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 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 But it's been replaced by six lanes of traffic in the neighborhood, and, yes, there's a gesture of a park---Hayes Green---at the end of that five-block section of Octavia Blvd.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 Blvd. 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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Tys Sniffen to Rob

Tys Sniffen to Rob:
So Rob,you're anti-bike, we all know that. You're anti-traffic, or at least, you know how loud and ugly it can be. You're anti-gentrification, as it brings more cars, and crass rich people who don't ride the bus. You're anti-housing building, because only the rich will buy and it'll mean more people bumping into you...while I've never heard you say what you're "for," can I glean from these posts that you're for putting a fence (or a time warp) around SF and throwing away the key? "SF only for us who've been here when it was just us!" ?
Rob Replies:
No, you can't. That's what's known as a false dichotomy in beginning philosophy. The implication is that one has to either accept projects like Rincon Hill or reject all housing development in the city. I'm for building affordable housing under the existing city zoning regulations on height, density, and parking, rather than waiving these regs to encourage developers to propose overlarge projects and/or overdevelop specific parts of town. Take the Market/Octavia Neighborhood Plan, for example. According to the Plan's DEIR, without the Plan that area's population will grow by 2,225 by the year 2025. With the Plan, the area will grow by 7,620 residents. Why isn't 2,225 more people enough for that area? Why should the city be encouraging that kind of growth in an area that already has 900 new housing units planned for the old freeway parcels? This doesn't include the 450 units an imperial UC wants to put on the old Extension site. (The M/O Plan also encourages 40-story residential highrises in the Van Ness/Market St. area.) That area has just seen a six-lane street open up in the middle of the Hayes Valley neighborhood, along with a new freeway ramp on Market St. What the area needs now is to be left alone to absorb these radical changes. The last thing it needs is an arrogant Planning Dept. piling still more housing development on top of the existing changes. It's hard to believe that anyone thinks this is good planning.

I don't think rich people are necessarily "crass." In fact, every rich person I've met has been rather nice (including my landlords, who are exemplary human beings and fine Americans). I'm not really "anti-bike." I just think the whole bike fantasy in SF is taking up way too much room in our political life. Riding a bike in the city will always be too dangerous and/or impractical for anything but a small minority. But the bike fanatics are now taking lanes from motorized traffic, which can't be justified by the small number of cyclists in the city. They also want to eliminate parking spaces that should go with every new housing unit built in the city. The end result makes traffic worse for everyone just to satisfy a goofy "progressive" ideology that values the idea of bikes more than reality-based planning and traffic management in a city that has more than 464,000 registered vehicles.

And there's this outrageous result of the bike fantasy: The Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission voted unanimously to make the 400-page Bicycle Plan part of the General Plan with no environmental study, even though the bike plan means radical changes to the city's streets and buildings. This is the triumph of ideology over reality. What's shocking to me is that I'm apparently one of the few people to recognize these realities.

By the way, Tys, do you still support UC's plan to put 450 housing units on the old Extension site? During last year's D5 campaign for supervisor, Julian Davis and I were the only candidates of the 22 that opposed the grotesque proposal, which I also found rather shocking.

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