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San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Central China Town Station entrance corner view with mural on yellow roof
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 neighborhood is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia and is 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 50 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.

Rooftop patio with sheltered space and seating. Glass half wall along edge. 2 elevators in green shaft on back wall

The design concept specifies a 2,500-square-foot plaza with stairs and stadium seating.

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

The community didn’t want to be aesthetically bound by the past. They hoped for a station that represented their future, as well as their culture and history,


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.

Lobby with glass canopy. 3 escalators to the left, glass wall separates from grey hallway with ramp and steps. Elevator right

To bring natural light into the station, a glass canopy stretches entirely over the first flight of escalators.

The same room under construction. Glass ceiling panels have been installed

Exposed to the elements, the structural glass has a frosted pattern for bird safety and reduced maintenance requirements.


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.

Rounded room with escalator to station below between 2 train tracks. Black grid over ceiling. Mural on wall dividing tunnel

The Chinatown Rose Pak Station, the deepest of the three new stations along the extended line, was mined to minimize the impact on the community.

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

The station cavern, where the train platforms provide access to the north and southbound train tunnels, was created using sequential excavation.


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.

Subway tunnel with curved white ceiling and hanging light rods. Escalator and elevator at end to glass rail 2nd floor walkway

A sense of nature is imbued in the concrete, steel, and glass building by using a color palette of soft greens and blues.

Rounded tunnel, under construction, covered in perforated white panels. Hanging light beams along tracks beside screens

White cement fiberboard panels line the cavern.


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.

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Central China Town Station entrance corner view with mural on yellow roof

The facade features a 100-foot-long artwork by NYC-based artist Tomie Arai that wraps around the corner at the intersection of Stockton and Washington Streets.

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

One of the highlights of the station is artwork by local artist Yumei Hou. Magnified and laser-cut elements are mounted slightly off the wall to cast a shadow and “read” as paper cuttings.

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, RIBA, LEED AP


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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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