Monday, August 04, 2014

Hoodline gets out of the way on Octavia Blvd., UC development

After botching the Masonic Avenue issue, Hoodline has adopted a better approach on two other controversial issues in this part of town: Octavia Boulevard and the UC project on lower Haight Street. Instead of boosting these two planning fiascos, Hoodline lays out the subjects more or less objectively.

But interpretation and historical perspective are required to understand how and why these projects happened. See this and this and this for some perspective on Octavia Boulevard. Click on "Octavia Blvd." below for more.

See this on the UC project and click on "UC Extension" below for more.

It's important to understand that these two planning failures are only a block apart. Octavia Blvd. now brings 63,000 cars through the middle of Hayes Valley every day, and the UC development will bring another 1,000 residents a block off Octavia. Not to mention the Market/Octavia Plan that brings in another 10,000 residents to that unfortunate part of town. Think traffic is bad there now? Wait until these projects kick in.

Our Planning Dept. thinks this is "smart growth."

Note that the Hoodline post on the UC project includes a picture provided "by reader Jason H." Could this be Jason Henderson, Streetfighter and author four years ago of a sanitized version of the history of the UC project?

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

George Lucas: "visionary"?

An example of George Lucas's "vision"

John King's complaint about George Lucas going to Chicago with his junk art collection is that Mayor Lee supposedly didn't try hard enough to keep it here:

The sense of political opportunism extended to the site offered to Lucas on May 29: a parking lot just south of the Bay Bridge that had been part of the proposed Warriors' arena complex. The basketball team shifted its sights to Mission Bay in April and left behind a void. Who better to help fill it than a retired visionary who had been eager at the Presidio to spend $700 million to build and endow a personal museum?

Lucas is a "visionary"? (Not surprising that someone who likes this building would think so.) Lucas is just a guy who made a lot of money making movies for children. He assumed that gave him the right to put a clunky, mall-like building (below) up against the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Funny that King doesn't explain why the Warriors "shifted" their sights to Mission Bay for their new arena.

But King does explain why the Presidio isn't property City Hall can raffle off to billionaires:

The Presidio isn't just a scenic nook within the boundaries of San Francisco. It is part of the National Park Service. It is a National Historic Landmark District. The trust's board is appointed to oversee an American treasure, not a local jobs incubator. And when Lucas was asked by the trust to respond to specific site-related concerns, such as the height, his team responded in barely perceptible ways.

King is still grumbling about how We the Rabble meddled with how City Hall was auctioning off the city's waterfront by passing Proposition B earlier this month:

...whenever there is a desire to raise height limits on land owned by the Port of San Francisco, the city does not need any more finger-pointing. It needs a proactive, long-range bayside plan that balances history and tradition with such 21st century realities as sea level rise and emerging potential of active urban mixed-use waterfronts. If this happens, City Hall won't be stuck hoping that yet another billionaire shows up with yet another big plan for the most stubborn port-owned sites. Rules will be spelled out in advance---and it's a good bet that smart developers will be waiting in line.

With Proposition B, City voters did in fact "spell out in advance" the rules for port-owned sites:

The existing maximum building height limits on the San Francisco waterfront shall be preserved and shall not be increased unless a height limit increase is approved by San Francisco voters.

Even dumb developers can understand that.

The Lucas proposal: like an I-5 shopping mall

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Monday, June 09, 2014

Chronicle sneers at city voters

No Wall on the Waterfront

John King hates it that city voters passed Proposition B. He thinks his pals in the Planning Department were doing a great job before the unwashed decided to interfere with those experts. In his front page, above-the-fold story in yesterday's Chronicle, he starts with a sneer in the first sentence (S.F. waterfront development must prepare for rising seas):

Now that San Francisco voters have said they want final say on waterfront development, we'll see if they have the courage and smarts to tackle the real job at hand---facing up to the need to deal with rising sea levels.

Yeah, if city voters think they're so smart, why don't they deal with global warming? Bet they don't have the guts to deal with "the real job at hand" on the waterfront, which is rising sea levels. But the "job at hand" for city voters last week was only about height limits on the waterfront and nothing else.

King can't disguise his contempt for the outcome of the election:

But this requires large-scale planning that accepts the complexity of a volatile future. Compare that to the regularity with which Prop. B leaders looking to scare voters would conjure up images of Fontana Towers---a pair of buildings next to Aquatic Park completed in 1960, 15 years before most of today's San Franciscans were even born.

Projects like the hideous Fontana Towers are just the kind of thing voters were worried about, as the developer-friendly Planning Department, Planning Commission, mayor, and Board of Supervisors were okaying projects that routinely violated height limits on the waterfront, like 8 Washington---rejected by city voters---and the proposed Warriors' arena, which Mayor Lee at one point thought would be his "legacy" project. City voters understood that nothing at all "complex" was happening, as City Hall mobilized city departments in a desperate attempt to defeat Proposition B and keep the money from big projects flowing.

King talks to someone at SPUR for yesterday's story---a group that also opposed Prop. B, supports highrise development in the city, and a favorite source of soundbites when King writes about development in San Francisco, though he usually talks to Gabriel Metcalf, SPUR's Executive Director.

This time it was left to Emily Badger of the Washington Post to use Metcalf as a source for a story that scolds us for passing Prop. B and ignoring "professional planners":

In theory, this takes power from generally unpopular developers and places it in the hands of the public instead. In reality, however, it yanks influence from a very different group: city professionals whose full-time job it is to weigh the insanely intricate implications of new development for affordable housing, property-tax coffers, economic development, public benefits, transportation infrastructure and more. It's the job of professional planners, in other words, to assess projects for the benefit of the entire city, from the perspective of many competing interests. It's hard to expect---or even ask---voters to do that. "The planning process involves a lot of complicated tradeoffs, whereas the ballot process involves simplistic slogans," said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research nonprofit that opposed the ballot measure.

Bullshit. City departments were desperately singing for their supper on the Planning Department's website before the election. They all wanted to keep the "revenue" from those big waterfront projects flowing into their departments.

The MTA's Ed Reiskin reminded us that big projects make more money for the city than small projects, translating that Big Thought into bureaucratic language: "As noted above, smaller scale projects are typically more limited in their infrastructure contribution."

It's unanimous at the Chronicle that We the Rabble made a mistake by ignoring all these experts and passing Prop. B.

The Chronicle editors opposed Proposition B, and C.W. Nevius told us that if we passed Prop. B "we're done" as a city. Stick a fork in this, pal!

On the other hand, City Insider Heather Knight yesterday found the election "one of the most boring elections in recent city history." But Knight often finds our elections tedious to write about. She hopes the November election will be more interesting, but as per the official party line at the Chronicle---and City Hall, Streetsblog, and the Bicycle Coalition---she has a sneer and a slur for the attempt to put the Restore Transportation Balance initiative on the ballot: 

A group of car-loving residents is trying to qualify an advisory measure for the ballot that would call for restricting parking meter hours and building new parking garages. In transit-first San Francisco, we'd give this the same odds as scoring a fog-free summer.

It's probably too much to ask that Knight to do any reporting that contradicts official Chronicle/City Hall doctrine, but the initiative is really about the opposition to City Hall's anti-car policies that a growing number of people in the neighborhoods find misguided, to put it mildly.

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Friday, May 23, 2014

Gary Kamiya: Portal of the Present

Gary Kamiya

That's a remarkably smug piece by Gary Kamiya in the May edition of San Francisco magazine (San Francisco Is Dead. Long Live San Francisco), as he retails some outright falsehoods to gloss over the radical gentrification of San Francisco. (Kamiya is now in the lead for my Pangloss of the Year award, which has been awarded twice to John King---here and here---his colleague at the Chronicle.)

Kamiya writes the Portals of the Past column for the Chronicle, stories about the history of San Francisco. Maybe he's been taking the long view so long it's distorting his view of what's happening to the city now. The subtitle of the article itself is a succinct bit of Panglossism: "Yes, the city we know is going away. But, as has happened throughout its history, a new one will arise. Let’s give it a chance." Out of the mud grows the lotus!

Yes, let's give the new gentry a chance. After all, the coffee and the food will be good---if you can afford it.

Kamiya does some pro forma hand-wringing about gentrification:

This prospect worries me. As someone who loves San Francisco’s maverick tradition and its class and ethnic diversity...I find the idea that my beloved town is on the verge of becoming another Manhattan---a picturesque but increasingly expensive, homogeneous, and sterile burg---distressing, to put it mildly. When I hear about yet another writer/artist/mentor/activist/all-around cool person being priced out of town, or learn that African Americans now make up only 6 percent of the city’s population, or hear stories about another young family that can’t afford to move here, my heart sinks.

But apparently what bothers him even more are those "cool" people who are protesting gentrification, including this outright falsehood:

There’s the view---promulgated by former elected officials like Art Agnos, Quentin Kopp, and Aaron Peskin---that any alteration in the physical landscape of San Francisco, especially if it involves market-rate housing, is akin to the Mordor Development Corporation’s erecting the Dark Tower in the middle of the Shire...For even if it were possible to keep San Francisco exactly the way it is...why would anyone want to? Any such attempt would be antithetical to the very things that I value most about the city: its youth, its vigor, its ability to reinvent itself...Progressives (who, it should be noted, played a key role in blocking housing starts for decades) can yell and scream at the techies and the mayor all they want, but they’ll still end up in the same place: a city with more housing demand than it has supply...

Like C.W. Nevius and Gabriel Metcalf---who invoke the anti-development trope regularly---Kamiya doesn't name anyone who actually believes it because no one does. I've lived in San Francisco off and on since 1960, and it's simply untrue that "progressives" have "played a key role in blocking housing starts." Not surprising that Kamiya, with his vast knowledge of city history, doesn't name any people or organizations to support his charge.

Agnos, Kopp, and Peskin opposed 8 Washington and support Proposition B, both of which are only about the waterfront and have nothing to do with opposing "market-rate housing" in the city in general:

I’m all for rushing the barricades when there’s an enemy to fight and a battle that can be won. I’ve engaged in my share of such battles. But it’s time to reckon with reality: There is no enemy here. Or if there is, it’s an enemy that won’t be defeated. What has hit San Francisco in the last couple of years can be summed up in one word: capitalism. And that is a tsunami that no seawall can keep out.

Thanks for clearing that up, Gary. That makes it all so much better.

Though Kamiya too supposedly "worries" about the gentrification of his beloved San Francisco, he only scolds those who are visibly opposing it---and he does it in a magazine owned by a company that perfectly represents that process: Modern Luxury---"56 titles in 15 affluent U.S. markets"!

Why do I suspect that Kamiya himself doesn't have to worry about being evicted?

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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

John King's amen chorus: Norquist and Macdonald

Elizabeth Macdonald and John Norquist

John King and some of the other perps who brought us the Octavia Boulevard that replaced the Central Freeway ramp in Hayes Valley revisited the scene of the crime this week. The Central Freeway used to carry 90,000 vehicles a day over Hayes Valley. Shortly after it opened to traffic, Octavia Blvd. was carrying 45,000 cars a day through the middle of the neighborhood, and by 2012 that traffic was up to 63,000.

Back in 2004, King consulted John Norquist in a column that declared the city's plan for Octavia Blvd. a success long before the street opened to traffic in 2005:

"This is an area where San Francisco is really leading the nation," says John Norquist, executive director of the Chicago-based Congress for a New Urbanism and former mayor of Milwaukee. "Not everyone has the benefit of an earthquake like San Francisco did, but if the boulevard works, it could end up being replicated across the country"...Octavia's attention to detail intrigues Norquist. His Chicago-based organization of architects and planners has teamed with traffic engineers to create new national guidelines for urban thoroughfares that are neighborhood-friendly. There's a practical reason: Many elevated freeways are near the end of their structural lives. "If you design it right, you can have a civilized place," Norquist says. "Even with lots of traffic, it can still be a pleasant place to be."

King and his pal Norquist revisited Octavia Blvd. the other day and declared it a success:

The group was organized by the Congress for the New Urbanism, a Chicago planning advocacy organization. Executive director John Norquist has made freeway removal a priority, and he saw the Bay Area as a showcase to drive home the point that turning back the clock can be beneficial. "It helps when people see physically, with your own eyes, that you can take down a freeway and life goes on," said Norquist...

Yes, life goes on---does it have any choice?---even when there are more than 60,000 vehicles a day coming through the middle of your neighborhood. Commercial life? Not so much. Unlike nearby Hayes Street, there are few businesses on this part of Octavia Blvd., since it's essentially an expressway leading to and from the freeway, a function the Central Freeway used to perform by bringing the traffic over the neighborhood.

Like Norquist King likes the life-goes-on trope, especially in conjunction with a lot of landscaping to cover up planning blunders and all that traffic:

Now the freeway touches down at Market Street before shifting to a boulevard with two lanes of traffic on either side of a median filled by thick poplars. On either side, there's an additional lane for local traffic, set apart from the central lanes by elms and shrubs to buffer the adjacent blocks from the commuter slog. The visitors from New Orleans and Syracuse, N.Y., were greeted by Elizabeth Macdonald, an associate professor at UC Berkeley's College of Environmental Design. Her firm, Jacobs Macdonald: Cityworks, designed the boulevard with the city's Department of Public Works. "One of the big issues we faced was the transition of the freeway to the city," Macdonald said. "Touching down at Market Street has some issues." Indeed, the central lanes are jammed for much of the day and cause backups on Page and Oak streets...

Yes, there are "some issues" with the freeway touchdown at Market and Octavia.

And there are "backups" not just on Page and Oak Streets; the whole area is now a chronic traffic jam for most of the day. Think traffic is bad there now? Soon it will be a lot worse after some other planning fiascos are completed---the UC development a block off Octavia Blvd. will bring 1,000 new residents to the neighborhood, and the Market and Octavia Plan's residential highrises will bring another 10,000 new residents to the area. Neither of these projects provides more money for Muni.

Maybe all those new residents will ride bikes after they get here.

The highrise zoning for the Market and Van Ness area.

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Thursday, March 06, 2014

Community Justice Center: Bay Guardian, city progs wrong again

Photo Lee Suzuki, SF Chronicle

Five years ago city progressives denounced Mayor Newsom's proposed Community Justice Center as if it was nothing but another front of his alleged war on poor people. They were wrong about Care Not Cash, and now it's clear that they were wrong about the CJC as reported yesterday (Verdict is positive for Justice Center) in the Chronicle:

Newsom first pitched the Tenderloin court as a place to tackle quality-of-life crimes such as camping on sidewalks and public urination, an idea that drew scorn from the public defender, homeless advocates and progressive members of the Board of Supervisors. They dubbed it Newsom's "poverty court" and said it would criminalize homeless people. In 2008, Newsom placed an advisory ballot measure to fund the court before voters---and lost resoundingly. Nonetheless, he'd already secured funding to run the court for one year and managed to keep it running after that. The San Francisco Superior Court, which runs the Community Justice Center, changed the focus to more serious crimes such as drug dealing, shoplifting and car break-ins. It handles misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, a focus that eased many critics' concerns.

The Bay Guardian opposed the Community Justice Center in 2007 here and in 2009 here and here.

Mayor Newsom and Kamala Harris in an op-ed supporting the Community Justice Center idea. It was already looking like a success in 2010.

Speaking of prog failures, Jim Herd at SF Citizen revisits the Octavia Blvd. planning and traffic fiasco. The Chronicle's John King had a long love affair with the "boulevard of dreams," beginning back in 2005:

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.

Shortly after Octavia Blvd. opened to traffic, it was bringing more than 45,000 cars and trucks through the middle of Hayes Valley. By 2007 there were more than 63,000 cars on Octavia Blvd. coming through the middle of that neighborhood.

But Rich Hillis, now on the Planning Commission, thinks all that traffic is somehow "healing" the neighborhood.

The backstory on Octavia Boulevard.

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Monday, July 22, 2013

John King likes the "brash show" in the avenues

Photo by Liz Hafalia for the Chronicle

Of course John King likes the hideous new apartment building at 300 Cornwall, at California Street and Fourth Avenue. After all he likes a lot of the recent crap built in San Francisco. He even likes the awful Octavia Boulevard. (Love is really a more accurate term for his feelings for that chronic traffic jam in Hayes Valley, given how he gushed about it long before it was opened to traffic in 2005.)

King describes the building using terms like "provocative," "assertive," and "energetic fun," when "ugly" and "garish" would be more accurate.

To justify the eyesore, King must also denigrate its neighborhood context, which is "nondescript," "slightly faded," though that part of town is a not unattractive residential neighborhood. 

"A corner that housed a smog check station is now a local landmark." That's supposedly the choice the city has: either a smog station or this eyesore.

King pretends that the Planning Department really cares what new buildings look like: "And because it plays by the rules of the city's planning code, no design variances were needed."

Since when were "design variances" required for anything built in San Francisco, like these monstrosities?

King trots out the myth of anti-development and resistance to change in SF and the Bay Area, implying that critics of this sort of thing are sticks-in-the-mud:

Too often in San Francisco and other Bay Area cities, change is viewed with suspicion. Critics take self-righteous pride in derailing projects or making them fit the norm. In response, too many architects and developers dumb down their game, grind out product and call it a day.

King and C.W. Nevius like to brandish this mythology when they're defending the indefensible, but I'm still waiting to learn about some actual examples of this, since it supposedly happens "often."

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Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Vibrant Alert

Not vibrant, transit-oriented development

Jack Bog provides his readers with a useful Vibrant Alert:

Whenever you read "vibrant," you know the writer is either a smug urban "planning" overlord or a reporter who doesn't know that he or she is being taken in by one.

That's when I first discovered the meaningless buzzword, in a 2004 Planning Dept. document that sent UC the signal that City Hall would allow it to cash in on the Extension property on lower Haight Street---which it had had tax-free for 50 years because of its education "mission"---by jamming 500 housing units onto six acres that had been zoned for "public use" for 150 years. When you're trying to sell a bad idea, your language will be bad, and the author of the document wrote opaquely about "vibrant local services," and "robust access to public transit," and "a vibrant mix of [housing]unit types."

But the term has spread like a virus since I first blogged about it in 2005. A Republican politician used it the other day in an unexpected context:

Saying he could "bring a different face" and a new GOP message to California, [Abel]Maldonado told The Chronicle in an interview that he is strongly mulling a run against the three-term Democrat---not only to strengthen his party, but also to encourage the kind of vibrant two-party political debate that makes for "a better state."

And presumably a more "vibrant" state.

And there's even a new "urbanist" blog called Vibrant Bay Area.

Thomas Frank in The Baffler analyzes the use of the word by boosters at some length in "Dead End on Shakin' Street." He's good on the whole, sketchy concept of vibrancy:

Your hometown is probably vibrant, too. Every city is either vibrant these days or is working on a plan to attain vibrancy soon. The reason is simple: a city isn’t successful—isn’t even a city, really—unless it can lay claim to being “vibrant.” Vibrancy is so universally desirable, so totemic in its powers, that even though we aren’t sure what the word means, we know the quality it designates must be cultivated. The vibrant, we believe, is what makes certain cities flourish. The absence of vibrancy, by contrast, is what allows the diseases of depopulation and blight to set in.

...As with other clichés, describing a city as “vibrant” was once a fairly innovative thing to do. Before 1950, the adjective was used mainly to describe colors and sound—the latter of which, after all, is transmitted through the air with vibrations. People’s voices were often said to be “vibrant.” As were, say, notes played on an oboe. To apply the adjective to a“community” or a “scene,” on the other hand, was extremely unusual back then. In fact, the word “vibrant” does not seem to appear at all in the 1961 urban classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, even though that book is often remembered as the very manifesto of vibrancy theory. How the expression made the leap from novelty to gold-plated bureaucratic buzzword is anyone’s guess. It is a cliché that I personally associate with NPR—not merely because announcers on that network tend to hymn the vibrant with complete indifference to the word’s exhaustion, but because they always seem to believe they are saying something really fresh and profound about a place or a “scene” when they tag it thus...

Even ArtPlace, the big vibrancy project of the NEA, the banks, and the foundations is not entirely sure that vibrancy can be observed or quantified. That’s why the group is developing what it calls “Vibrancy Indicators”: “While we are not able to measure vibrancy directly,” the group’s website admits, “we believe that the measures we are assembling, taken together, will provide useful insights into the nature and location of especially vibrant places within cities.”

What are those measures? Unfortunately, at press time they had not yet been announced. But a presentation of preliminary work on the “Vibrancy Indicators” did include this helpful directive: “Inform leaders of the connection between vibrancy and prosperity.”

Got that? We aren’t sure what vibrancy is or whether or not it works, but part of the project is nevertheless “informing” people that it does. The meaninglessness of the term, like the absence of proof, does not deter the committed friend of the vibrant...

This is not the place to try to gauge the enormous, unaccountable power that foundations wield over American life—their agenda-setting clout in urban planning debates, for example, or the influence they hold over cash-strapped universities, or their symbiosis with public broadcasters NPR and PBS. My target here is not their power, but their vacuity. Our leadership class looks out over the trashed and looted landscape of the American city, and they solemnly declare that salvation lies in an almost meaningless buzzword—that if we chant that buzzword loud enough and often enough, our troubles are over...(emphasis added)

[Later: The Morning after I posted this, the Chronicle's John King has a column with this head: "Vibrant cities roll with the punches." Good comment: "When you have to write an article to convince everyone that your girlfriend is actually pretty, chances are she isn't." Click on "John King" below for more vibrancy from King.]

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Monday, January 14, 2013

The Planning Department and "creative design"

"The applicants worked in good faith, met all the requirements toward securing a permit and developed an exceptionally creative design," said David Alumbaugh, manager of the Planning Department's city design group. "They failed in not waiting until a permit was formally issued."

The Planning Department's "design group" okayed the above atrocity, because, you understand, it's "exceptionally creative." That's one way of putting it.

The Design Group also okayed this...
and this...

and this...

and this.

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Monday, November 19, 2012

"Business without a heart" in San Francisco

John King likes it
From yesterday's NY Times (In San Francisco, Life Without Starchitects):
He[Frank Gehry] was critical of the high-rise building boom under way in San Francisco’s South of Market area, where the newly built towers are boxy and utilitarian. “It’s business without heart,” he said. In the past decade, 13 high-rise condo towers of 20 stories or more have been built in San Francisco. Another four such projects have been approved by the city...developers in San Francisco are loath to take architectural risks because the city’s approval process for new development is long and rigorous, perhaps the most onerous in the country, architects say. It’s hard to fault their caution when you consider how small San Francisco really is---47 square miles (Manhattan alone is 23 square miles)---with much of the area consumed by neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes. More than the pedigree of the architect, the city worries about things like shadows and wind and, of course, earthquakes...
...But it hasn’t been fear of earthquakes that has held up the approval of a residential tower being designed by Mr. Meier’s firm for the corner of Market Street and Van Ness Avenue. City planners were concerned about how an early design for the building, currently scheduled to have 37 floors, would affect wind conditions for pedestrians, said Bernhard Karpf, an associate partner at Richard Meier & Partners, who is in charge of the project.

“They describe that area as having ‘hazardous wind conditions,’ where people would literally get blown off the street,” Mr. Karpf said. The developer David Choo asked Mr. Meier in 2009 to do something that was “not your traditional San Francisco architecture,” Mr. Karpf said. Meier & Partners initially designed a “free-standing sculptural object” on the small site. With approval threatened, the firm hired a Canadian company to test a scale model in a wind tunnel, delaying the design process by another year.
“We had never heard of these kinds of wind regulations,” Mr. Karpf said. “It became almost obsessive on the planning board’s side to make sure wind is mitigated.”
Their frustration mounting, the Meier architects asked the Canadian company to give them three or four shapes that would meet the wind requirements. “We have to move forward,” Mr. Karpf said he told them. “We have to find a solution that works. It may look horrible, but let’s see if we can reverse the process and turn it into a building.”
In the end, the slender shape of the building “was strongly influenced” by studies in the wind tunnel laboratory, which showed that it would “actually improve wind conditions in this part of town,” he said. When Mr. Karpf asked Mr. Choo how he could stand to buy a property and still have nothing to show for it some five years later, he shrugged and told the architect, “That’s the way it works in San Francisco.”
"Improve wind conditions"? Bullshit! More highrise buildings at Market and Van Ness is a terrible idea, since wind conditions there are already extreme because of the existing highrises. But real estate interests uber alles! The wind tunnel effect is what you inevitably get with highrises. It's no accident that there are high winds at Market and Van Ness, in the financial district---and, in District 5, at McAllister and Fillmore and Haight and Buchanan.
Even more wind tunnels and shadows on public spaces are what we're going to get with the Market and Octavia Plan from our progressive "smart growth" and "transit-oriented development" policies, along with more traffic congestion, since that plan doesn't provide any money for Muni. Let the 10,000 new residents in the area ride bikes!
The Planning Department has already brought us highrises on Rincon Hill---with crucial help from Chris Daly---the ugly De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park by starchitects Herzog and de Meuron, the ugly federal building on Seventh Street by starchitect Thom Mayne, and the ridiculous synagogue at Clement and Park Presidio. 

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Monday, July 09, 2012

Leave Fort Mason alone 2

The campaign to screw up Fort Mason is well underway, and John King is excited, and when King gets turned on you can be sure it involves a project that will degrade the city.

King on the Fort Mason competition:

Fort Mason Center's design competition is shaping up as the Bay Area's best architectural show in years...The center's design jury will meet in July to whittle the list to three, each of whom will receive $20,000 stipends to craft full proposals over the summer. I can't wait to see the results.

Oh, yes. Maybe the winning design will be as exciting as the ludicrous Beth Shalom synagogue, the Rincon Hill highrise, the chronic traffic jam known as Octavia Blvd., and the ugly new de Young Museum, to mention a few of King's dubious enthusiasms.

Rich Hillis (pictured above), who used to work in Mayor Newsom's City Hall, is in charge of the competition. Hillis thinks Octavia Blvd., which brought much of the old Central Freeway traffic to the surface streets in Hayes Valley, is "helping to heal" the Hayes Valley neighborhood. Now he's determined to "heal" an already healthy, attractive Fort Mason. What could go wrong with that?

Hillis has just been appointed to the Planning Commission, where, while he screws up Fort Mason, he can help John King and the Planning Dept. find more garish, destructive projects for San Francisco.

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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Leave Fort Mason alone

The recent John King column on Fort Mason was the first I'd heard of the move to screw up one of the nicest spots in San Francisco. Rich Hillis is in charge of a design competition that threatens to do that, and they picked the right guy for the job of "upgrading" Fort Mason. Recall that, a few years ago when he worked for Mayor Newsom in City Hall, Hillis opined about Octavia Boulevard:

"At one time the freeway bisected the area and developing the parcels is helping to heal the neighborhood," said Rich Hillis, deputy director in the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development. "A lot of the changes in Hayes Valley were sparked by the removal of the freeway and we think the developments near Octavia Boulevard will close out a project that has been successful."

That was so far from the awful reality of the chronically-gridlocked Octavia Blvd. I had to give Hillis an award for the Most Fatuous Statement About Hayes Valley by a City Official.

King and Hillis must first denigrate what it's like now: Fort Mason is "off the map of today's San Francisco"; It's "a  place out of time": can stand with your back to the water and watch bicyclists glide down the bluffs on their way from Fisherman's Wharf to Crissy Field, few of whom pause to explore the gated compound on the right. Or you can look at the buildings and read the signs of age, since the center's philosophy of low-rent space for nonprofits isn't conducive to fancy upkeep.

Fort Mason is now home to the legendary Greens Restaurant and 20 other businesses and non-profits. If the buildings need some "upkeep," a meddlesome---and dangerous---design competition isn't necessary to do that.

King places Fort Mason in a completely false city context:

But the northern waterfront has changed immeasurably since 1977. The Embarcadero was known for its elevated freeway rather than a wide promenade. Crissy Field was a military base, ramshackle buildings filling what now is celebrated open space. The city's cultural and economic momentum, meanwhile, has shifted south - a new order manifested by everything from Yerba Buena Gardens and the Giants ballpark to the Valencia Street dining scene. The artisans and arts groups that a generation ago were drawn to Fort Mason now hunt for spaces in Dogpatch or the Mid-Market area. Those spots are our 21st century urban frontier, and that's a big part of the lure.

Of course Fort Mason is nowhere near the Embarcadero, the Yerba Buena Gardens, or the Giants ballpark---or even Crissy Field, for that matter. And who cares if the trendies like Dogpatch or Mid-Market? Fort Mason is doing well where it is and as it is.

Hillis has a few typically obtuse soundbites for King:

"It would draw me in because of something specific," Rich Hillis said, as we explored the sternly intriguing landscape on a windy weekday afternoon. "It hasn't been a place for a casual visit." Hillis wants to change that: In September, he became the center's executive director, leaving a post at City Hall for an office with sailboats bobbing outside..."We need better connections to the water and better connections to the city," Hillis said. "The physical core and the core mission should remain the same."

Fort Mason has 1,750,000 visitors a year; Greens alone has 160,000 customers a year. So what's the problem? A lot of city residents make "casual visits" to Fort Mason every day to eat at Greens, and if you can't afford to eat in the restaurant, you can buy a sandwich at the take-out counter and eat on a bench next to the water. There are theaters and galleries and the library's used book store; special events bring thousands to Fort Mason every year. The #28 Muni line stops right across the street.

People should worry that someone who thinks Octavia Blvd. is somehow "healing" the Hayes Valley neighborhood is Fort Mason's executive director in charge of a design competition on how to change what even John King calls a "community treasure."

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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Bad news for SF: John King is "excited"

When John King gets turned on, it's bad news for San Francisco. King's latest orgasm-in-print is over the awful highrise proposed for Market and Van Ness.

King's tumescent prose on the building---"a lithe figure in a slit gown of sheer glass," and a "soft slender form," etc.---says more about the aging journalist than the building pictured above, which is a solid 34 stories high.

Like our trendy local planners, King advocates the Vancouverization of  San Francisco, with residential highrises and "stacking new homes in the sky." (Not everyone in Vancouver is happy with what's been done there.)

Without naming it, King refers to the awful Market and Octavia Plan that allows this atrocity: 

...a 2007 rezoning lifted heights on the premise that the Market-Van Ness intersection should be "a visual landmark" marking the shift from the city's dense northeast quadrant to the lower, more residential districts to the west.

King puts "a visual landmark" in quotes because he's probably quoting a Planning Department document that puts a smiley face on a plan that rezones thousands of properties---elminating setbacks and back yards, raising height limits, and of course restricting parking---in the middle of the city to encourage population density as per the fashionable "smart growth" doctrine. In other words, it's a developer's dream.

There will be more highrises at that unfortunate intersection, as this map from the Market and Octavia Plan makes clear.

Maybe King got turned on because the building is near one of his earlier loves and another city planning fiasco: the awful Octavia Boulevard expressway.

Even an infatuated King wonders about the impact of making that intersection's notorious wind-tunnel even worse with another highrise:

This part of town also is a wind tunnel, especially in the afternoon. Our ethereal shaft is now going through environmental reviews, with the design team exploring how to remedy the non-ethereal downdrafts. You wonder why, if high winds might be a fatal flaw, the corner was rezoned for towers to begin with.

Yes, one wonders. Even though the Market/Octavia Plan has been on the table since 2004, District 5 Diary is the only place you'll ever find any criticism of that creation of a free-fire zone for developers, because "smart growth" is fashionable in "progressive" political circles. Naturally this plan restricts parking for the 4,400 new housing units planned and provides no money for an already-maxed out Muni. Let the 10,000 new residents ride bikes!

The M/O Plan documents make it clear that making the wind tunnel there even windier won't hold up this or other highrises planned for that area:

An exception to this requirement may be permitted, but only if and to the extent that the project sponsor demonstrates that the building or addition cannot be shaped or wind baffling measures cannot be adopted without unduly restricting the development potential of the building site being considered (pages 3, 4).

The ultimate Planning roll-over: "without unduly restricting the development potential" of that property, which has already been zoned for skyscrapers! One suspects that "project sponsors" won't have any trouble demonstrating to the Planning Dept. that the "development potential" is "unduly" restricted.

But we shouldn't worry about the densification of San Francisco and a bunch of ugly new highrises creeping toward our neighborhoods:

The architectural stakes have been raised during the past decade in San Francisco and other large cities, and that's exciting. There's value in seeing the ways that talented outsiders respond to our local terrain. At the same time, brand names and would-be icons won't make or break us. This city and the Bay Area are defined less by specific buildings than the view around the corner, the neighborhood scene we encounter along the way. And as the local economy revives, it's a balance we don't want to lose.

Yes, these ugly new buildings and overpopulation can't take away "the view around the corner"---except when they do. Losing the city's architectural and population "balance" is just what this kind of development means and, oddly, what a Panglossian John King finds "exciting."

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Friday, January 27, 2012

Willie and Jerry Brown: Development Democrats

Photo by Luke Thomas of Fog City Journal

What's increasingly clear about the high-speed rail project is that, as Martin Engel has been telling us, this project is not about the train; it's about the money---and the jobs that money will allegedly create. After all, even dumb projects can create a lot of jobs. The most important, steadfast supporters of the project are the leadership of the Democratic Party, including, alas, President Obama. Since he didn't mention high-speed rail in his State of the Union speech, apparently the president understands that the point is now moot, since obviously congress isn't going to give the project any more money.

But California Demcratic Party leaders are still on board, so to speak, including Governor Brown, Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, Mark Leno, Tom Ammiano, Scott Wiener, and Mayor Lee.

In a recent column in the Chronicle, Willie Brown provides a good example of what I call Development Democrats, the party leaders who consider the merits of projects a secondary consideration. The main thing is jobs for the unions, an important part of the party's base:

Gov. Jerry Brown is doing exactly what he should do with his call to go ahead with building the high-speed rail system: He's looking out for his legacy. You've got to do projects when you're governor, or mayor for that matter. The bigger the better. Jerry is trying to match his father, Pat Brown, who oversaw the building of the state highway network, the California Aqueduct and California's higher education system when he was governor. Jerry is thinking about what the John Kings of the world will say about him in 50 years. For me, there are few things more pleasing than having The Chronicle's peerless architecture writer praise projects I helped bring into being, such as the Giants' ballpark and Mission Bay. Nobody remembers all the things I screwed up, but they do remember the buildings. That's the legacy we politicians can show the Lord when we're trying to get into heaven.

If Governor Brown persists in pushing the high-speed rail project, his legacy will include support for the dumbest, most wasteful public works project in California's history.

Odd that Willie Brown mentions only the Giants' ballpark (a great success) and Mission Bay (jury still out) and not the Ferry Building, the City Hall makeover, and Union Square, all genuine successes done while he was mayor. Maybe those wonderful projects weren't big enough---and didn't create enough jobs---for a Development Democrat to brag about.

Odd too that he thinks the good opinion of John King---who likes Octavia Blvd, the Beth Shalom synagogue, and the "vision" of more highrises in downtown San Francisco---is something to be coveted. Among the important things Mayor Brown "screwed up": the homeless issue. He doesn't mention an important part of his "legacy": the Central Subway, the political deal disguised as an expensive, poorly-designed transportation project.

If the State of California goes ahead with the high-speed rail project, it will force the neglect of other important issues, like the $11 billion water bond that Governor Brown is now hoping to take off the ballot to clear the way for his proposed tax hikes.

And there's the "wall of debt" the state faces that will force cuts in other programs, including the public school system:  

Brown first used the "wall of debt" term last year in describing the accumulated borrowing that allowed lawmakers and past governors to claim they had balanced the budget. The largest piece of the wall is $10.4 billion in deferred payments to K-12 schools and community colleges. Deferred payments are those promised in one year but then paid in the next, even as schools are told to spend as if they actually had the money. The deferrals have continued year after year, and today schools are receiving about 20 percent less than they should, forcing districts to borrow, dip into reserves or spend even less. California also still owes more than $6 billion from traditional borrowing used to balance the budget under former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, along with other billions in internal borrowing and delayed payments to Medi-Cal, CalPERS and local governments for unpaid mandates, among other things...

...Still, making cuts like those proposed to the state's welfare program, which would reduce the amount of time most people receive aid from four years to two years, along with the proposed elimination of 71,000 subsidies for child care, would have a negative economic impact, said Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project. The nonpartisan group advocates for low-income Californians.

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