When the plans for City Center Bishop Ranch were announced in 2014, the notion of revered Italian architect Renzo Piano designing a shopping center in a Contra Costa County office park seemed far-fetched, even absurd.
The disconnect remains now that the first shops have opened off Interstate 680 at Bollinger Canyon Road in San Ramon. But the complex itself is a meticulous pleasure, an open-air enclave that offers star architecture for the masses but also has lessons for suburban projects lacking the big-name budget or cachet.
If this is hubris, we could do a lot worse.
Built at a reported cost of $300 million, City Center Bishop Ranch consists of a pair of U-shaped structures that frame a 1-acre plaza. Both levels facing into the plaza are lined with shops behind floor-to-ceiling glass. The exterior has glassed-in storefronts on the first floor as well, below a windowless wall of corrugated stainless steel that conceals 940 parking spaces tucked inside the longer U-shaped building.
This being a shopping center, there’s a multiplex cinema and such familiar names as Pottery Barn. But the only Slanted Door outside of the Ferry Building will premiere this month, and Fieldwork Brewing Co. of Berkeley already has taps flowing.
On a recent Saturday, people stood in line to try the bubble tea at the East Bay’s first Boba Guys. The corrugated exterior displays reproductions of work by such artists as Joan Brown and Richard Diebenkorn.
In other words, the aspirations to break the standard suburban mold are real.
The developer is the Mehran family, which purchased Bishop Ranch’s 585 acres in 1978, when San Ramon had barely 20,000 residents.
Now the city’s population tops 75,000, and the office park is the daytime home to more than 30,000 workers. The newcomer, if successful, will be the centerpiece of what San Ramon officials tout as their “walking district,” which includes City Hall a quarter-mile to the east.
Viewed in this context, there’s a certain logic to hiring Renzo Piano Building Workshop as your design architect (the architect of record is San Francisco’s BAR Architects). The firm is known internationally for landmarks that include the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. Piano, 81, is an honorary senator in Italy who has used the post to call for urbanization of the nation’s suburbs.
You can bet that the Mehrans’ Sunset Development Co. paid a premium in fees.
Whatever the motives, the outcome in San Ramon feels conscientious rather than cynical. It’s a fully realized work of architecture, with the disciplined elegance for which Piano is known.
As is often the case with Piano’s work, the design relies on a small set of elements repeated throughout. The round concrete columns on the outside of the complex are echoed by thin steel ones along the central plaza. The angled orange awnings that line the second-floor walkways match the orange-striped fritting in the glass canopy that shades the escalators connecting the plaza to the upper shops.
The plaza’s paving is acid-washed concrete with black sand. The London plane trees have straight white trunks, a complement of sorts to the structural columns.
All this fine-tuned understatement might sound drab.
“I’ve had people people respond all across the spectrum,” admits Bill Clarkson, San Ramon’s mayor, “from people loving it to people thinking it looks like a big shed.”
But in a market-driven environment like San Ramon, where subdivisions hide behind landscaped sound walls, the visual impact of a clean silvery crate atop a recessed glass base can’t be underestimated.
The basic idea is easy to digest. The nuance rewards a closer look.
The East Bay has its share of shopping centers that tried to be different, then devolved as the novelty wore off. One example is less than 5 miles away at Blackhawk Plaza. It opened in 1988 as a would-be Rodeo Drive for the Tri-Valley set, with mock-Mediterranean buildings along a tumble of artificial ponds and streams. Retailers from Saks Fifth Avenue on down have come and gone since then — one of the largest remaining tenants is Blackhawk Plastic Surgery.
City Center Bishop Ranch also seems a bit ghostly right now because tenants are still moving in. There are signed leases for 75 percent of the space, however, and the proximity to I-680 and Bishop Ranch offices should ensure a regular stream of visitors.
If the new center flourishes and endures — no easy task with conventional retail under siege from online bazaars such as Amazon — one factor will be that the architecture has integrity. It doesn’t rely on skin-deep decorations. People will take notice, even if they’re not sure why.
Another is that the plaza has a genuinely civic presence. It feels distinct from surrounding storefronts, which is good. The central “lawn” is artificial turf, alas, yet the oversized plastic blocks scattered across it are an open invitation to families with young children.
As Alex Mehran Sr. told The Chronicle last year: “We would rather overreach than underreach.” For Sunset Development, the project can be seen as a long-term investment to keep Bishop Ranch enticing as the region evolves.
That said, the approach taken at City Center Bishop Ranch is relevant for other suburbs trying to move forward in an unpredictable cultural landscape.
Architectural decisions in today’s America too often are boiled down to opinions about what something looks like — what the rendering looks like, in fact, because nothing has been built. But reality often fails to match the hype. Details are dumbed down. Colors fade.
What San Ramon now has is a well-constructed center where the design and materials were thought through with care. This level of attention shows respect for the people who come to visit — and it’s the kind of message that can pay dividends, whether or not a celebrity architect is involved.
You can read the original article here.