Historic Fort Mason seeks repairs

Special to The Guardsman

By Jenny G. Shao


For safety’s sake, every building in California is legally mandated to meet or be brought up to code, especially if publicly funded, federally owned and intended to serve or is open to the public. Fort Mason Campus is no exception.  

Two of the utmost basic but crucial code standards are outlined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Field Act.  Recently, City College structural engineers found the building’s original plans.  The findings were a great discovery as they could potentially cut enormous costs to the originally estimated $15 million price tag for seismic upgrades.  

Today the Fort Mason Campus predominantly functions as the Arts and Cultural Center.  According to the College website it’s located on the first and second floors of Building B.  Although the campus’ major focus is art, additional programs offered include ceramics, sculpture, painting, drawing and printmaking.  Dr. Kristana Whalen is Dean of the School of Fine, Applied, and Communication Arts said the upper floor also serves as a youth hostel.

Prior to City College’s residency, the building served a completely different purpose.  According to public records and Dr. Whalen, Fort Mason was historically a Embarkation Center for the United States Army.  As an Embarkation Center during World War II, the land was in part, filled in over water and technically sits on federal property.       

Fort Mason has lasted over a century and is now heavily worn and long overdue for safety upgrades.  Some of those safety problems include shearing, interconnected walkways between buildings that need to be reinforced and liquefaction.  Dr. Whalen states those facility upgrades would have to meet FEMA and the Field Act standards.  

Building Codes, as defined by FEMA, “are sets of regulations governing the design, construction, alteration and maintenance of structures.  They specify the minimum requirements to adequately safeguard the health, safety and welfare of building occupants.”   To adequately safeguard a building, it must withstand natural hazards of which FEMA defines as, “earthquake, flood, and wind.” It includes information on hurricane and tornado shelters as well.

The Field Act is similar according to Dr. Whalen who said it, “is a slightly higher bar to crust for seismic instructional sites.”  A piece of legislation passed in the 1930s, she explained, “the losses that we would have in a seismic event at schools are a societal loss that no one’s willing to bear, that our children…and it does apply to our community colleges…because they have more solid construction…often become resource centers when there is an earthquake.”  Drawing on the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, she illustrated how schools like Marina Middle School often became resource centers during disasters because they held up well.  

Seismical retrofitting often entails using reinforced masonry.  Although not an architect or engineer, Dr. Whalen explains the basics of masonry entails the use of bricks.  The bricks are layered together with cement. Given the amount of people regularly on and around the Fort Mason, she said it’s a matter of being “conservative” wherein the structure can withstand, “the worse case scenario if there is a seismic event.”   

To seismically retrofit a building, engineers need to know about Fort Mason’s structure including what lies underneath its foundation.  Knowing this would also aid in acquiring accurate cost estimates.  

In attempt to learn, Dr. Whalen said City College engineers and cost estimators asked for “As-Built” drawings.  Unfortunately, even after months of digging, none were found.  Down the line, someone found a map hidden in the National Archives. The map provided the best renderings of the building.  Dr. Whalen explained how it gave a more promising picture of what was underneath Building B- solid cement pilings.

In light of the new findings, a lot of costly unknowns have been reduced.  Dr. Whalen explains how the information could potentially lower the cost from excavation alone.  “Now that we don’t have to remediate the concern over liquefaction and how much does it take off the price tag but they’re working hard to figure that out,” Whalen said.

Despite the discovery of the maps, recalculating estimates and exact plans for renovation have yet to be determined.  “We’re still in the early stages of talking about who’s going to pay for what with Fort Mason,” Whalen said.  She also highlighted that aside from seismic upgrades, ideas for cosmetic renovation like installing large windows for outsiders to see inside, are on the table.  She states it would make “the place feel more alive, more animated and that would be good for us too because it would give more interest in the classes.”  

However, restructuring the windows contend with rules for historic preservation. Because of the unclear plans and prohibitions, no contractors have even been hired and a cost has not yet been agreed upon.

One thought on “Historic Fort Mason seeks repairs

  • Aaron Goodman

    A bigger issue is the access to campuses, the transit access, and impacts of commutes.

    CCSF needs to focus not only on buildings but transit connectivity.

    The Fort Mason Campus has a proposed extension of the F-Line out to make a loop to the site. CCSF should be supportive of this and due to the campus location assist in the implementation. It could bring a better connection from Embarcadero out to the site for east bay attendees.

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