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According to Plan 

If both mayoral candidates keep their promises, San Francisco could build the high-rise housing it needs – and be even more beautiful than it is

Wednesday, Nov 26 2003
Over the past two decades, Vancouver, British Columbia, has become famous for an urban-design experiment. Planners there drafted strict guidelines that sought to create dense, cosmopolitan neighborhoods around slender, high-rise condominium buildings. And the planners succeeded marvelously. On a recent reporting trip to Vancouver, I was pulled along as if by electromagnetic force through endless, gorgeous parkways, past block-size fountain playgrounds, beside community centers, along miles of a raised, split-level, park-lined pedestrian bicycle path – all funded by developers. The sliverlike towers above me were designed in unison, using sophisticated computer models to eliminate shadows and create views. The buildings themselves are beautiful: glass, steel, and marble spires that sit atop terraced, landscaped pedestals at the center of distinct, funky neighborhoods. Light is everywhere.

The Vancouver design philosophy is aimed at creating neighborhoods dense enough to support numerous businesses in nearly every city block, so errands don't require driving. Official traffic studies show that even though thousands of new residents have been attracted to the downtown area, car traffic has plummeted as pedestrian traffic has increased. Because everyone's walking, the city is strangely, and sublimely, quiet. And because Vancouver has built thousands of apartments during the past decade, vacancy rates remain greater than 4 percent, the tipping point below which rents tend to rise.

Despite a Vancouver economic boom that is related to capital flight from Hong Kong, the Canadian city's rents are just over half San Francisco's. The streets become even more beautiful when you realize that they're not exclusive: Any working stiff can afford to live there.

As exotic as it feels, Vancouver's accomplishment is not based on a secret recipe. Anyone with a master's degree in city planning can recite the municipal benefits of very tall, narrow condominium high-rises, dense urban/commercial neighborhoods, and a mixture of parks, stores, and apartments in a filigreed urban lacework. But those benefits require coherent planning and public consensus, and those are attributes that have, so far, been impossible to foster in San Francisco.

Unlike Vancouver, where the city runs a highly professional planning process that decides general development guidelines and then allows expert planners to implement them without interference from politicians, San Francisco has, under Willie Brown's leadership, concocted the Italian Parliament of the planning world.

S.F.'s planning process is rife with back-room deals, interest-group wars, and lengthy and costly appeals, delays, hearings, and new hearings. Planning is an endless interest-group battle between NIMBY neighborhood associations and developers, without a good-faith vision of the city's future in sight. Negotiations between developers and neighbors can last decades and lead to canceled projects in some cases, bastard-child edifices in others. Housing everywhere remains scarce and expensive. And in areas where housing could be built – including SOMA, the Van Ness corridor, Geary Boulevard, and the central waterfront – the landscape is filled with empty lots, ugly, low-slung cinder-block buildings, and traffic-clogged streets.

In Vancouver, there's been a concerted effort to depoliticize the planning process. Decisions are made by a panel of professional architects and planners whose work is monitored by a citizens advisory committee. But San Francisco needn't change the structure of its planning bodies to see that development decisions are made on the basis of professional planning.

Our Planning Commission – for the last eight years a layperson's club of political hacks – could just as easily be composed of prominent local planners and architects whose only allegiance is to improving the cityscape. The job description of the planning director needn't change dramatically, either. A national search for a top-notch visionary to replace Willie Brown yes-man Gerald Green would go a long way toward returning the Planning Department to its previous role of articulating a vision for the city's future.

The most important necessary change, of course, is at the top; our next mayor must be more than an arbiter between interest groups.

Happily both mayoral candidates have made reforming the Planning Department a central plank of their campaigns. Matt Gonzalez has made public integrity a campaign cornerstone. Gavin Newsom has said he'd replace the department's leadership and attempt to depoliticize the planning process.

For the sake of San Francisco, I hope they're both sincere.

For 18 years, city planners have viewed the areas surrounding the Transbay Terminal and on Rincon Hill – now a ratty pastiche of asphalt parking lots, one-story warehouse buildings, and surface streets – as the site for a potential urban renaissance. This area is near the greatest concentration of public transport in western North America; it's within walking distance of hundreds of thousands of downtown jobs; it's in a potentially beautiful location, near the bay, away from the fog, close to North Beach, Chinatown, and many of San Francisco's urban amenities.

Earlier this month the Board of Supervisors voted to certify an environmental impact statement for the first buildings in the planned Rincon Hill neighborhood – a 35-story tower and a 40-story tower at 300 Spear St., and a 35-story and a 40-story tower at 201 Folsom St. The four towers would bring a total of 1,600 new apartments. Next month the board will consider zoning changes needed to build them.

But the towers are the result of a deal between builders' lobbyists and the mayor, and planners complain they were squeezed out of the process. As a result, the buildings have aspects that benefit developers at the city's expense. For one thing, the towers are fat and extend too close to streets, creating lightless canyons; they include some 1,600 parking spaces, which will encourage cars and driving, rather than mass transit and walking; and many of those spaces are to be built aboveground, creating a pedestrian alleyway lined by blank walls. These towers are a tragedy, almost regardless of what happens. If they are built, they will make a dark, view-blocking, unwalkable neighborhood that will, in turn, make it more difficult to muster needed support for plans to build additional apartment towers in the Rincon Hill area. And if the Board of Supervisors heeds neighbors who are protesting the towers and rejects the zoning changes necessary for them to be built, San Francisco will lose some 1,600 units of desperately needed housing, a fifth of it subsidized to serve low-income renters.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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