The next mad rush to the sky

EDITORIAL For much of the history of this newspaper, the battle to keep San Francisco from turning into another Manhattan was a defining element in local politics. It had all the makings of urban drama: shifty-eyed developers looking to make a fast buck, sleazy politicians willing to bend over in any direction for campaign cash, a corporate power structure devoted to greasing the path for unlimited growth, citizen activists revolting over the block-by-block destruction of their neighborhoods … all played out on the stage of one of the world’s greatest cities.

We watched while Joe Alioto moved forward with redevelopment south of Market and office buildings downtown in the early 1970s. We joined anti-high-rise activists twice in ballot measure campaigns to slow the building boom, without success. We saw Dianne Feinstein push through in just a few short years more new office space than in all of downtown Boston, an entire new city of glass and steel towers — and we helped promote the campaign to slow down with Proposition M in 1986.

We exposed the fundamental lies behind the developers’ arguments by demonstrating that intensive office development cost the city more in services than it provided in revenue, reporting on how the boom would drive up rents, choke the streets with traffic, overwhelm Muni, and create ugly canyons where there were once human-scale business districts.

Then we showed that all those new buildings weren’t even creating jobs.

In the 1990s we spoke out against the economic cleansing that came with the dot-com boom.

But of late, the development battles have shifted a bit. Progressives, who were once united against downtown growth, are a bit more slippery around the latest construction boom, because this time the massive skyscrapers are set to be filled not with corporate offices but with housing. And in San Francisco today, it seems difficult for almost anyone to be against new housing.

But it’s time to take a hard look at the new rush to the sky.

When the folks at the Planning Department talk about the new urban area that’s being discussed for South of Market, they use words such as "slender, graceful towers." The idea: high-rises aren’t that bad if they’re less bulky; that way, they don’t interfere with view corridors and don’t block out the sun. In fact, the way some planners are talking about these new buildings is almost rapturous — tall condo complexes, they say, will stop suburban sprawl, prevent global warming, create exciting new neighborhoods and public spaces, and give new definition to the city skyline.

But let’s look at what they’re really talking about here.

There are, at the moment, at least 11 new buildings either proposed, under construction, or in the planning pipeline in South of Market that would bust the city’s current height limits. (And those limits are hardly skimpy — in most areas they range from about 350 to 500 feet.) And that’s just the start: the Planning Department is moving quietly to substantially raise height limits in a broad swath of San Francisco, making way for the biggest high-rise rush since the 1980s.

If the move succeeds, the skyline will develop what the Planning Department calls a new "mound" south of downtown, anchored by at least one building 1,000 feet high (almost a third taller than the Transamerica Pyramid). A single slender tower is one thing; when you put more than a dozen (and they aren’t all slender) in a cluster, you get a wall — a wall that cuts the city off from the bay, shatters the natural topography of the area, and frankly, makes the city feel less like a community and more like a concrete jungle.

Just look at the picture on this page, part of a graphic presentation the city planning staff has put together. That hardly appears to be a few shapely structures. It’s a huge new conglomeration of New York–style high-rises, and they don’t fit in San Francisco.

And what’s the point of all this? The way the developers and their allies would have us think, this is all about solving the city’s housing crisis and creating vibrant new neighborhoods. But take a look at what sort of housing is being proposed here.

All the new high-rises the Planning Department is reviewing will contain what’s known as market-rate housing. That translates to condos selling for prices far beyond the reach of most San Franciscans. So far, not one developer has agreed to put a single unit of affordable housing in the new towers; all of them plan to meet the city’s demands for below-market units by building cheaper apartments somewhere else. The new neighborhoods are going to be nothing but very wealthy enclaves, the equivalent of vertical gated communities. Families who are being driven out of San Francisco by high housing costs won’t find refuge here; the housing is designed for singles, childless couples, retired people — and world travelers who want a nice San Francisco pied-à-terre.

Is this really the kind of new neighborhood the city ought to be creating?

Then there are the economics of this madness. Providing the infrastructure for all these new residents (and we’re talking more than 10,000 new residents in this one part of town alone) will be expensive — and if anyone really thinks that development fees will cover those costs, they haven’t paid attention to four decades of San Francisco budgets.

Environmentalists and urban planners these days love to talk about density, about building more residential spaces in urban cores. That’s the best alternative to suburban sprawl: Dense neighborhoods encourage transit use and walking. Housing near workplaces translates to less driving, less pollution, less congestion.

All of which is fine and actually makes sense. But density doesn’t have to mean 80-story buildings. North Beach, for example, is a very dense neighborhood, one of the densest urban areas in the United States. It’s also a wonderful neighborhood, with open space, friendly streets, and a human-scale feel.

And it’s a diverse neighborhood: everyone in North Beach isn’t young, single, and rich. There’s a mix of rental and owner-occupied housing and, despite years of brutal gentrification, still something of a demographic mix. It’s a place that feels like a neighborhood. This new conglomeration of high-rises won’t be.

If, indeed, San Francisco wants to add 10,000 or 20,000 or 30,000 new residents, they don’t have to live 1,000 feet above the ground. There are ways to do density — on perhaps a slightly less massive scale — that don’t impact on the views, skyline, and economics of the rest of the city.

But city officials need to ask some tough questions first. Why are we doing this? Are we rezoning South of Market to meet the needs of developers and high-profile architects, or is there a real urban plan here?

The answer seems alarmingly simple right now. Dean Macris, who led the Planning Department in those awful high-rise boom years under Feinstein, is at the helm again, and although he’s supposed to be an acting director, he shows no sign of leaving. The department is in full developer-support mode — and that has to end. The Planning Commission needs to hire a new director soon, someone who understands what a neighborhood-based planning vision is about.

Meanwhile, most of this new rezoning will have to come before the supervisors, and they need to start holding hearings now. This is a transformation that will be felt for decades; it’s sliding forward way too fast, with way too little oversight. And it needs to stop. *