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Out With the New, In With the Old 

The fear of change has been an ongoing parable of San Francisco. The city needs a new parable.

Wednesday, Jul 25 2001
Sipping a drink at "Bardot A Go Go" the other night (and how many other columnists have been able to write those words?), I was struck by the tongue-in-cheek energy of it all. Here were 100 or so 21st-century twentysomethings -- peacoat-wearing, sharp-collared, mod young men, miniskirted, ponying, pneumatic young women -- playing around in a kitsch version of French bohemianism, circa 1969, and the balance of homage and ironic distance was almost perfect. This was a pop culture meta-event done well, an admiring, cheeky appropriation of a place and era past to create something interesting and clearly new.

There were few if any old hippies, French or otherwise, at "Bardot A Go Go." There were just a bunch of young people, goofing and borrowing and imagining their way to some sort of cultural future.

Gosh San Francisco could use some more meta right now.

I took a stroll down Lansing Street the other day. It's a drab little alley on Rincon Hill that tees off from a roaring multilane approach to a freeway (this roaring ramp is also known as First Street, but it's more accurate to envision it as a wide racetrack to Interstate 80). Lansing then heads west for a dull block or so, where it overlooks Essex Street and the roaring ramps that connect the I-80 freeway and the Transbay Terminal. And then Lansing curves back on itself, becoming a drab little block or so of Guy Place before it runs right into roaring First Street again. Lining this drab, U-shaped, two-name alley are some undistinguished low-rise office buildings, some undistinguished low-rise apartment buildings, and an undistinguished live-work development or two.

I walked Lansing because of a perfectly ordinary story in the Chronicle, a story so nauseatingly typical of San Francisco as to be noteworthy. The story went something like this: The city is planning to rezone Rincon Hill -- an undistinguished urban slope now characterized largely by parking lots and the occasional undistinguished office or condo building -- for high-rise residential construction. But the residents of the area are sure they have not been adequately consulted about the "up-zoning" necessary for this change, which would allow apartment towers as tall as 400 feet (that is, roughly, 40 stories). Supervisor Chris Daly, always on the side of the little guy and the short building, is, at least for the purposes of this story, squarely on the side of little folk and short structure. "I'm with the neighbors," the Chronicle quotes Daly as saying. "They're going to be up against this administration that seems to resent input into the planning process. ... If the neighbors don't think that 400-foot buildings should go up across the street, that should be considered."

So here it was, the start of a new chapter in the Ongoing Parable of San Francisco: Greedy developers and uncaring city administration try stuffing inauthentically tall buildings down neighborhood's throat. Little guys organize, wage David vs. Goliath struggle, and -- All Hail Saul Alinsky! -- win unexpected, virtuous victory for the righteous cause of killing tall buildings in San Francisco. In this case, the freedom fighters even had a name, the Rin-Ten-Ten, or Rincon Tenacious Tenants' Association, a group formed a decade and a half ago to battle a prior development plan, and reactivated for the current guerrilla mission. And who can blame them? Would you want a 400-foot building in your front yard?

This elaboration on the S.F. Parable is perfect. It lacks nothing -- nothing except reality, that is, and when the future of San Francisco is at stake, who wants to talk about reality?

OK, OK; I guess it is my journalistic duty to deal with reality, so here goes.

In reality, Lansing/Guy Street/Place is a drab little U-shaped alley, engulfed in street noise and possessed of little, if any, charm or overarching historical significance. The reality is that the couple who appear to be leading the Rin-Ten-Ten have lived in the Lansing/Guy "neighborhood" for all of two years. As a matter of reality, it is unlikely the Lansing/Guy area will become anything akin to 40-story housing; it's currently zoned for a height of about eight stories, or 80 feet, contemplated, as part of the rezoning plan, to go up to 200 feet. Now, though, the urban planner most closely associated with the project says the city is "reconsidering whether it makes sense to up-zone those [blocks]."

Reality: The notion of using the Transbay/Rincon area for high-density housing has been the subject of many, many public hearings over the last 15 years. Jim Chappell, the president of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, explains thusly: "There have been scores of public meetings on this; not dozens, but scores."

Reality: The hill is already largely zoned for tall apartment buildings, with the current top limit 250 feet, or some 25 stories. The proposed up-zoning to 400 feet has the purpose of maximizing the billions of dollars the city expects to pour into the nearby, to-be-redeveloped Transbay Terminal.

Reality: Increased height will actually improve the ultimate cityscape of Rincon Hill. The zoning changes would allow apartment towers to be relatively slender, creating view corridors and allowing architects some room to play with aesthetics. Retaining the current height limits could well result in a Rincon Hill full of massive apartment buildings that utilize every bit of allowed space, and resemble nothing so much as giant view-blocking refrigerators.

Reality: This city continues to have a critical housing shortage, evidenced by extremely high rents that drive the poor, the young, the old -- in fact, everybody but the affluent -- from the city. If those rents are to be driven down, if the city is to retain anything like its current diversity, San Francisco desperately needs thousands of new apartments; with its proximity to downtown offices and to transit, Rincon Hill is the one place where high-density residential development absolutely should occur -- and quickly.

Reality: The San Francisco Parable has evolved. Its new title: No New Is Good New.

Prada -- you know, the clothing line with advertising so sexy you never remember the clothes? -- managed a coup recently. It commissioned Rem Koolhaas, the world-renowned Dutch architect who made the cover of the New York Times Magazine not that long ago, to design its stores, including a new location in Union Square. The San Francisco store may be a touch avant-garde -- the outside walls are stainless steel, and the windows resemble portholes -- but it's not even close, in terms of edginess, to the computer-dreamed curvilinear buildings that Frank Gehry's been tossing about the globe in recent years. Still, in San Francisco, the Koolhaas design is ... is ... outrageous. Here, you see, the city planning code requires the new building to look like, ahem, the old buildings. In Union Square, it simply must be ... Macy's Here! And Macy's There! Macy's, Macy's Everywhere!

That Rem Koolhaas, a man revered for innovative sensibility, threatens San Francisco is entirely understandable. San Francisco likes to view itself as cool, wild, sensuous, a cauldron of hipness, the keeper of the magic sharpener without which the cutting edge cannot be made, and the city goes to no small amount of trouble to project this cooler-than-thou view to itself, and to the outside world. If one believes this view, or myth, or, shall we say, parable, San Francisco remains the home of permanent social revolution, the place where the spirit of the 1960s -- with its intense, radical suspicion of authority and radical new approaches to music in particular, and culture generally -- lives on. And it lives on, truly, only in those people who have resided in San Francisco for at least, say, a couple of decades. Listen, children, the Parable whispers. There is a secret, there is a hallowed way, and if you are obedient, and take care to learn from your radical elders, you, too, can someday be one with the hipness.

Every year, the Parable and its major public relations representatives (the Beats and the '60s psychedelic bands chief among them) draw thousands of young people to the city who, depending on their intellectual abilities, more or less quickly learn that it's fraudulent mumbo-jumbo, that, despite the best efforts of wave after wave of the young and culturally restless, the most radical thing about San Francisco's current culture is its radical demand for conformity, its extreme fear of change, its certainty that what once was is the best that can ever be.

This column is not meant as a diatribe against the people who live on Lansing Street and Guy Place, and who wonder about the change to come.

Sara O'Malley, one of the residents questioning the up-zoning of the hill, seems a nice, talkative sort. She contends that she and her neighbors aren't against development but do think Rincon Hill should have more variation than the city Planning Department now contemplates. There should be some tall buildings, and some shorter ones; there should be room for parks and schools and pedestrian areas; there should be more affordable housing required; there should, in short, be further study -- an "area plan," in planning lingo -- before what she calls a "radical" up-zoning occurs.

And I have no problem with a reasonable amount of further study.

A spokesman for Supervisor Daly said he is waiting until the Planning Department conducts a reappraisal of the up-zoning project (a "revision of the original project description," in planning-speak) before taking a firm stance on it. "Chris is sort of for once in his life being a little conservative about it and waiting to see," is how Daly aide Bill Barnes put it.

And waiting a reasonable amount of time is OK by me. By all means, if there is a compromise that can be struck quickly, and that can address some of the concerns of a couple of hundred people living on Lansing and Guy, let's do the striking.

Let's not be gullible, here, though. What's happening on Rincon Hill is a lot less about urban planning than it is about fear and conformity, particularly fear of the future and conformity with the Parable, which has held, since time immemorial, that development, especially the development of tall buildings that obscure the view, is always bad, and neighborhood activism is always good.

But if this city is to become, again, what it professes it's always been -- a home to innovation, an incubator of artistic and cultural change, a whetter of the cutting edge -- it must continue to attract new young talent. And to attract and succor the new Kerouacs and Garcias and Hammetts, San Francisco will need more than a stale, phony Parable. It'll need to have places for people to live at reasonable rent, and if getting the thousands of new apartments we need means borrowing from elsewhere -- perhaps even going so damn meta as to consider the tall, slender, and, yes, beautiful apartment buildings of, say, Vancouver, British Columbia, as models -- then all I can say is, well, oui, oui.

About The Author

John Mecklin


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