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Wednesday, Jan 6 1999
Assholes on the March
If it's possible for a building to mimic a human personality -- to show warmth or, say, arrogance -- then 755 Minnesota St. would be a real asshole.

Colossal (50 feet tall), mint green, and stylistically out of touch with almost every cultural and aesthetic reference point in San Francisco, the 12-unit building of pricey residential lofts -- one of those things developers are dishonestly calling "live-work" developments these days -- appears to have been airlifted from the Hollywood Hills, or some other culturally denuded L.A. enclave, and dropped into the middle of San Francisco in the dead of night by subversive Southern California "architects."

Nothing about 755 Minnesota acknowledges the surrounding neighborhood of Dogpatch, an area noted for late Edwardian and Victorian period houses and old industrial buildings. The neighborhood is tucked away between the southern water-front and Highway 280; Bruce Anderson is an artist who was part of the mid-'70s Dogpatch renaissance, when it went from a slum to an artists' colony. Anderson showed me 755 Minnesota the other day when he took me on a walking tour of his neighborhood.

Anderson and his neighbors are alarmed that a building of such complete, insolent, obstreperous defiance to every historic marker in Dogpatch can be thrown up so easily. The neighbors, many of them members of the Lower Potrero Hill Neighborhood Association, have been dedicating much of their energy lately to defending the integrity of their neighborhood from the live-work onslaught.

What alarms Anderson and his neighbors more than anything else? Well, 755 Minnesota isn't the worst of it. At least that building has a style, even if that style would be more fitting if thrown into a polluted, sprawling, and defiled city 300 miles to the south. "There are some truly vicious examples I can show you," Anderson said as we walked away from the Mint Monster at 755 Minnesota.

Boy, he wasn't kidding.
We walked down Minnesota and made our way over to Tennessee Street. Turning a corner, I was punched in the face by a truly alarming sight: An entire city block -- bounded by Mariposa and 18th streets to the north and south, and Tennessee and Third streets to the west and east -- blighted by what are arguably the ugliest build-ings in the city. And they're all live-work developments.

Just so no one can mistake my meaning, let me restate: These seven -- soon to be eight -- buildings are an insult to any-one with even a passing interest in architecture, neighborhood integrity, or San Francisco.

Between 40 and 50 feet tall, each building eats up damn near 100 percent of the lot on which it is built. With minuscule rear or side setbacks, the buildings on this block look like nothing so much as tenement housing.

In terms of design ... well, there isn't any. A chimp could have designed these buildings, which can't properly be called buildings, because they are just boxes. Big, butt-ugly boxes. And, it seems, a color-blind chimp was hired, probably on the cheap, to paint the boxes.

Example du jour: 635 Tennessee St.
The color scheme: brick red, forest green, mint green, and ocher.
"When we first saw it we thought it was primer," Anderson says. "We were quite surprised to discover this was intentional."

In the late 1980s, the city passed a law legalizing lofts in industrial buildings and neighborhoods. The law was meant to legitimize the artists who had, usually out of financial concern, made their homes in the places where they practiced their craft. But the law has all sorts of gaping loopholes, which have now been capitalized on by residential builders who want to avoid the pesky and profit-limiting rules connected to the construction of true residential buildings in San Francisco. In the late '90s, the law that once fostered creative colonies in industrial neighborhoods, giving us art, photography, furniture, and film, is now being used to build lavish, stylistically out-of-place, high-end housing for Silicon Valley techheads.

The live-work developments in Dog-patch are the most recent and ugliest example of this trend. They are little more than money machines for the developers who build them and utilitarian pods for the yuppies who fill them. Despite what the developers of live-work units will tell you, neither they nor their units are doing much to solve the housing crisis in San Francisco.

The units are out of financial reach for most San Franciscans, renting for more than $2,000 a month and selling for between $400,000 and $900,000. So they don't meet the city's most pressing supply need: low- to midpriced housing. They are not friendly to families; with their open floor plans and open staircases, they are no place for kids. "They are condos for single yuppies," says Sue Hestor, a land-use attorney who has been diligently tracking the live-work building boom since it began in 1996.

So the best that can be said for these live-work monstrosities is that they may herd large numbers of single yuppies into one place, marginally improving life in other San Francisco neighborhoods. And the worst?

We all have to look at these architectural horrors.
Because I've already anthropomorphized 755 Minnesota, let me appropriately describe the other live-work monsters of Dogpatch.

If the six Victorians on Steiner between Hayes and Grove streets are the Painted Ladies, the block of live-work developments at the southeast corner of Dogpatch can be rightly called the Tennessee Street Thugs. A cute little yellow-and-white Victorian -- one that begs comparisons to a cupcake and makes even me go ahhh -- sits on the southwest corner of 18th and Tennessee, cater-corner from the Gang of Thugs.

"How can they allow something like that next to that?" Anderson asks.

Dogpatch residents have good reason to be worried about their neighborhood. The area is the new ground zero of the live-work development boom that has eaten up large parts of the city, notably the South of Market area. With the advent of the Tennessee Street Thugs and the Minnesota Mint Monster, Dogpatch is seeing only the beginnings of a live-work orgy that promises to erase much of the neighborhood's character.

About The Author

George Cothran


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