Alexander Clark Real Estate

‘The Front Steps’: Revisiting the Richmond’s Most Controversial “New” Homes

It’s now been almost ten years since the Battle of Cornwall.

Cornwall Street, that is; this wasn’t a military venture but instead a conflict of opinions about what should be done with an otherwise unimpressive Inner Richmond block that eventually gave rise to one of the Richmond’s most distinctive (for better or worse) pieces of modern architecture.

Once upon a time, 300 Cornwall was just a grim looking auto shop and adjoining parking lot; a few blocks west, Cornwall runs right into California at 6th Ave and disappears, creating a handful of awkward, wedge-shaped blocks ahead of Cornwall’s terminus, like this one.

For whatever oddball reason, developers decided that this one had potential as a set of six townhouses. Because the block was weirdly shaped, so too would the new buildings be; of the six proposed units, all would feature unique floor plans.

Naturally, some people at the time did not care for this notion; after all, it was new housing, and at a scale that, while mostly modest, still outdid the nearby homes. The fact that not much was really happening on this block as it was didn’t make a big difference, because after all this is San Francisco and SOMEONE always has an opinion.

But the catch was that for once, it didn’t much matter: The new building was well within planning code limits, so the red tape was kept to a minimum and the development went ahead.

Another surprise: The critics loved it. SF Chronicle Urban Design go-to guru John King called it “the most provocative new building in San Francisco” and proof that “assertive contemporary architecture can flourish in almost any urban setting.”

Archello referred to the block as “a mini district with unrealized potential as an urban place.”

And California Home & Design praised architect Owen Kennerly for “turning the narrow site into an asset.”

And of course, the fact that some of the homes listed for more than $2 million at the time surely made the developers happy. Four of these homes have sold again in just the past three years, fetching up to $1.85 million.

All that said, 300 Cornwall definitely looked…well, “out of place” would be a fairly diplomatic start. And almost a decade later–well to be honest, driving by it is still always a surprise.

While it was certainly contentious at the time, if this development were proposed today we’d guess there’d be even more sturm und drang about it. Neighborhood naysayers may still have lacked the power to stop it, but it would get stormy all the same.

That said, enough time has passed now that old opinions could have changed, or just formed in the case of those who had no opinions initially.

Do you think 300 Cornwall fits in? Do you think it’s a good use of the block? Would you want another building like it? Or is it just an oddity?

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