique vision and process to his work, understanding human needs within socially diverse, mixed-use contexts.

JustLuxe: When you first came to San Francisco, what did the Piers and the Embarcadero look like? When did you first start thinking about some sort of urban redevelopment plan for this area of San Francisco?

Simon Snellgrove: When I first came to San Francisco, the Ferry Building was falling down, and the Piers was an old industrial area that looked blighted and ancient. When I first came also, I did not think of any kind of urban redevelopment, as I had not yet learned about how to do large-scale projects on a more human scale. I had to have a few years of high-end hotel training both here and in China and Singapore to start thinking like that.

JL: One of the major threads I have found as I have interviewed urban design specialists and planners is that most feel they are creating new social environments, where there are greater opportunities for social interaction or a grander scale than there was before. Do you feel this way also, especially as regards your most recent projects?

SS: I do feel this way. And younger people feel this way also. Kids so get it — when we create large, beautiful urban spaces, like our waterfront areas, a wealth of diverse people are attracted to them, and with that attraction are greater opportunities for social interaction.

JL: You have had a variety of diverse experiences — from architectural draftsperson to commercial real estate developer. Which of these experiences have helped you with the renovation and reuse planning for the Embarcadero Piers?

SS: Well, all of my abilities have played into what I have done. I was an architectural draftsperson first, so I understand spatial connections, and can draw them out. I was fortunate enough to work with some great hotel developers who also had the human and environmental connection in mind. Also, I had a very Bohemian upbringing, so I learned early about the relationship of how human and cultural connectivity played into living spaces. This idea has always followed me, and with it, I am able to see urban spaces in a different way, that is, working toward creating large-scale spaces on a more human scale.

JL: In your extant urban planning projects, I would guess you must balance the concepts of renovation, preservation and restoration. How do you see these ideas being applied in your present and future projects?

SS: Those ideas are the essence of the work we do and have done. When we renovate, we want to restore and preserve and ultimately make visible, the soul of the place. This idea is much easier in Bali or in India, as those countries are pregnant with soul.  

JL: And what does the importance of 21st century sustainability have to do with your future projects?

SS: It is the underlying DNA of the work we do. The hotels and mixed-use developments of the future must have some eco-sensitivity to them, as we must remember that hotels and public areas are built on land, and those projects we build are often near water. These are fragile entities, and our work should not impinge on their existence.

JL: You have also had development experience in Singapore and Shanghai. What are some of the differences in urban land planning and development philosophy between East and West, or are there any?

SS: These two cities are at very different stages of political and economic development from the U.S. and indeed from each other. Generally Singapore started its ”modernization” in the early 70s and Shanghai a decade later but from a much weaker state. Singapore in any ways became a model for Shanghai from a political and economic standpoint and the boldness of the planning and development reflects their optimism in the new economic order. Both however were a long way behind the West and had differing objectives than ours. Asia is such a fast growing area, the general sentiment is that “...we have a lot of catching up to do and we want to do it better than the West.” The approach to planning is therefore more “macro” and speed is the name of the game. Not having made the mistakes we made in the planning of the 50s and 60s, they are less timid. We, on the other hand, have become a lot more cautious.

The Western urban landscape is a mature one. Many of our urban planning and development opportunities are in the area of urban infill, redevelopment and neighborhood transformation and are influenced more by social, environmental and micro economic concerns. In general, while the Asians are getting a lot of things right, our more laborious democratic process and our concern to right the wrongs of our exuberant post war growth have made us more careful, our planning and environmental process more democratic and therefore more tedious. However, in the end I believe that we are creating better people-places that are more sensitive and more responsible than ever before in our history. In Shanghai and Singapore they are even beginning to follow our example in the preservation and adaptive re-use of some of their historic assets.

JL: A luxury mall developer once told me, "We need to balance immediacy with longevity, or, put another way, to balance greater focus with greater scale.” Do you agree with this also? How does this idea translate into the work you are doing or does it translate at all?

SS: We are creating structures that will last hundreds of years. Major commercial development is not like single-family houses or small shops. These can be cycled — as land values increase, houses and shops are regularly torn down and replaced. In the work we do, where larger scale is necessary, one needs to keep a strict focus on the human experience. We build people-places — environments that are intended to please both visitors and stakeholders alike. We must respond both to the public’s needs and rights to participate in the built environment and at the same time cater to the desires and needs of the stakeholders that actually pay for the building — i.e., the residents and the merchants.

We also recognize that the uses within large buildings will go through many changes to respond to various socio-economic cycles. These changes will occur within the built environment. Therefore, we believe in creating timeless, more understated and simple design while utilizing the best materials that will stand the test of time. We believe in exquisitely detailed structures but avoid fashion. We strive to achieve timeless buildings that are elegant but not faddy. We believe that generations to come should be able to adapt the buildings as we now adapt historic building to the needs of their society. We want to build buildings that will one day be on the National Register of Historic Places!

JL: Tell me what association you have with the Americas Cup coming to San Francisco? 

SS: As a firm we volunteered to help the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development compete for the venue for the 34th Americas Cup. At that time San Francisco had to compete with Newport, RI, San Diego, CA, Spain and Italy, to convince the Oracle Team that we could put on a world-class event here. We were able to bring together a team of architects, lawyers, builders and engineers to help the City and the Port work out a viable plan to adapt the waterfront to the needs of the Cup sponsors. Other local private firms also jumped in. The cup races in San Francisco will be over two years. The AC 45’s are racing here in 2012 as part of their round the world series that serves as a “warm up” for the 2013 event which will be comprised of the Louis Vuitton Cup and the Americas Cup itself. This will be sailed among 72 feet boats that are under construction. You may find this website helpful:

JL: What are your future plans for redevelopment in San Francisco? What is your next project for which you feel a great deal of passion and commitment?  

SS: Our 8 Washington project that will include up to 165 residential units, 20,000 square feet of restaurants and retail, and 30,000 square feet of outdoor public open spaces and parks, and this consumes much of my passion at the moment. But, we are always looking for ways to improve the Waterfront. At the moment, most of San Francisco’s northern waterfront is consumed by focus on the Americas Cup and a couple of very exciting projects — a new Cruise Terminal at Pier 27 and a new Exploratorium at Pier 15. However, we work with the Port all the time — also chasing dreams in the Southern and Central Waterfront areas. We are hopeful, actually confident, that we will find an opportunity in the vast 7-mile waterfront that is opening up the City to its Bay! After all, it’s what we were made for!

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8 Washington, view looking south

Susan Kime

Susan Kime's career combines publishing, journalism and editing. She was the Destination Club/Fractional Update Editor for Elite Traveler, and senior club news correspondent for The Robb Report's Vacation Homes. Her work has been published in Stratos, Luxury Living, European CEO, The London Telegraph, Caviar Affair, ARDA Developments, and Luxist/AOL. She was the Editor-in-Chief of Travel Conno...(Read More)

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