San Francisco has always been a city defined by its hills and the bay. Our city has an image and character in its urban pattern that depend especially on views, topography, streets, building form, and major landscaping.
The bay is a focus of major views. Hills allow the city to be seen and, more than any other feature, produce a variety that is characteristic of San Francisco. This pattern — a visual relationship to hills and the bay — gives the city “an image, a sense of purpose,” according to the 1971 Urban Design Plan.
Since then it has been official city policy to recognize and protect this relationship.
In the last four years, Rincon Hill developers negotiated with two planning directors — Gerald Green and Dean Macris — to allow towers up to 550 feet tall between Folsom Street and the Bay Bridge. Nine have already been approved. Two under construction are already visible on the skyline. More are on their way. The Rincon Hill towers will be higher than the top of the bridge towers. Views of the bridge towers from Dolores Park, upper Market Street, and Twin Peaks are literally being eliminated.
The remnants of the Urban Design Plan are in tatters because developers and planning staff want to eviscerate height limits south of Market to create an artificial hill of residential towers up to 100 stories tall from Market to the bridge approach. Their avowed rationale is to develop a transit terminal at First and Mission streets — a terminal with a multibillion-dollar funding shortfall.
And all of this is happening under the political radar.
When staffers made their one and only presentation to the Planning Commission about this new mega-high-rise district, the meeting was not broadcast or even filmed. And this was for a presentation that depended on visuals.
Who will live in these towers? Empty nesters who can afford multimillion condos and people with multiple homes around the country and world.
The Planning Department claims these will be vital new neighborhoods. But they won’t be for families with children or government employees or hospitality industry workers or artists. They won’t be for people working in San Francisco who are trapped in a daily two-hour commute because housing costs are out of sight. They won’t be for the people working in San Francisco who are most in need of moderately priced housing.
There won’t be a single new housing unit for low- or moderate-income people in the new Rincon Hill. Every single developer opted to not build on-site affordable units.
What happens when people crossing the Bay Bridge can no longer see the hills in the center of the city? When people in the city face a wall of buildings so high even the Bay Bridge towers can’t be seen?
Entrances — such as the Bay Bridge — are important for a sense of orientation to the city. Blocking street views of the bay, distant hills, or other parts of the city can destroy an important characteristic of the unique setting and quality of the city.
Since the Gold Rush, people have come to San Francisco to make their fortunes. There is constant tension between those who want to make money off our city and those who want to live in the city.
San Francisco tore down the Embarcadero because it cut the city off from the bay. Now we are erecting another, much higher barrier. To the barricades!
Sue Hestor is a lawyer and activist specializing in land use and environmental issues.