Sunday, December 18, 2005

Josh Switzky: Rincon Hill will be "warm and welcoming"

If Supervisor Daly had firmly opposed the Rincon Hill residential highrises from the start, the projects could have been stopped. He didn't and they are a done deal. But he had a lot of help, both from the mayor's office, our "progressive" Board of Supervisors, and the city's Planning Department. Joshua Switzky in the Planning Dept. worked on the Rincon Hill atrocity for several years. 

He explains his thinking ("Growth Factor," by Robin Rinaldi) in the November issue of 7x7 Magazine, a periodical that, like Vanity Fair, sometimes tucks interesting material deep inside its glossy, content-free pages. (The article/interview also has some shocking graphics of what the Rincon/Transbay area is going to look like when the "build-out" is complete.)

Switzky thinks it's pretty slick planning to put housing next to where people work:

Another fundamental land-use decision that encourages people to walk is putting the housing right next to the city's downtown office core. A lot of these people will work in the Financial District, so they'll walk to work a few blocks away instead of driving from the peninsula. And then they'll hopefully walk to other amenities like the Ferry Building, the ballpark, and other parts of SoMa.

This is pure fantasy. The luxury condos at Rincon Hill, for example, are already expected to go for a minimum of $1 million. The people who buy these units are not going to be working class---Muni drivers, city cops and firemen, not to mention restaurant and hotel workers. They will be the wealthy from other parts of the country and the world. Grisso admits this: "We shouldn't have any illusions. This is SF. Even the low-rise buildings are going to be expensive. The market determines that."

Rinaldi recognizes the problem in her next question: "There's the possiblility of wealthy people buying vacation homes and pieds-a-terre, or investors buying whole chunks to rent out, which will put a dent in the home ownership prospects of people who live and work here full-time." This is just common sense. How many people working downtown will be able to afford either the Rincon Hill units or the market-rate units at the Trans-Bay development?

Switzky's answer: "It's a tough question and a huge concern. Certainly a number of units are going to be pieds-a-terre, more than we'd like. But in terms of planning, it's hard to prevent." 

In other words, it's not his job to worry about who buys the luxury units he works to get built. Actually, he's right. He's just a technocrat doing his job in the Planning Dept. You don't rely on bureaucrats to provide a vision of what the city should be. 

It's our political leadership that has failed the city on the Rincon Hill projects---the mayor and the "progressive" Board of Supervisors, including the board's left wing, especially Supervisor Daly, in whose district the projects are located, and Supervisor Mirkarmi, who called Rincon Hill "a fine project." 

And progressives and South of Market "activists" seem to think Daly's shakedown of the developers for $58 million to "mitigate" this atrocity somehow makes this a win-win deal.

The article/interview also includes John Cary, Gabriel Metcalf of SPUR, and Mike Grisso of the Redevelopment Agency. How delusional are these guys? Metcalf on residential highrises in SF:

People love to live in highrises. Rincon Hill and Transbay are the first attempts to create a whole new neighborhood on that concept. I think it's absolutely the right thing to be doing for the environment. Instead of sprawling outward and making people drive, we're going to build homes for people at extremely high density, where they can walk to work and walk to the store and finally grow up and embrace their urbanity.

What can you say to this kind of crap? A "new" neighborhood concept: Rich people in luxury highrise condos! Embrace this, pal!

It's important to understand that these folks think SF is morally obligated to radically increase its population density via highrises, because, as Metcalf says, "The only way to bring down the average cost of Bay Area housing is to increase the supply significantly. That can't all be done within the city limits of SF, but we have to do our part." 

This is not only a free market approach to housing that Milton Friedman can embrace, it also means we have a moral duty to the region to in effect destroy our city because the Region Needs Housing. Grisso agrees with Metcalf: "This is an opportunity to create housing that this region needs, and housing near employment centers so you don't contribute to suburban sprawl." I say let the suburbs build residential highrises!

So what kind of neighborhood do these guys think Highriseville will be? Marc Salomon is right to worry about chain stores and box stores in the South of Market area, which is well on the way to becoming a free fire zone for developers. 

Cary: "By instituting certain planning codes, we can work with chains to modify their signage or exteriors, making them different from the strip-mall norm and more similar to the neighborhood aesthetic so many of us are hoping for." Chain stores with a "neighborhood aesthetic"! 

But don't worry, Cary is confident that the Free Market will take care of things: "Restrictions or no, the market will achieve a balance in short order...Again, we can only hope and trust that the property owners respect the need for a variety of offerings." 

And Switzky is confident the new neighborhood will "feel warm and welcoming." He also envisions Folsom St. becoming "a grand civic boulevard" with "seating, dog runs or community gardens"! Right: the millionaires in the 3000+ highrise condos, when they tire of the view of the bay, are going to stroll over to the community garden to grow organic vegetables.

Concerned about building highrises in SF? Not to worry, Grisso assures us that these highrises will be different---"much slimmer than the residential towers we have now, much more tapered. The look is very elegant." Switzky concurs: "The towers will certainly have a sleek appearance." 

This isn't a vision---it's sheer intoxication. These are the people who, with the crucial help of city progressives, are imposing a radically flawed idea on a large part of San Francisco.

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At 10:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One has to wonder after reading blogpost after blogpost of how highrises are the new evil in SF, why you dont live someplace a little less changeable, a little less urban....
Can you talk a little about what kind of housing should be built on a parking lot mere blocks away from other highrises and the most dense public transit network on the west coast?
I'm really curious what you feel is appropriate?
single family homes? 2 stories? 4 stories?
Also are you for a system that prevents non native san franciscans from buying these dwellings?

At 9:22 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

The Rincon Hill highrise projects were only made possible by the city's waiving normal height and density regs. Why not just encourage development within existing zoning regulations? The word "evil" of course isn't the kind of terminology that makes sense when discussing planning issues. Let's save it for issues like the Holocaust. The kind of development we're talking about---50-story highrises, 8000 more people in the area, 12 square blocks---is really a radical experiment in social engineering whose only certain effect will be to accelerate gentrification in SF. Your assumption seems to be that we had to choose between highrises or nothing at all in that area, but those are false alternatives. Note that, in the 7x7 article, these guys think they are creating neighborhoods. I think what they are really doing is preventing genuine neighborhoods from devleoping in that area. Nor do I think preventing people from outside the city from buying into SF is the issue. It's clearly a matter of Build It and They Will Come in the case of Rincon Hill; if we don't build luxury condos, we won't have that problem, will we?

At 9:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So by your own ideas, if we build 50 story housing for average middle income SF'ers you would be totally fine with it?

At 10:20 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

No. Why do we want highrises for anyone in SF? Highrise housing raises density issues in whatever part of town they are built, including the Market/Octavia area, where the Planning Dept. wants to put more highrises. Too much population density raises quality-of-life issues, which is why there are density limits in the first place. The assumption of the Planning Dept. and those who support highrises seems to be The More the Merrier. We'll all just be so jolly and cozy, strolling around our densified neighborhoods among the "street furniture" and the "signage"---or, even less plausibly, riding our bikes along the beautiful new boulevards---like Folsom, or, God help us, Octavia Blvd. Ha!---since the pro-highrise folks also want to restrict parking for all the new units they want to build in SF, even though the rich people who buy the market-rate units are surely going to own cars. It's just reckless planning, based on dubious "new urbanism" assumptions.


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