Architect Craig Hartman

During breakfast on a rainy Saturday morning, architect Craig Hartman reviews the projects he has undertaken since 1993. “There’s SFO’s International Terminal; the St. Regis Hotel and Residences in San Francisco; the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland; the new U.S. Embassy in Beijing; and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China’s building in Guangzhou,” he says without a hint of boasting. “Oh, and Beijing’s ‘Financial Street,’ a 15-million-square-foot, mixed-use development that’s China’s equivalent of our Wall Street.”

Hartman is an architecture and design partner in the San Francisco office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). Not included on his aforementioned roster of projects are the ones he is currently involved with. This includes the master planning of the redevelopment of Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay; a similar effort involving San Francisco’s massive Parkmerced apartment complex; a new state courthouse in Ukiah, California; the two-million-square-foot Agricultural Bank and a new U.S. Consulate, both in Guangzhou, China; an inter-modal transportation center on the outskirts of Shanghai that will handle one million commuters a day; 350 Mission Street, a new highly sustainable high-rise at Fremont and Mission streets near the Embarcadero in San Francisco; and a 1,000-foot-high office tower in China’s coastal city of Fuzhou. The latter two mentions cause Hartman to reflect: “In San Francisco, our tallest buildings are less than 1,000 feet high,” he says, “but in China, that’s just another building.” Which is just one of several U.S.-China comparisons the 61-year-old Corte Madera resident makes during an engaging two-hour conversation.

Hartman has been with SOM since graduating from Ball State University’s College of Architecture and Planning in 1973. After working in Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and Houston, he became a design partner in SOM’s San Francisco office in 1990 and moved to Marin in 1995. In 2001, Hartman became the youngest recipient of the Maybeck Lifetime Achievement Award given out by the California Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. This is one of more than 100 awards Hartman has received for his work. Even the Pope has recognized Hartman: during the dedication ceremony for the Cathedral of Christ the Light in September 2008, the Vatican’s Knighthood for Service to Society was bestowed upon Hartman by Pope Benedictus XVI.

Hartman and his wife, Jan O’Brien, moved to Marin because of its excellent schools, and their children, Kelsey and Travis, are attending Smith College and the University of Oregon, respectively, after graduating from Redwood High.

After 10 years of working in both nations, what comparisons can be drawn between the U.S. and China? In Beijing, I remember being stuck in traffic going to the airport. We were just sitting there. Then suddenly a high-speed rail line whooshes passed us, and I thought, “Oh man, there’s a metaphor for where China is compared to the Western world. We are stuck in our cars in traffic while being surpassed by the new China. As far as the two nations go, they both have bureaucracies but of different types. Democracy has many nuances; it’s a more deliberate process. Every voice is heard and equally weighed.

For instance, in the Parkmerced project, over the past two years more than 200 meetings have been held before any work commenced. Another example—New York City’s Second Avenue subway—has taken nine years and $4.4 billion to complete, and it’s only about a mile and a half long. In Guangzhou, China, they construct 30 miles of subway in less than a year. Still another example: the new eastern span of our Bay Bridge is a major construction project that’s costing over $6 billion and taking over a decade to complete. In today’s China, it would be a minor event and completed in a tenth of the time.

However, taking a long time is not necessarily a bad thing. When things are done quickly, mistakes get made. It’s a trade-off. Finally, two things must be realized about China: contrary to what one might think, they are very environmentally focused. They chose to build their economy, and now they are aggressively working to clean up their environment while rebuilding their cities. They are doing that now; their buildings are virtually leapfrogging those in America in regard to conserving energy and promoting a sustainable planet. And finally, I’ll say this about the leadership in China: for better or worse, the people we work with—and many if not most speak English—are from the professional class. Many have been educated as scientists and engineers, and they are very focused on accommodating this tremendous growth. They are politicians, of course, but they are also enlightened pragmatists. A government official told me at dinner last year that with free markets democracy will follow. Perhaps those were just the words of a skilled politician, meant to entertain his American guest. But what a wonderful outcome that would be!

Coming back home, Treasure Island sits in the middle of the San Francisco Bay Area—what’s going on there? It’s a joint powers redevelopment project, Treasure Island Development Agency, or TIDA, involving San Francisco; the state; and developers including Lennar Urban, Kenwood Investments and Wilson Meany Sullivan—the people who did the restoration and cultural repositioning of the Ferry Building. They are all extremely creative people. An environmental impact report has been issued, and public comments are now being received. Approval of a master plan could come in May with work starting within the year. Initially, a lot of that will relate to infrastructure, such as soil stabilization and removing asphalt and concrete, so actual construction won’t start for some time.

The proposal for the 400-acre island calls for up to 8,000 housing units and 300 acres of protected open space in the form of wetlands, bird sanctuaries, tidal basins and even farmlands. Regarding housing, it will be dense in order to allow for open space and socially animated, walkable neighborhoods. A newly built ferry terminal will be no more than a 10-minute walk from housing. This density is what it will take to support island-wide retail, produce and recreational amenities. A goal is to make it easy for residents to live car-free. The role of master architect and planner for this project has been a great privilege, especially given the opportunity to collaborate with so many passionate and creative people from the development side, the city, the Citizen’s Advisory Board and many, many Bay Area design colleagues.

Treasure Island has considerable history—will all that be destroyed? No. In 1937, the island was created from tidelands and fill taken from Yerba Buena Island while tunneling for the Bay Bridge. At first, it was going to be a municipal airport; then in 1939, it was the site of the Golden Gate International Exposition. The historically important remaining buildings will be retrofitted and saved. Everyone involved with Treasure Island is dedicated to creating a sustainable and environmentally friendly community that reflects the existing culture of San Francisco and the Bay Area.

As a world-renowned designer and planner, how would you plan (or re-plan) Marin County? First, I would get the SMART train in action—run it all the way from northern Sonoma County to the Larkspur ferry landing. I’d have the bike and pedestrian path running right alongside it. The sooner that’s done, the better. As I see it, SMART will become an alternative to using our cars on the 101 Freeway.

Next, I would advocate “containment of development,” the position of the Greenbelt Alliance, a Bay Area organization I admire very much and would urge readers to join. This doesn’t mean no development. Rather, when and where development occurs, it is located within certain boundaries. This way, we maintain our open space and curtail sprawl. Yes, it does mean greater density. Then we connect our cities, towns and villages with hiking and biking trails. And yes, that means I support re-opening the old Alto Tunnel between Mill Valley and Corte Madera. Neighbors say this might attract a “bad element.” Give me a break­—bicyclists a bad element?

Also, Marin must never again allow building on the top of a hill or ridgeline. Finally, and this will probably get me ostracized in Marin, I’d like to go back to the 1960s and have BART come into the North Bay. I’d like to see it going right alongside 101—anything to get us out of our cars. I’d also like to see our towns become more walkable, compact and socially vibrant places. And wouldn’t it be great if everything were interconnected by frequent and dependable electric shuttle buses?