Sunday, March 06, 2005

John King and Octavia Boulevard: A Love Story

John King, the SF Chronicle's "Urban Design Writer," tried to comfort city residents in his last piece with the notion that over time they'll get used to the ugly new de Young building in Golden Gate Park---as if they had any choice! He was at least willing to suggest that the new museum building had shortcomings (see "The Emperor is Wearing a Copper Sheath,").

With the Octavia Boulevard project, however, he's still oblivious to what looks like a disaster-in-the-making: "San Francisco's Octavia Boulevard already is one of the nation's most unusual stabs at neighborhood revitalization, with an elevated freeway being replaced by a landscaped road designed to be a community centerpiece." ("Boulevard Has Architects Drooling," SF Chronicle, March 4, 2005) This qualifies as a half-truth, since the freeway ramp has been moved to Market Street directly across from Octavia Blvd. But calling the new Octavia Blvd. a "landscaped road" is such a poor choice of words it's simply false. Yes, there will be trees planted along Octavia, but that "road" will have six lanes of traffic; it will take a lot of trees to mitigate that (According to CalTrans, 80,000-100,000 cars a day used this section of the Central Freeway). And the projected Hayes Green looks pathetic even in the traditionally upbeat architectural drawing genre. In short, the elevated Central Freeway is being replaced by a five-block, street-level freeway in the heart of the Market/Octavia neighborhood. And the still-under-construction freeway ramp is beginning to loom up ominously on the other side of Market Street.

King clearly wants to believe in the new Octavia Blvd., but the picture over the article's lead shows how hideous that street is even before tens of thousands of cars a day start arriving in the neighborhood when the project is completed later this year (to read King's sappy, earlier take on Octavia Blvd, go to his archives where you'll find it on Oct 20, 2004).

The King story features a design competition sponsored by MOMA and the city for the housing on the parcels that used to be under the Central Freeway. Since the winning designs won't have to be used by developers, this is essentially a PR campaign. King cites someone in the Mayor's office who confirms this interpretation: "It[the competition] helps us in marketing the parcels because of the heightened awareness and the new ideas."
 
King wants to believe in a great, new Octavia Blvd. so badly that he overreaches consistently with his choice of words: calling Octavia Blvd. "an old fashioned boulevard," whatever that means, must be wrong, since it's going to be a six-lane street that will carry thousands of cars a day; describing Octavia as "threading" through the neighborhood is inaccurate, since it goes straight to Hayes St. from Market; and a 30-85 foot building height limit in that neighborhood can hardly be called "tight."
 
Anyhow, isn't Michael Omerberg doing PR for the Planning Dept. for this botched neighborhood design? With this kind of promotional contribution from the Chronicle---the story reads like a press release--- what do they need Omerberg for?

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