Sunday, September 18, 2005

John King and the "Boulevard of Dreams"

John King, the SF Chronicle's "Urban Design Writer," has always been soft on Octavia Blvd. He declared his love almost a year ago, even before construction began, based apparently on the architectural drawings.

What King, the pro-development folks in Planning, and the cabal of "activists" in HVNA all insist on is the distinction between a mere "street" and a "boulevard." My dictionary defines boulevard simply as "a broad, often landscaped thoroughfare." But, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a street is a street is a street, no matter how many trees you plant in between the traffic lanes (or on the side, like on Park Presidio). What seems to underlie this semantic embellishment is a lingering sense of self-congratulation about getting rid of the Central Freeway that defaced that part of town.

The big, bad freeway is gone, so whatever takes its place has to be a lot better, seems to be the tacit assumption. Well, yes and no. Yes, the shadows, the hookers, the junkies, and the ugly structure itself are all gone. But it's been replaced by six lanes of traffic in the neighborhood, and, yes, there's a gesture of a park---Hayes Green---at the end of that five-block section of Octavia Blvd. But there's also a freeway ramp on the other side of Market St. that feeds traffic day and night through the neighborhood. Granted that people of good will can differ on whether this is a great improvement---or any improvement at all---for the neighborhood, since it's essentially an aesthetic judgment and thus subjective.

But John King ramps up the hyperbole for his love-object, mixed with typically over-optimistic statements that are at best arguable. His latest look at Octavia Blvd. is both celebratory---we're talking love story here, after all---and complacent: "...Octavia Blvd. is a triumph---the most urbane addition to a San Francisco neighborhood this decade and one that, if it is well-maintained, will only get better with time."

Well, if we keep the trees and shrubs watered, they will presumably get bigger and do a better job of hiding the traffic and muffling its noise. But where have we seen this kind of Panglossian sentiment before? Sure enough, King waxed smug about the new de Young museum in Golden Gate Park earlier this year:

But guess what? The controversy will fade. The de Young we grow to know will be filled with familiar art, wrapped in outdoor sculpture and vegetation. We won't be experiencing some abstract architectural installation on bare soil, but an evolving art storehouse. That art is what, over time, will add resonance to the new de Young. The architecture is provocative, yes---but it is one small piece of the overall package. When architecture is applied to something as public and memorable as a museum, architecture is not an art form in and of itself. It is a vessel waiting to be filled (SF Chronicle, Feb. 17, 2005).

That is, the new de Young building---which looks like a warehouse with psoriasis---will eventually be redeemed by the surrounding landscaping and the art inside, just as Octavia Blvd. will be redeemed by Hayes Green and the trees and shrubbery between the lanes. (Why not just design an attractive building out front, one that doesn't have to be covered up with shrubbery? Don't ask.)

King even likes the approach to Octavia from the freeway ramp on Market St:

Drivers heading north or west descend from the freeway at Market Street and are greeted by the most attractive entrance into the city after the Golden Gate Bridge: a boulevard with poplar trees in the middle and Chinese elms on each side of the four-lane thoroughfare between faux historic lampposts.

Comparing the Market Street approach to Octavia Blvd. to the Golden Gate Bridge approach is ridiculous, but "faux-historic lampposts" for a faux-boulevard seems right. King often includes some odd diction in his pieces. Here he calls the lanes for neighborhood traffic on each side of Octavia "paths," which is simply the wrong word for a street large enough to accommodate a Humvee. And there's the PlanSpeak "signage" usage, when plain old "signs" would do.

At least King drops the sunny bullshit when discussing the freeway ramp on the south side of Market, which, as he notes, "restores darkness and noise to a stretch of the South of Market neighborhood where several hundred people reside. While the single-level ramp isn't as bad as the double-decker that existed before, its presence is broad and bleak." (But why "reside" instead of "live"?)

Recall, too, that John King is a great believer in residential highrises for San Francisco---but only "slender" and "elegant" highrises, mind you. King liked the idea of the Rincon Hill highrises early on in the process that resulted in that evolving catastrophe for the city. See the Chronicle's archives for his columns that helped grease the skids for that part of town, along with my take earlier this year. 

He also likes the word "vibrant," which he has in common with the young folks at the Planning Dept. One wonders about the relationship between the Planning Dept. and John King, since they have "vibrancy," residential highrises, and Octavia Blvd. in common, along with the fact that none of them write very well.

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