photo by scott james

San Francisco’s Ugly New Face

The city is experiencing a big box building boom of mammoth, generic new structures with all the aesthetics of a suburban office park. Expect a backlash.

Soon after I moved to San Francisco in 1997 I met a guy who worked for the city’s Planning Department.

“There’s a plan?” I deadpanned.

The man was incredulous. “Why does everyone say that?”

Back then the major debate was over what to do with the few remaining remnants of the city’s elevated highway system. It had once scarred neighborhoods and blocked the beauty of the bay in an effort to hasten traffic. But after these eyesores were damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, the decision was made to tear down these de facto walls and bring traffic onto surface streets.

It was a visionary plan, and we see the benefits of it today with a restored and vibrant Ferry Building, and the rebirth of the Embarcadero’s stunning waterfront.

But in 1997 there remained a bitter fight over what to do with the elevated highway at Octavia Boulevard, a major route of highway traffic into the city. It seemed like every year we’d vote to tear it down, and then vote to put it back up the year after. Eventually a final ballot was taken, and the crumbling ruins that had sat for a decade were removed and surface roads installed.

The results have been yet another urban rebirth. Hayes Valley, the most impacted neighborhood from the change, was once a no-man’s-land of crime and disinterest. Now it’s a destination, filled with restaurants and culture.

It shows the enormous consequences of planning decisions, especially those involving visual impact. When those elevated highways were first built they were intended to help solve traffic problems. Few imagined that the side effects – hideous, pollution-producing Berlin Walls that visually divided a city – would have mattered so much, as proven now by their removal.

The city learned a valuable lesson that aesthetics really do matter.

That lesson, however, is being forgotten.

Right now the city is experiencing a massive building boom, ostensibly to deal with a chronic housing shortage that has worsened in recent years. To be sure, this is a real problem – the lack of housing is at crisis levels, with few available places to live, even for those who can afford to pay the most exorbitant prices. The working class and poor are being nudged out. Families? Forget it.

But the city’s efforts are reviving that old joke. There’s a plan?

One ugly monstrosity after another is being built, structures that are out of sync with the character of the city, both in size and style. Each one seems to be an indistinct exercise in utilizing the cheapest materials possible to build in as large a scale as zoning laws can be manipulated, combined with little commitment to design.

They are mammoth structures that could easily pass as big box chain stores usually found in suburban strip malls, or in an office park in Mountain View – the type that imprison the dull also-rans of technology, those companies that employees are depressed to report to each day, having not made the cut at Google or Facebook.

Instead of creating housing that could push San Francisco to its next level of visual greatness, for which the city is world renown, the current big box building boom feels like an enrichment program for mercurial developers who are constructing a new generation of scars on the city’s face. No one would blame future generations if they revile these as blight and debate their removal like we did with those old elevated highways.

I walked just a few blocks through my own neighborhood, the historic Castro, to note what’s being built there. A ginormous nondescript box of cement called Icon SF looms over the intersection of Market and 16th Streets. (Admittedly, it replaces another eyesore – the fenced-in hole that had occupied the site for decades after the Trinity Methodist Church burned down in 1981.)

There’s a huge banner promoting the Icon SF’s website and its 18 “luxury” homes that are coming soon. But although the sign has been up for months, the website offers scant details beyond an exterior artist’s rendition of something that might look welcome on the outskirts of San Jose.

Down the block at the corner of 2200 Market the location of a one-story restaurant is being replaced by five stories of cookie-cutter housing and retail that will tower over neighbors’ homes.

Beyond that, at the corner of Duboce and Market Streets, a low-rise old Ford dealership has been demolished at 2001 Market, and a massive complex taking up the better part of an entire block, featuring a Whole Foods supermarket and 82 condos, is reaching into the sky. It will dwarf its surroundings, and the design is generic, at best, but on a massive scale. A friend recently gasped when she walked by the construction site. “It’s enormous!” she exclaimed. Oh, she has no idea the extent of the blandness ahead.

Across and down the street is 1998 Market Street, with 115 housing units and, again, a boxy facade that screams Phoenix office complex.

Then next to the colorful gay and lesbian center at 1844 Market will be eight stunningly plain stories of 113 rental apartments.

And that’s just a short walk through my area – a neighborhood’s soul traded for 350 units. Similarly nondescript projects are planned or under construction throughout the city.

Besides their lack of design, what all these projects have in common is their disregard for San Francisco’s famous “living scale.” That’s the feeling residents and visitors experience by being among mostly low-rise buildings. We can see the sky from nearly anywhere, and we experience a sense of place and oneness with nature that cannot be achieved when surrounded by the darkness of skyscrapers, or penned in by generic mountains of cement, glass and steel.

Once our “living scale” is lost, it will likely never return.

But if there’s one thing for which San Franciscans can be counted, it’s a good backlash.

To be sure, some of these projects have been the subject of exhaustive community debate before construction, a relentless assault to wear neighbors into submission to get these approved. People have full lives and careers and can only devote so much time to fighting developers, some with deep pockets. And, frankly, the sketches people have been shown at meetings and online don’t convey the totality.

So it won’t be until people see these completed boxes with their own eyes that they’ll realize what city planners hath wrought. Expect a reckoning.

The knee-jerk reaction would be to ban new projects, but that would be a shame – after all, the city really does need more housing. Instead, there ought to be a clamor for better design.

But who would oversee that? Perhaps the ugliest recent housing in the city is 140 South Van Ness, a hulk evocative of the Soviet Bloc era with a whitish facade and exterior windows so filthy dirty it’s a testament to the disdain people must feel about living there. Oh, and it’s right across from the Planning Department. Someone there approved this disgrace and they must stare at it every day – with pride?

Maybe that’s truly what’s missing in San Francisco’s latest building boom. Pride. It used to be that buildings here were named after people – the wealthy barons who paid for them and sometimes even for architects. Go downtown and see gems like the Flood Building and the Hobart Building. Sure, they are enormous, but no one can accuse them of phoning it in on aesthetics.

With some of the new projects, the developers’ and architects’ names aren’t even mentioned on the buildings’ websites – like there’s nothing to be proud of.

Then again, pride and beauty just don’t seem to be part of the plan…if there’s a plan at all.