Downtown’s missing history

Pub date May 20, 2009
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL To hear the proponents of a new downtown condo complex talk, you’d think they were giving the city a wonderful deal. In exchange for an exemption from height limits that would allow a tower twice the allowable size just a few yards from the Transamerica Building, the developer would give the city a little patch of parkland that’s now privately owned. Even the city planning director, John Rahaim, seems to think the special treatment is acceptable, since none of the other buildings in the area are nearly as tall as the Pyramid, and, he told the Chronicle, "usually you cluster tall buildings together."

Of course, the usual crew of downtown boosters love the architecture (a sort of spiral design), love that it would create housing in an area that’s generally empty at night, and figure that something only about half as tall as the high-rise it’s next to can’t be all that bad.

But there’s a stunning lack of historical perspective in all this discussion.

The Transamerica Building seems like an icon today, but when it was first proposed in 1969, it met with strong opposition — not so much because of its unique design (although some prominent architecture critics thought it was hideous) but because it was way too big, too tall, and jammed into a human-scale neighborhood where all the other buildings were low-rise. It was a flash point for the anti-Manhattanization movement and rallied preservationists, environmentalists, and neighborhood advocates.

One of the central issues: in order to accommodate the new tower, the city would have to give up a block-long section of Merchant Street, an alley filled with small businesses. The controversy over the sale of that public street occupied center stage in the Transamerica battle, and in order to convince the supervisors to hand over the public property, Transamerica agreed to build a little park on the edge of the property. That’s how Redwood Park came into being — as a concession from a developer who had been given public land.

And now another developer, Andrew Segal, is offering to give the park back — again, as mitigation for a project that’s too big for the site. So the city, in exchange for approving a bad project, winds up with land it would have had anyway if it hadn’t accepted a different bad project four decades ago.

And there’s been very little attention paid to the historic reasons why this project would need special exemptions from two city laws to move forward. In the mid-1980s, with Dianne Feinstein in the mayor’s office, the city was getting choked with tall, bulky — and frankly, nasty-looking — high-rises that were turning downtown and South of Market into dark, windy, dismal canyons. After long debate, many public hearings, and extensive discussion, the voters approved two measures aimed at limiting the impact of overdevelopment. One of them, Proposition K, barred new buildings from casting shadows on public parks. The other, Proposition M, limited high-rise office development and mandated the preservation of neighborhood character. At the same time, the height limits in that area — on the edge of Jackson Square and North Beach — were reduced, again after many hearings and much debate. The idea was that downtown’s skyscrapers shouldn’t be intruding northward.

Let’s remember: this won’t be affordable housing. The new condos will be priced at the top of the market (clearly the developer thinks the housing market is coming back in San Francisco). And while environmentalists like the idea of building housing near jobs, very few of the new condos that have gone up downtown have provided housing for San Franciscans. Most are owned either by empty-nesters returning from the suburbs, Silicon Valley commuters, or international jet-setters seeking a SF pied-à-terre.

So there are very good reasons for planners and the supervisors to reject this project — and for the city not to forget that the rules that make this deal unappealing were neither random nor a mistake. There’s history here, and once you understand it, the project makes very little sense. * *