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How shortsighted neighborhood activism fuels the city's housing crisis, and pushes the best of San Francisco deeper and deeper into the suburbs

Wednesday, Aug 18 1999
About a half-mile from California's fastest-growing town, signs sprout from the alfalfa fields, heralding a new sort of growth: The Estates at Dallas Ranch; Highland Ranch at Somersville; Country Living at Toureville; California Grove -- Now Selling; Summerset -- 14 Floor Plans.

The signs portend the future of Brentwood, a town of 18,000 -- for now -- between Stockton and Antioch. "I guess this means Brentwood isn't going to be a small farm town anymore," says Guiga Arno, a thin woman with a winning smile who sells cough drops and soda at Brentwood Boulevard Beacon Gas. "The sad thing is that those fields, the farms, were the best thing about living here."

Down Highway 4 from Arno's gas station counter lie hundreds of acres of freshly bulldozed fields, sprinkled every half-acre with bales of plumbing and electrical conduit, framed with cul-de-sacs to nowhere. Farther south, more such fields host half-finished houses the size of small apartment buildings. At the edge of all this, inside a row of grass-trimmed, newly completed sample homes, Linda Russell "sells dirt," as the practice of flogging unbuilt houses is known. Russell's employer, Morrison Homes, is one of a dozen builders creating subdivisions out of farmland around Brentwood, offering affordable luxury homes like the Hallmark ($239,990), the Cardinal ($256,990), and the Tribute ($266,990).

San Francisco is 45 miles to the southwest, Silicon Valley farther, commutes of at least three hours a day on congested highways. But the buyers keep coming. "I've had 50 people who commute to San Francisco," Russell effuses. "A lot of them commute to Silicon Valley, to San Jose."

Brentwood's newest residents get in their cars each workday and they drive: down Highway 4, through the 10,000-acre housing tracts of Antioch, through the endless office parks of San Ramon, past Hayward and San Leandro and Oakland, and across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco.

Here, on a sunny Sunday in August, an enthusiastic carpenter and sometime real estate salesman named Raymond Morgan bounds across the floorboards of a smallish house on Wisconsin Street, in the once-blue-collar neighborhood of Potrero Hill. Morgan sweeps his arm dramatically to take in the house's small interior, talking of amenities to come. It has potential, he says. It has a great view. The small yard could be a gardener's delight.

Morgan's verve seems odd, given that the house, which is selling for $439,000, has been gutted to the frame. There are no interior walls, plumbing, electrical wiring, bathrooms, doors, or any of the other niceties that make a house a home. It will cost at least another $100,000 to finish the place, and that would be in the humblest way.

Still, Morgan remains untempered. The price is low considering what other houses are going for in the neighborhood. "There was a place down the block that went for $700,000, and it didn't have near the view of this one," he says.

A pack of home-seekers -- three young couples, an older man, two young men -- who have spent the morning plodding through such houses stare blankly at Morgan's bare-stud walls, peer down holes in the plywood where toilets used to be, then walk silently out, expressionless. Like members of the ghost pack that roams the city's available rental apartments -- whose prices have similarly gone up by 60 percent during the past five years -- many of these people will eventually give up on the idea of living in San Francisco.

"A lot of them," Morgan confides, "they're not serious."
While they may seem worlds apart, the lives of Arno, Russell, and Morgan are inexorably linked, and, in turn, deeply intertwined with the destiny of San Francisco. Each of them plays a role in the swiftly evolving San Francisco-area housing market, which during the span of a half-decade has gone from being merely expensive, to one of the most inaccessible in the world. An average two-bedroom/two-bath apartment renting for $1,556 a month in 1994 went for $2,239 last year, according to the latest available figures, and rents continue to go up.

This means couples with children are generally shifted toward the bottom of the pages-long lists of applicants for scarce vacant apartments. It means people of modest or even middling means don't even think about living here. It means that ravenous home-buyers bid for properties, pushing sales prices well beyond the already-exorbitant asking prices.

It means that the future for many who work in San Francisco, or simply want to live in the area, lies in places like the alfalfa fields of Brentwood. Suburbs 45 miles away -- which one might ordinarily imagine as bastions of white flight -- are beginning to appear more economically and racially diverse than San Francisco, as high housing prices push people ever farther away.

The Bay Area urban sprawl, which had been crawling toward the Central Valley for decades, has begun to race toward the Interstate 5 corridor, a minimum one-hour drive from workplaces in San Francisco and on the lower Peninsula. Now, every day during working hours, San Francisco's population of 780,000 increases temporarily by around 215,000 people, who in the evening leave for distant homes.

The reason for all this seems on its face to be profanely simple: In the most economically vital region in the world, job growth has outpaced housing construction, making it harder for everyone to find affordable places to live.

There's a rub hidden in this simple formula for disaster, though, one that doesn't get bandied about much here: San Francisco has the room to build the housing the city needs, to slow spiraling rents and sales prices, to forestall manic sprawl, to restore sanity to a market wholly out of kilter.

But it won't.

If the mayor, supervisors, and citizens of San Francisco were to wake up one day and decide they wanted to confront the housing crisis, they could do so with relative ease. It would require nothing more than building the housing already permitted under existing laws and zoning plans, creating enough homes and apartments to house tens of thousands of people. According to the Planning Department, the city could build around 80,000 units -- or nine Brentwoods -- without changing current zoning laws one bit. And that's assuming most of the new housing would be built on vacant land.

If the city were merely to build part of this capacity, and produce enough housing to satisfy demand -- 25,000 units, according to some estimates; twice or thrice that, according to others -- housing prices would likely stabilize.

Fully satisfying San Francisco's housing demand would over time cause a cascading price-stabilizing effect at all levels. Over a span of years, such a satiation of demand could result in an adjusted-for-inflation lowering of prices, as happened during the early '90s, following a brief construction boom.

Among economists, environmentalists, academic urban studies researchers, and professional urban planners, this is not a controversial idea. It is simply the way housing markets work. It's an acknowledgment of an inescapable reality -- more people require more housing.

From 1995 to 2000, the number of jobs in San Francisco will have grown by 52,340. The number of households, meanwhile, will only have grown by 8,350 homes. Cities grow, but San Francisco refuses to. So while in other metropolitan areas the suburbs bloom as wealthier white urban dwellers flee the downtown area, in San Francisco people are pushed to the hinterlands by a local populace that doesn't want any more neighbors.

San Francisco's drum-tight housing market is not the result of a newfound NIMBY attitude, the sort of adolescent suburban fussiness that comes from waiting too long at a stop sign. It's the end product of a unique -- and chronically shortsighted -- political culture 50 years in the making that is now part of the city's genetic structure.

What would seem to be the most urbane city in the western United States was born, grew up, and survives with a deeply conflicted sense of its own urbanity. To this day, the city's most pitched civic battles are fought over seemingly suburban issues such as maintaining parking, preserving yard space, avoiding shadows, and maintaining, at all costs, unfettered bay views.

The tale of how San Francisco began transforming itself into an exclusive enclave for the wealthy -- and subdivision fertilizer for the Brentwood plains -- is also the tale of this city's dramatically declining expectations. During the years just after World War II, San Francisco fancied itself one of the world's great social, economic, and political capitals. It would be the greatest city of the west, its early dreamers imagined. The city was zoned to become a grand urban metropolis, with tightly packed apartment housing along Ocean Beach, along the Panhandle, around Golden Gate Park, on Potrero Hill. A modern transit line would connect BART to Ocean Beach, and be flanked by densely packed apartment buildings to its terminus. But in the years that ensued, San Francisco's dreams of urbanity dispersed into a much more modest proposal: San Francisco simply would be kept a nice place to live.

In wave after wave of downzoning, successive San Francisco governments shut out ever more housing, until today, the most densely zoned parts of the city are sparser than the areas that during the 1950s were zoned lowest-density. San Francisco's total population, meanwhile, decreased from 830,000 during the years after World War II to 780,000 now.

This change of vision evolved during decades-long political battles over redevelopment, private housing construction, parking, and transit. But more important, it was the result of thousands of tiny individual and collective choices about how San Franciscans wished to live their civic lives.

In 1999, every acre of the city is wired tight with neighborhood improvement associations, some decades old, some months old, many born of planning battles long past. Today, every inch of San Francisco is subject to the claims of some neighborhood group that assumes the right to control planning decisions there. The Planning Department lists 400 neighborhood associations and related groups -- or about eight per square mile -- that it must consider, inform, and appease as part of every move it makes.

Much about this is good: San Francisco enjoys one of the more vibrant grass-roots participatory democracies of any city, largely as the result of housing battles. Neighborhood associations have kept the city from being smothered by freeways, have halted ill-conceived projects, and have forced the improvement of some development that was, at conception, badly designed.

But at century's end, something has gotten lost in this process, something that is important to the way San Franciscans imagine themselves. As we push thousands more people out toward Brentwood, we become the engine of unprecedented environmental destruction, and globally unmatched energy consumption. We become complicit in the construction of far-flung cityscapes hostile to walking, to bicycling, to public life, and the resultant mingling of social and racial groups that such public life engenders. And by squeezing out successively higher rungs of the lower and middle classes, our city's own public life loses flesh. By allowing unmet demand to cascade downward through the price levels, we force the downtrodden to choose the street, rather than $25-a-night tenement rooms.

It doesn't have to be this way, but San Francisco's political culture, and the culture of its surrounding communities, will make it so. And Brentwood commuters will be joined by hundreds of thousands of neighbors in San Joaquin County, San Benito County, and Yolo County. Billions of dollars of economic capacity will be wasted, families will be drained of life by their breadwinners' lengthening commutes. Thousands and thousands of cars driven by thousands and thousands of commuters will fill the highways and foul the air. Bay Area residents will become lonelier, poorer, and more tired -- all as a matter of collective, civic choice.

The northeast corner of Fulton and Masonic streets is now occupied by a half-block parking lot, a low-slung grocery store called Falletti's, and an occasional Goodwill tractor trailer, where a man accepts donated castoffs. The grocery store is the run-down, homey sort, and that's the way many neighbors say they like it.

Next year, however, a new project will be built on the corner, including a new grocery store, some small storefronts, and a 135-unit apartment complex. It is a modest plan, really. But for San Francisco, it is a minor miracle that the project is going forward, says developer Oz Erickson.

The painstaking diplomacy required to appease neighborhood groups and receive city approval for the project required more than a year, around 15 redrafted architectural plans, and the hiring and firing of at least two sets of architects, all at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Petitions were circulated, gentrification debated, alliances formed, countless meetings held, and a compromise finally hammered out.

The Fulton/Masonic battle began, as all such affairs do, when developers formally informed neighbors of the project, as city statute requires. Several neighborhood associations immediately jumped into the fray. The best organized, the North of Panhandle Neighborhood Association, swiftly formed a special task force, called Future of the Plaza Coalition, with the aim of working full time to rein in the project. As such groups typically are, they were relentless.

"For a neighborhood group to deal with a project like this it's definitely a huge amount of work," says Michael Helquist, president of the North of Panhandle Neighborhood Association. "The steering committee probably spent hundreds of hours dealing with the development. It takes really focused attention working with planning and finding out regulations, zoning codes, how similar projects have worked in the past."

Jim Cowan, chairman of the Future of the Plaza Coalition, recalls weeks and months of long, contentious meetings, fiery debates, and invigorating brainstorming sessions. One early community meeting drew 150 neighbors, he recalls. Many were spoiling for a fight.

"People were very edgy," Cowan recalls. "Volunteers formed a steering committee of 10 to 12 people, and they guided the work from then on. We were meeting once a week -- pretty frequently, and it was a very, very intense process. Some of the loudest people were at the big public meetings we had. They weren't committed to orderly procedures, necessarily, but they were committed."

Other groups, meanwhile, circulated petitions to halt the development outright. Several decided to form their own neighborhood associations. David Tornheim, who created one group called Central City Tenants, says his allies objected to the project because it brought in a chain grocery store -- Lucky's -- and contained too much housing. The units were likely to be destined for the rich. And the project didn't receive a thorough enough environmental review, he says. Central City Tenants circulated a petition condemning the development that garnered 1,000 signatures, Tornheim says.

In the end, Tornheim's complaints of gentrification were ignored -- it's hard to gentrify a neighborhood where people are already paying $1,500 per month for small one-bedroom apartments -- and a plan was forged. By San Francisco standards, the process was a success, and ground will be broken early next year.

The neighbors are, to a large extent, satisfied: They got the developer to provide more parking than originally planned, reduce the number of apartments, and change the design to one the neighbors liked better. The developer will get to build a fairly significant housing project in a city famous for its NIMBY giant killers. The city Planning Department will see much-needed housing built.

But just as it represents the best possible scenario, the Fulton/Masonic project also illustrates the worst effects of San Francisco's localized planning process. As a microsolution to neighborhood diplomacy, it feeds every macro problem the Bay Area has.

Like virtually all housing projects proposed in San Francisco, it will be built with significantly fewer units than was possible, in order to appease neighbors' complaints about "excessive density." So it will do little to help the San Francisco housing crunch. The units will still be expensive. In fact, the extra parking the neighbors demanded will add about $30,000 to the cost of each unit.

For the neighbors, this is a victory of sorts. They got their parking, after all. A large portion of San Francisco housing battles, in the end, come down to parking spaces -- characterized by euphemisms such as "density," "congestion," and "livability."

"Our first concern was that parking not impact the neighborhood. Our main interest was not to put more pressure on limited parking we have," says Cowan. "The question was, could we, in this issue, have an impact? This is really a citywide issue that should be taken up by San Francisco as a whole."

But, in order to grow into a more vibrant -- and pleasant -- city, San Francisco must break the link between increased housing and increased parking. In a denser city, things are easier to walk to, to bike to, or to ride the bus to, because businesses, homes, cultural attractions, and other amenities are closer together. A lack of parking, and the resultant lack of cars, creates a critical mass of political demand for efficient transit -- a process under way right now in San Francisco, as bicycle commuters take to the streets to demand rights of way, and Muni riders seize their place among San Francisco power brokers. Just as increased parking creates a vicious cycle where citizens clamor for increased road space and reduced density, eliminating parking creates a virtuous cycle, in which citizens force improvements in auto-free transit options.

When it comes to housing, these two opposing scenarios are crucial, because every single parking space added to a housing development, shopping center, street, or elsewhere reduces the city's ability to house its people. Every urban parking space housing developers build adds another car to the city. These car owners demand more parking spaces at stores, government buildings, and wherever else they drive.

At rest, a car needs three parking spaces on its daily rounds: one at home, one at work, and one in a shopping center. The cost associated with having to eliminate housing units to allow for more parking undermines a developer's economies of scale, and further adds to the cost of each apartment. In smaller buildings the effect can be striking -- adding more parking spaces in areas zoned for three-story buildings or lower can eliminate an entire story of housing.

And the drivers of all those cars want wider city streets and more freeways, often at the expense of even more housing. These demands compete with public transit, the widespread use of which would make it easier for developers to build buildings without parking.

Every time parking wins, housing loses, just as it did in the neighborhood battle over the develop-ment at Fulton and Masonic. Such outcomes are part and parcel of the way San Francisco now makes its planning decisions. Small interests are served, small groups placated, and the city grows in tiny fits and starts that add up to no rational whole.

During 1998, the year much of the wrangling over density at Fulton and Masonic took place, a total of 874 units of housing were added in San Francisco. That year, jobs grew by about 10,000.

That makes no sense.
"The real problem with building housing in San Francisco is that the stakeholders who would want housing to be developed are not particularly active," says Erickson. "The major beneficiaries of additional housing are renters and potential buyers. Potential buyers don't get active and potential renters don't get active. Homeowners have a huge stake ... they tend, as a group, to oppose more housing. They are very organized and very powerful."

San Francisco's status as a largely suburban city -- and the tightly woven patchwork of neighborhood associations that fight to keep it so -- has evolved steadily over the last half-century, as NIMBY associations were forged block by block in the heat of individual housing battles. Typically, a group of neighbors would band together to defeat a project, and win. Thus emboldened, such groups often remained as neighborhood associations, involving themselves in the planning of any future neighborhood development.

"We have what are called 'professional citizens.' You see the same faces at every planning meeting," says John Hirten, who recently stepped down from heading the mayor's Muni task force.

Some of these groups are decades old, dating back to the 1930s. Others were formed just months ago: The Outer Mission Residents Association, in the Crocker Amazon neighborhood, for example, formed last year to oppose a nonprofit apartment building that would have housed 48 old folks.

These associations emerged with San Francisco's various citywide development battles: the 1960s battle against freeways, the backlash against the 1970s redevelopment of the Western Addition, the construction of the Fontana Towers near Fisherman's Wharf, and the development of garish condominium buildings toward the top of Twin Peaks.

"Historically, too often in the past, the city did not do its job in developing housing that was sensitive and fitting with the neighborhoods in which they were built," says Gabriel Metcalf, program director at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, a nonprofit think tank. "You had bad projects, projects that were out of scale, projects that were ugly. They gave housing a bad name."

With the battles came citywide downzonings, banning whichever type of housing development was thought offensive at the time. The cumulative effect was to severely limit housing of all types.

In 1960, a new general plan was drafted amending the old, 1920s plan, which had set only a few density limits, in the Sea Cliff area, the Sunset, and some of the city's southernmost neighborhoods. The new general plan was still friendly to the idea of citified living, though.

"All of Ocean Beach was zoned for high density and no height limit," says Bob Passmore, who last year retired as the city's zoning administrator after 20 years with the Planning Department. "Potrero Hill was zoned for high densities. Along the Panhandle, Golden Gate Park, all those areas were zoned for high densities."

In 1962 and 1963, neighborhood associations began forming to complain about large apartment buildings being built under the 1960 rules, so planners went to their drawing board again, halving densities allowed in residential districts. In the early 1970s, neighborhood groups in the Inner Sunset and the Haight-Ashbury neighborhoods began petitioning for lower-density restrictions on housing development there. The political winds clearly favored a clampdown on new housing.

The Planning Department responded to increased neighborhood complaints with a new set of zoning codes, dramatically cutting once again the amount of housing that could be built in the city. The legal density in the Richmond District, for instance, was cut by half.

During the early 1990s, San Francisco neighborhood groups agitated against the construction of smallish apartment buildings in the city's western residential districts. The buildings, dubbed "Richmond Specials," were denounced as tacky, out of character with the neighborhoods they were built in, and, most important, adding undesired population density to these neighborhoods. Once again, the Planning Department began to consider drafting a new general plan in response.

But by then the number of neighborhood groups, and the corresponding number of narrow interests, had grown so great that creating a new general plan to please them all had become a gargantuan task. Thousands of employee hours were spent on the project, but it was eventually abandoned in favor of a seemingly minor change in the city code favoring increased citizen participation in the planning process. Given the unassuming name "Code Section 311," the provision requires that neighbors be advised of any zoning or permit applications impacting their neighborhood, then given a chance to appeal them. While not as dramatic on paper as the earlier downzonings, the provision has had the effect of further paralyzing housing construction, developers and planners say. As part of this neighbor-friendly planning ethic, the Planning Department three years ago organized itself into "Neighborhood Planning Teams" to replace the previous organizational structure, where individual planners were responsible for particular types of zoning problems. Planners are now assigned to specialize in an individual neighborhood, rather than a type of code classifications.

Today, the neighborhood agitation is over live-work lofts, which under current zoning could provide 20,000 housing units. A moratorium against further construction of this type of housing will likely pass soon, and the aftermath of such a measure is hard to predict.

What is predictable is the role neighborhood groups will continue to have in the planning process. "The political structure is overly sensitive to neighbors and people who don't want housing. We have to reorient the political structure to be more friendly to housing," says UC Berkeley Professor John Landis. "We have neighborhood groups that profess to have ownership of the approval process, and City Hall buys into that."

The area's housing crisis is not limited to San Francisco, of course, a fact illustrated by the maddeningly difficult task of calculating San Francisco's real housing demand. You can count the number of new jobs created in the city, the number of employees living in every household, and the number of new housing units built in a given year. And you can compare these numbers with 1990, a year when San Francisco's housing demand was more or less satisfied, with a 6.2 percent vacancy rate.

But those figures don't necessarily mean anything, because the Bay Area's housing market must be viewed as a whole. "Figuring demand is really a crazy game," says Allan Jacobs, a UC Berkeley planning professor who was San Francisco's director of planning during the 1960s. "There's really too much involved."

Demographics, economics, and culture pay no mind to political boundaries such as counties and towns. "The market is like water," says Paul Silvern, a partner with Hamilton, Rabinovitz & Alschuler, a policy consulting firm in Los Angeles and New York. "It looks for the path of least resistance."

Events in the recent history of the Bay Area have created massive resistance everywhere.

Patrick Kennedy, an outspoken veteran of East Bay housing wars, is particularly familiar with this fact. Like anyone who's lived there, developer Kennedy enjoys a love-hate relationship with the city of Berkeley. He's won approval for a multistory apartment complex in downtown Berkeley. He's advocated for an environmentally friendly, European-style downtown with smaller apartment units, taller buildings, and reduced parking. He has been an outspoken proponent of a new general plan for Berkeley, which will allow taller apartments to be built in the downtown area. He's been the city's leading campaigner to "decriminalize housing," according to one local environmental group. In doing these things, he has earned the wrath of his fellow Berkeleyites. He's capitalist developer scum, they say, and he ought to be run out of town.

"Berkeley is a perfect example of cognitive dissonance," says Kennedy. "They talk and talk about affordable housing, then trash the general plan. Berkeley's the only city in the Bay Area that's lost housing in the last 20 years."

During the past 10 years, Berkeley has torn down 800 more housing units than it has built. And the remaining units accommodate fewer people: Since 1970, the city has lost 5,182 people, according to U.S. Census and California Department of Finance data.

Quaint, Berkeley. But far from unique. That city's approach to new housing construction -- don't let it approach -- has been repeated in communities around the Bay Area for two decades. Where once communities in Marin County, San Mateo County, Alameda County, and Contra Costa County welcomed housing development, one by one they have passed ordinances limiting density, and pushing housing construction to the next community beyond. Former deep-suburb "bedroom" cities like Walnut Creek, San Ramon, and Pleasanton are now considered job sources that people commute to rather than from.

This trend has gained speed since the 1970s, when the anti-property tax initiative, Proposition 13, served to stop local governments from raising property tax rates, making it hard to fund infrastructure for new residents.

The change in the economics of the Bay Area's suburbs was little noticed, but dramatic. As if to mock developers who built office and industrial parks near where their potential employees presumably lived, anti-housing ordinances typically gained momentum just as groundbreaking began on jobs-oriented projects. In Pleasanton, for example, jobs grew by 365 percent during the 1980s. The city had begun passing growth-moratoria starting in the 1970s, so that during the next decade, housing grew by only 66 percent. During this period, the federal government cut funding for local civic infrastructure, making increased housing more expensive for communities. And the Environmental Quality Act made it much easier for neighbors to complain about individual projects, slowing housing growth further.

In the late 1980s, Pleasanton residents halted the developers of the 860-acre Hacienda Business Park from building over 2,000 housing units, including moderately dense apartments, that had been penciled into the park's master plan.

By the 1990s, most people who worked in Pleasanton lived elsewhere, and most people who lived there drove elsewhere to their jobs. By the time the Bay Area economic explosion of the late 1990s dawned, people filling the hundreds of thousands of new jobs being created found refuge wherever they could find it, driving up housing costs from Vacaville to San Benito.

This trend of suburban anti-growth sentiment is about to enter a new, more aggressive phase, one that economists say will make new employees even more desperate for housing, further inflating prices, and commutes.

In San Ramon, Dublin, and Pleasanton, voters will consider "anti-sprawl" ballot initiatives in November that would require the approval of any housing development over 10 units to be put to a vote of the citizenry. Livermore is considering such a measure next year, while petitions are circulating in Antioch that would require any development of 20 or more housing units to, likewise, be put to a citywide vote.

In San Ramon, some 900,000 square feet of office space has been built at the mammoth Bishop Ranch office park entirely on spec, in anticipation of new jobs coming to the area. Economic forecasters say the offices are sure to sell, and each office cubicle will be occupied by a new employee. And if the sprawl initiative passes, each new employee will have to find somewhere else to live.

"Most of these cities like San Francisco and Berkeley are proud of their diversity, but their solution to this issue is in not providing opportunities. If you want different people, you have to provide opportunities for people, including opportunities for places to live. San Francisco tries to do that, but there is a disconnect between what it says it wants and what it does," says Landis, the UC Berkeley professor. "A living city needs economic diversity in the long term. The people who move out of the cities for schools need to be replaced by other young people. You need a recharge of young people, and other ethnic groups. Without them, the city is the poorer for it."

John Hirten, John Jacobs, and Bob Passmore -- two old-time planning professionals and a just-retired zoning administrator, order fish plates at Sam's Grill & Seafood Restaurant, and talk about old times.

They've all lived and relived San Francisco's housing wars, and come out crusty yet congenial, fanciful yet practical, erudite raconteurs. Jacobs ran the redevelopment agency in Stockton during the 1960s, directed a San Francisco housing think tank during the 1970s, and was president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce until he retired in 1989. Hirten, a warm, gracious, insistent man, was U.S. deputy director of urban mass transit during the Nixon administration, was subsequently director of the American Planning Association, and director of transportation for the City and County of Honolulu. As the man long responsible for applying San Francisco's zoning laws, Passmore is the group's sagely Solomon.

The three talk of neighborhood housing battles past. They talk about how San Francisco, if it wanted to, just might be able to provide enough housing so that people who wanted to live here, could.

"Abolishing the Board of Permit Appeals, that would do it," Jacobs jests.
"The city does have a plan to build housing," Passmore protests.
"But we don't have politicians who would actually build it," Jacobs says. "You'd have to have a mayor who didn't want to get elected, and you'd have to have a Board of Supervisors that was complacent."

In order for San Francisco to solve its housing crisis, city leaders would have to decide that too many people were being hurt, that it had to be curbed, then take action.

"I think, first of all, from the top down, from the mayor, it has to be a policy determination that we need to create more housing. Secondly, we need as good an inventory as we can get, in terms of numbers and price range and character. Then we need a statement that says, 'Where are some good areas where we can do housing?'" says Hirten.

"The mayor wants to put up $100 million for the stadium shopping complex up there at Hunters Point. They ought to forget the ballpark -- let it go to San Mateo or whatever -- and develop that area as a really fine, middle-income housing area. Just as he's matching private funds for the stadium mall complex, do the same thing there for housing instead. Why not make a major commitment for good housing? If the demand is there for housing, why build a big ballpark, and commercial [property] that is going to compete with what is already in place? Can you imagine the traffic?

"That shopping mall, they talk about all the jobs it's creating. But jobs doesn't seem to be the problem. It's housing."

But to begin with, it wouldn't be necessary to kill sacred cows -- even wasteful, destructive ones like the new Candlestick Park project.

For starters, we could simply build within the city's current low-density zoning scheme. Vast swaths of the city aren't built to the limits prescribed under the current zoning code, says Allan Jacobs, the UC Berkeley professor who was once S.F. planning director.

"We have in San Francisco zoning that is either 40 feet high or less. Let's just stop there," says Jacobs. "You go over and see what's actually in that area. What you find is that most of the buildings are actually lower" than 40 feet, Jacobs says. "You say, 'Well, what if you build up to the 40 feet,' that would give you a certain amount of space. You can do that with all the different districts you have. That difference between what is there now and what they've determined what is OK to go to is a huge difference. You could supply a lot more in San Francisco under the existing laws."

That would house nearly a dozen Brentwoods.
To house a few more, the city could take other, piecemeal steps. It could rezone empty industrial and commercial land along the waterfront for high-density housing. It could increase heights and densities along transit routes and commercial corridors -- the Richmond and the Sunset come to mind as practical yet politically impossible venues for this. Quit requiring apartment buildings built on small, half-acre lots to meet density, rear yard, and parking requirements meant for individual houses. Nudge height limits up in residential areas, so that builders don't have to chop off entire floors in order to meet an 80-foot height limit. San Francisco could banish to history the one-unit, one-parking-space requirement for new development.

If residents really wanted to avoid having San Francisco become purely a rich enclave, they would wrench the planning process away from NIMBY neighbors. The Planning Department could become less receptive to the opinions of neighborhood groups and homeowner associations, and more sensitive to the city's silent constituency -- the families and workers just now looking for a place to live.

We could hearken back to the vision our city fathers had during the 1950s, of a truly urban city.

We could allow dozens of multistory condo projects in the Potrero waterfront area, dozens of the same atop Potrero Hill, and dozens more condo high-rises in SOMA. We could return to the post-World War II plan for high-rises along Ocean Beach, with a modern transit line serving them along Geary. We could plan a row of tall condo buildings along Golden Gate Park -- à la Vancouver, where thousands of high-rise apartment residents have a park for a back yard. We could reduce impediments to in-law apartments. This new housing would include massive loftlike spaces, cavernous Park Avenue-style condos, cozy two-bedroom apartments, tiny studios, and everything in between.

Such a city would suffer the potential for traffic gridlock: indeed, every single debate against such development -- and they are held every week at the Planning Commission -- comes down to cars, parking spaces, traffic. But cut the number of parking spaces and urban San Francisco would be a delight. Combined commercial and dense residential districts would sprout up on blocks all over the city. Neighbors on foot would mingle on sidewalks. This is the kind of city San Francisco fancies itself as, yet this sort of civic life is actually limited to a handful of places -- the Haight, the Marina, the Fillmore, Clement Street, Cole Valley, North Beach, Chinatown, Downtown, the Inner Mission.

Currently, the most dense areas of the city -- Nob Hill, Telegraph Hill, Russian Hill -- are considered its most desirable. Manhattan, with a density four times San Francisco's 16,000 people per square mile, was honored by U.S. News & World Report two years ago as America's Most Livable City. Paris, which is likewise four times as densely packed as San Francisco, has often been described as livable.

In an urban, rather than suburban, San Francisco, more people would walk, bike, and take public transit to work. Cafes and small shops would germinate on blocks that now aren't densely populated enough to support them. The Bay Area's vital economy would serve as an engine that added to the vibrancy of San Francisco's diverse, eclectic cultural life, rather than what it now is: a force that strips the city of the artists, musicians, students, minorities, and low-income groups who can't afford to live here.

It's possible, but given the current political culture here, it's fantasy.
But it's a valuable fantasy, providing a counterweight to the denial-laced civic dream-state that is San Francisco. In this dream, it's possible to ignore the social, political, and economic forces that are transforming the Bay Area; it's possible to ignore the devastating consequences of the city's anti-housing political culture.

It's a dream that spawns the model homes of Brentwood, where some of San Francisco's banished residents will go to live. The Hallmark, like the Cardinal, and the Tribute, is generously decorated for visitors. Dining rooms sport thick-legged dinner tables dressed with handblown dinner glasses, which are stuck to rough-woven place mats with silicone caulk to prevent pilferage. The houses are filled with large-screen televisions, computers, and stereo systems that aren't really electronic equipment, but hollow, plastic facsimiles. The larders are generously stocked with boxes of Potato Buds, Crunch Berries, and Cinnamon Grahams, empty, yet homey and colorful.

It's a surreal, remote universe, a pleasant, fantastic dream.
San Francisco, welcome home.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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