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Concrete block walls with raised red sculptural mural on left. Right, arched hall with gates and ticket booth by escalators
Chinatown Rose Pak Station

Providing Access to the Chinatown Community

Project Location

San Francisco, CA


San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency


10,000 SF


Architecture, preliminary engineering, CA

The recently opened Chinatown Rose Pak Station provides access to the unique community that is San Francisco’s Chinatown, the densest neighborhood in the city. The Central Subway, the second phase of the $1.6 billion Third Street Light Rail project, adds a crucial north-south axis to San Francisco’s light rail system. Our design team collaborated with two local nonprofit organizations, Asian Neighborhood Design and Chinatown Community Development Center, and held community design workshops to compile a set of guidelines and goals for the station design. Priority was placed on safety, accessibility, and cultural representation.

Within the roughly 10,000-SF station, a large glass skylight brings daylight deep underground, shortening the perception of depth. Our design of the 100-foot-deep station involved strategies to create a sense of progression as you descend into the ticketing hall. As such, large swaths of space are dedicated to art by local artists – pieces determined in close collaboration with the San Francisco Arts Commission – which also serve as a means of wayfinding. Favored by the community, a 2,500-SF rooftop plaza above the station was also incorporated into the design with stadium seating and public art created by local artists.

Rose Pak Station

The Central Subway is San Francisco’s first subway line to be constructed in the last 40 years, and one of a small handful of recent subway projects in the U.S. Located on a tight footprint of 10,000 square feet, the station had to provide all the necessary functionality while reflecting the unique culture of San Francisco’s Chinatown, an internationally famous tourist attraction that is home to 15,000 Chinese Americans and serves the greater Chinese American community in the Bay Area.


A Gateway to the Community

Because square footage is so precious in Chinatown and the housing need so acute, the original concept outlined a new multistory building with affordable housing above the station. However, as the plans progressed, building on the limited footprint turned out to be infeasible, and the community voiced a preference for a rooftop plaza above the station.

Organic shaped benches in walkway with ramp and steps to rooftop plaza with red canopy. Trees grow along green tile left wall

Welcome Sequence

Since users will descend 100 feet below the surface – the rough equivalent of a 10-story building – we looked for ways to make the experience more appealing. A choreographed procession down to the train platforms takes advantage of the natural breaks along the way. Riders begin the journey bathed in natural light under a canopy of structural glass that covers the first flight of escalators.

Rounded room with escalator to station below between 2 train tracks. White panel ceiling. Glass wall dividing tunnel

Hollowed Halls

To celebrate the cavern’s curved form, we worked hard to find alternatives to putting in a dropped ceiling or columns to contain the necessary ductwork and utilities, calling for the wall to be thickened rather than mar the cavern’s clean lines. The arch is lined with white cement fiberboard panels that conceal utility lines and bring a slight luminescence to the space.

Domed upper level tunnel with stairs, back right, behind elevator shaft under construction. Raw concrete ceiling and floor

A Comfortable Send-Off

A feng shui consultant advised the design team on how to avoid creating negative energy in their architectural choices. The upwards-sloping building site had a good flow of energy to begin with. They also learned that they shouldn’t include any spiky elements, because it would have the sense of a weapon.

Rounded tunnel covered in perforated white panels. Hanging light beams along tracks beside screens
Rounded side walls of tunnel covered in perforated white panels. Hanging light beams along tracks beside screens, elevator at platform center

Art Program

To help the station symbolize Chinatown, the 2008 community design guidelines called for public art on the exterior and its open space, instead of simply within the station. They also advocated for the art to reflect the history of Chinatown and Chinese immigration in the city. Thanks to San Francisco’s “2-percent-for-art” program, which requires that two percent of the construction budget for city projects is allocated to public art, the SFMTA was able to commission significant artwork for the station. We worked with the city’s Arts Commission to identify opportunities for artwork and fully integrate it into the station architecture.

2 people looking at red art mural in a sub ground train station, escalators to back, rounded entry over turnstiles left
Concrete block walls with raised red sculptural mural on left. Right, arched hall with gates and ticket booth by escalators

Case Study

Connecting Worlds

How was the densest neighborhood in San Francisco selected for a subway station that descends 100 feet below ground?

Read the paper


Elevating Design

CEO and Managing Principal Steven McKay, AIA, RIBA

CEO Steven McKay Shares a Passion for Design with designboom

This exclusive interview reveals McKay’s commitment to employee-ownership, the thrill of the design challenge, and the future of our firm. In the interview, the Chinatown Rose Pak Station is shared as an example of how we are leading with design.

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