Thursday, March 13, 2008

Preservation and the Market/Octavia Plan

From: Rob Anderson
To: Alan Martinez
Date: Mar 10, 2008
Subject: Time to Support the Market/Octavia Plan!


Your message [below in italics] demonstrates how successful the city has been in balkanizing the opposition to the Market/Octavia Plan. We have your "preservation community," as you call it. And we have the anti-car folks, including the Bicycle Coalition, who support the Plan because it discourages developers from providing adequate parking for the 6,000 new housing units and the 10,000 new residents encouraged by the Plan. And there are the We Need Housing folks, who simply want to build as much housing as they can everywhere in the city---neighborhoods be damned---under the assumption that someday the city will have so much the price of housing will go down. And there are the folks like Matt Smith and John King who like the whole residential highrise concept. And then there's the Transit Corridor theorists in Planning, who are under the delusion that we can build as much housing as we want as long as it's anywhere near a Muni line. Among interest groups, only the dog people have yet to support the Market/Octavia Plan.

To a hammer the whole world looks like a nail. My point is that the M/O Plan is about more than preserving the many wonderful old buildings in the area. (Why, by the way, is this being done so late in the game? Since Planning has been working on the M/O Plan for almost 8 years now, why wasn't this done before the M/O Plan was put before the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors, which is what is required by CEQA?) Since the whole point of the M/O Plan is to encourage population growth in the area with zoning changes that reward dense development, its effect will be to encourage the demolition of older buildings in favor of more profitable developments with more units.

Planning got us in this fix when, instead of simply putting housing on the old freeway parcels the state gave the city, they bundled up all their trendy, half-baked notions of Good Planning and embodied them in this grandiose, destructive Plan---the transit corridors bullshit, the anti-car/anti-parking ideology (an extension of the city's anti-car policies supported by all good progressives), the residential highrise idea (40-story highrises at Market/Van Ness that will literally cast shadows on the Civic Center), with the underlying assumption that we can radically increase population in an area without screwing up an already crowded Muni and traffic in general.

Speaking of traffic, the new, unimproved Octavia Blvd. is now carrying 45,000 cars a day through the heart of the M/O Plan area. So of course the city is encouraging 10,000 more residents in the area while discouraging developers from supplying adequate parking! And there's the UC/Evans housing development a block away on lower Haight Street, which is applying the same developer-friendly principles---if that's the word----to that 450-unit housing development. This is good planning? Rezoning thousands of properties in the middle of the city to encourage population density is a wildly irresponsible thing to do. It's a bad Plan, and it's a dumb Plan. It also happens to be an illegal Plan. You can negotiate some kind of deal on preservation, and Supervisor Mirkarimi can pretend to negotiate more affordable housing for the Plan, but it's just a huge mistake that shouldn't happen at all. The philistines and the developers and the bike nuts of course like it, but anyone who really cares for San Francisco can't possibly support the M/O Plan.

Rob Anderson

From: Alan Martinez
Date: Mar 10, 2008
Subject: Time to Support the Market/Octavia Plan!


It is time for the Preservation Community to actively support the Market-Octavia Plan at the Planning Commission Thursday March 13th, the Board of Supervisors Land Use Committee on March 24th and when it is heard by the full Board. Please send letters and emails to the Supervisors, the Planning Commissioners and the Mayor that you support the plan as it is now leaving the Board for the PlanningCommission.

After much hard work and negotiation between the PreservationCommunity and the Planning Department we have a plan that will:

Complete the Historic Resource Survey that has been started. The Historic Resource Survey will lay the groundwork for new or expanded historic districts and will put on record the historic significance of resources that will not fall within the boundaries of historic districts.

The plan will refrain from increasing height limits until the Survey is adopted and the impact of such height limits on historic resources may be examined.

The Plan puts into place interim controls that will protect historic resources until the Historic Resource Survey is adopted.

The Plan commits the City to initiating the process of establishing new historic districts in appropriate locations.

Please send letters and emails to the Supervisors, the Planning Commissioners and the Mayor that you support the plan as it is now leaving the Board for the Planning Commission. The Mayor, the Commissioners and the Supervisors need to hear from the Preservation Community regarding this Plan.

I been thinking about the long process of the Market-Octavia Plan's creation, and the place of considerations regarding historic resources and planning for affordable housing within the process, and would be interested in knowing what people think about my observations about the planning process in San Francisco:

There has been talk that the Board of Supervisors meddles in planning issues too often. The background assumption behind this complaint is that planning is a complicated subject requiring a great deal of specialized knowledge and that City Planning would best be left to the experts, experts who would still be subject to the oversight of the citizen body of a Planning Commission, which has the time to delve more deeply into planning issues than the Board of Supervisors or the Mayor. While there is a certain element of truth to this background assumption, I think it is only true with some serious caveats.

It has been my conclusion from my readings and observations over many years that the ultimate authority regarding Planning issues has always (since cities have existed at any rate) rested with whatever entity controls society as a whole. This controlling authority has usually been circumscribed by tradition and by whatever is conceived of as possible at the time, nevertheless, the Kings, the Parliaments, Oligarchies or Tyrants have always had the ultimate authority over Planning issues.

It is perhaps obvious why this is true: as the Goodman brothers pointed out in their book Communitas, a city or area plan always embodies within it an economic program and set of social values. Making a plan means not only making choices that will affect the economic future of a society and certain groups within it, but it also means making decisions that will affect the social life of the society and the shape and direction of its cultural life. So the controlling authority naturally concerns itself with planning because planning is of such central importance.

But in a democracy, why not leave planning to experts, people whocould make unbiased decisions based on scientific knowledge for the good of society as a whole? Isn't City Planning a kind of technological field such as the design of medical equipment or the layout of a factory?

It is certainly true that since the Germans invented modern zoning and Baumeister laid the basis for City Planning as a scientific endeavor in his book Stadterweiterung of 1876, planning has become technically more complicated, having to take into account modern traffic, the requirements of industrial production and supply, a growing population and modern sanitary, communication and other infrastructure requirements. While it is true that all of this requires a great deal of professional expertise, it is nevertheless true that the affect of planning on how most people live their lives involves making moral, not technical decisions.

While city planning involves the manipulation of technical systems, it is, at its heart a moral, political and aesthetic endeavor, not a scientific one. There is no possibility of a science of human society for the same reason that anthropology's legitimacy as a true science has come into question. It is not really possible to step outside one's own personal cultural prejudices and tastes to objectively study another culture, much less our own. Yes, data can certainly be collected, but the analysis, interpretation and theorizing about the data is completely shaped by the interpreter's cultural background. Just as there can never be a scientifically "true" history, there can never be a scientific field that delivers "truths" about any society. Objectivity is not the only problem with "social science". In order to have a science of society you would have to set up controlled experiments with entire communities or cultures, something that is morally and physically impossible. We are simply embedded in society and culture too deeply to be helped by "science". Controlled experiments are possible for studying traffic flow, you can experiment with the flow of sewage and electricity, but you cannot do controlled experiments with cultures and neighborhoods.

So what is planning then, if it is not a science? The Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce posited two different kinds ofknowledge: rational knowledge and imaginative (aesthetic) knowledge. All moral and ethical considerations are ultimately a form of imaginative, not rational knowledge. I think this is a useful way to think about City Planningalthough planning uses the fruits ofscientific knowledge as it's material and technique, planning isultimately a practice of imaginative knowledge.

The fruits of the Modernist "scientific" city plans of the last 100 years bear one striking thing in common. They generally pick out one or two technological or social problems to solve, and these one or two solutions become the basis for an entire plan for thousands of people. The work of Le Corbusier, Garnier, Howard, etc. all suffer from this breathtaking myopia. This kind of thinking is still very much with us---just look at the results of the History Channel's City of the Future contest: these "visionaries" are willing to destroy an entire city to solve one technical problem. The only seminal planners who I have come across that take into account the cultural and social context within which they were working are Camillo Sitte and Otto Wagner (in his Grosstadt plan for Vienna). Site and Wagner were trying to solve new problems within the existing cultural context; they were not positing the formation of new societies as the solution to a couple of technical problems.

So we are faced with doing planning in a democratic system, which luckily forces us to work within the existing social and economic context. This planning work requires imaginative work by all involved in it and affected by it, it cannot be done by any sort of scientific analysis.

Comments are often made that Market Octavia Plan has taken far too long, that there have been far too may community meetings, far too many policy twists and turns along the way. Everyone and every group and neighborhood is somewhat unhappy with it. To me, this is precisely what Democratic Planning looks like. It brings to mind what Winston Churchill stated about Democracy: that it is the worst form of government until you consider the alternative. How, indeed could it be otherwise in a city with so many economic interests and with a population of so many cultures and backgrounds? Far too little consideration is given in our planning discourse of the citizenry's diverse cultural notions of what a city is for, and how it is to be lived in and what it should look like. I have noted that certain educated people and professional groups assume everyone thinks like themselves, or should, whereas as far as I can see, they represent only one very narrow cultural point of view. This leads to a denatured technical discourse regarding planning which treats all human communities as equivalent in values, aspirations and history. Society is conceived of as a random collection of accultural detached individuals who ought to move around to fulfill the exigencies of rational "good" planning. The plan becomes more important than existing communities. The future (which never arrives) becomes more important than the cultural present.

This is why, in a Democracy, the ultimate authority for Planning issues must always rest with elected officials, however ignorant they may appear to be of the inner workings of planning theory and practice. They must be the ultimate authority because a group of unelected technical experts, as intelligent and talented as they are, should not be making far-reaching moral choices for the community as a whole. The Board of Supervisors in a democracy must "meddle" in planning issues precisely because we have elected them as our representatives to make the ethical decisions that affect the community as a whole.

It is difficult and dangerous to try and defend the protection of Historic Resources by an appeal to utilitarian ethical logic. There is simply no "scientific" argument for Historic Preservation the way there may be "scientific" evidence for a freeway route. The best we can come up with is that historic preservation is good for business or that the Victorians and cable cars are what bring tourists to the City. Personally I find it pointless to attempt any utilitarian justification of what constitutes our cultural life. However, as Matthew Arnold and others have pointed out, it is precisely this difficult to justify cultural life that in large measure brings the sweetness to life that makes life worth living. Beautiful surroundings, access to nature, a sense of connection to place and the history of a place, in fundamental way: knowing who we are as a community – these are all impossible to justify in a utilitarian calculus. Happiness is not gauge – perhaps more people have been made happy by Mickey Mouse than by the Mona Lisa – and yet, we all feel that, after all, some things are sacred. This is our imaginative knowledge at work. We do not leave our disabled children to die on a wild hillside, we do not use human bodies for fertilizer, we do not burn books. Any deep defense for saving architecturally significant and historic buildings must be made on these grounds: that we do hold sacred our traditions, our cultural inheritances, and the memory of the significant events and famous and infamous people who created our society, and that these are essential to the continuity of our civilization.

Too much of our political and technical discourse takes place in the realm of utilitarian ethics. Too many of our arguments are supported by pseudo-scientific assumptions about the nature of our society, or by technical sounding speculation. Too often choices are made by economically weighing one interest against another, weighing the tangible material benefit of any policy by it's expected outcome, without delving too deeply into moral and cultural considerations. This is why it is important that an elected body be in ultimate charge of planning---it is only before an elected body whose job it is to make moral choices that a non-utilitarian ethical argument may most effectively be made for the value of culture for it's own sake, or rather, for our sake.

A part of the current Market-Octavia Plan is a proposed fee that will go towards the construction of affordable housing (something that in this City means middle-class housing). I will not delve into this issue too deeply as this is a Preservation oriented resource, but I would like to point out that this issue, again, has to do with moral considerations of what our society should look be like as awhole, whether we really want to live in a city shaped by a de facto social Darwinism, or whether the existing population of this City, which in a deep way constitutes the city, has any claim on continuing to live here. True, any city is a diverse and dynamic entity, but this should not blind us to the fact that the city is actually a network of personal, family and social relationships of long standing. A lack of continuity in these relationships leads to a "city" which is not a city at all, but rather a collection of housing, a kind of gigantic worker barracks. I am amused when planners and writers state that "we know how to build communities". Well, perhaps some know how to build cute shopping streets. Our mothers and grandmothers knew how to build community: they knew who to ask to get your cousin a job, they knew who was sick and needed taking care of, they got together and raised money when the church needed a new roof. This is how community is built, it is not built by planting flowers in planter boxes or by having small signs. You need to have the same families or population in the same place for an extended period of time to have a real Community; everything else is housing.

San Francisco has been criticized for being too culturally "conservative" in the realm of architecture and planning---I think this "conservatism" is precisely the result of our holding the value of the existing communities and the value of the identity and history of this place sacred in a way that is resistant to being drawn into the utilitarian game of economic cost benefit analysis. We feel a moral responsibility to take care of the City we have inherited, a City rich with beauty, diverse cultural life and historical association. The moral impetus is similar to that behind the way we have tried to take care of people who are homeless or who have catastrophic illnesses---we make the argument that it is practical in some way to do these things, and this might be so, but ultimately we make these choices because we know in our hearts that these are the right things to do.

Alan W. Martinez
March, 2008

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