Assholes on the March
If it's possible for a building to mimic a human personality -- to show warmth or, say, arrogance -- then 755 Minnesota St. would be a real asshole.
Colossal (50 feet tall), mint green, and stylistically out of touch with almost every cultural and aesthetic reference point in San Francisco, the 12-unit building of pricey residential lofts -- one of those things developers are dishonestly calling "live-work" developments these days -- appears to have been airlifted from the Hollywood Hills, or some other culturally denuded L.A. enclave, and dropped into the middle of San Francisco in the dead of night by subversive Southern California "architects."
Nothing about 755 Minnesota acknowledges the surrounding neighborhood of Dogpatch, an area noted for late Edwardian and Victorian period houses and old industrial buildings. The neighborhood is tucked away between the southern water-front and Highway 280; Bruce Anderson is an artist who was part of the mid-'70s Dogpatch renaissance, when it went from a slum to an artists' colony. Anderson showed me 755 Minnesota the other day when he took me on a walking tour of his neighborhood.
Anderson and his neighbors are alarmed that a building of such complete, insolent, obstreperous defiance to every historic marker in Dogpatch can be thrown up so easily. The neighbors, many of them members of the Lower Potrero Hill Neighborhood Association, have been dedicating much of their energy lately to defending the integrity of their neighborhood from the live-work onslaught.
What alarms Anderson and his neighbors more than anything else? Well, 755 Minnesota isn't the worst of it. At least that building has a style, even if that style would be more fitting if thrown into a polluted, sprawling, and defiled city 300 miles to the south. "There are some truly vicious examples I can show you," Anderson said as we walked away from the Mint Monster at 755 Minnesota.
Boy, he wasn't kidding.
We walked down Minnesota and made our way over to Tennessee Street. Turning a corner, I was punched in the face by a truly alarming sight: An entire city block -- bounded by Mariposa and 18th streets to the north and south, and Tennessee and Third streets to the west and east -- blighted by what are arguably the ugliest build-ings in the city. And they're all live-work developments.
Just so no one can mistake my meaning, let me restate: These seven -- soon to be eight -- buildings are an insult to any-one with even a passing interest in architecture, neighborhood integrity, or San Francisco.
Between 40 and 50 feet tall, each building eats up damn near 100 percent of the lot on which it is built. With minuscule rear or side setbacks, the buildings on this block look like nothing so much as tenement housing.
In terms of design ... well, there isn't any. A chimp could have designed these buildings, which can't properly be called buildings, because they are just boxes. Big, butt-ugly boxes. And, it seems, a color-blind chimp was hired, probably on the cheap, to paint the boxes.
Example du jour: 635 Tennessee St.
The color scheme: brick red, forest green, mint green, and ocher.
"When we first saw it we thought it was primer," Anderson says. "We were quite surprised to discover this was intentional."
In the late 1980s, the city passed a law legalizing lofts in industrial buildings and neighborhoods. The law was meant to legitimize the artists who had, usually out of financial concern, made their homes in the places where they practiced their craft. But the law has all sorts of gaping loopholes, which have now been capitalized on by residential builders who want to avoid the pesky and profit-limiting rules connected to the construction of true residential buildings in San Francisco. In the late '90s, the law that once fostered creative colonies in industrial neighborhoods, giving us art, photography, furniture, and film, is now being used to build lavish, stylistically out-of-place, high-end housing for Silicon Valley techheads.
The live-work developments in Dog-patch are the most recent and ugliest example of this trend. They are little more than money machines for the developers who build them and utilitarian pods for the yuppies who fill them. Despite what the developers of live-work units will tell you, neither they nor their units are doing much to solve the housing crisis in San Francisco.
The units are out of financial reach for most San Franciscans, renting for more than $2,000 a month and selling for between $400,000 and $900,000. So they don't meet the city's most pressing supply need: low- to midpriced housing. They are not friendly to families; with their open floor plans and open staircases, they are no place for kids. "They are condos for single yuppies," says Sue Hestor, a land-use attorney who has been diligently tracking the live-work building boom since it began in 1996.
So the best that can be said for these live-work monstrosities is that they may herd large numbers of single yuppies into one place, marginally improving life in other San Francisco neighborhoods. And the worst?
We all have to look at these architectural horrors.
Because I've already anthropomorphized 755 Minnesota, let me appropriately describe the other live-work monsters of Dogpatch.
If the six Victorians on Steiner between Hayes and Grove streets are the Painted Ladies, the block of live-work developments at the southeast corner of Dogpatch can be rightly called the Tennessee Street Thugs. A cute little yellow-and-white Victorian -- one that begs comparisons to a cupcake and makes even me go ahhh -- sits on the southwest corner of 18th and Tennessee, cater-corner from the Gang of Thugs.
"How can they allow something like that next to that?" Anderson asks.
Dogpatch residents have good reason to be worried about their neighborhood. The area is the new ground zero of the live-work development boom that has eaten up large parts of the city, notably the South of Market area. With the advent of the Tennessee Street Thugs and the Minnesota Mint Monster, Dogpatch is seeing only the beginnings of a live-work orgy that promises to erase much of the neighborhood's character.
Here's why: Dogpatch sits at the southern end of Mission Bay, the huge minicity being built by Catellus Development Corp. at China Basin. Mission Bay, which eventually will include a second UCSF campus and associated biotechnology research facilities, is set to break ground this year. Ergo, the surrounding area is much desired by real estate developers and speculators. People who will work in the university, the biotech labs, and the millions of square feet of Mission Bay office space will also need a place to live.
In an odd San Francisco twist, Dogpatch's industrial designation makes it particularly attractive as a site for residential building. Dwellings built there don't necessarily have to meet the size and density rules that govern development in residential neighborhoods. The approval of live-work developments is up to the discretion of the Planning Commission, whose members are appointed by Mayor Willie Brown. And so far, the commission has been very, very good to live-work developers, all but a few of whom are members of the politically powerful Residential Builders Association, run by a fellow named Joe O'Donoghue, who has an inordinate amount of access to and influence with our mayor.
The RBA is responsible for most of the live-work monsters in the city, and O'Donoghue and his brethren are busy as bees in Dogpatch. On the other end of the neighborhood from the Tennessee Street Thugs, which were built by RBA members, other RBA developers have bought up almost all the land in the quadrangle between Indiana and Minnesota and 23rd and 25th streets. They plan on building 400 units of live-work condominiums there.
In the South of Market area the impact of the live-work binge has been softened by two factors: The area is huge, and it never had a definable architectural or historic character. To be sure, the live-work buildings created there were too big, ugly, and Los Angelean to fit appropriately in S.F. But the neighborhood was a mishmash of styles and land uses, so if the live-work boom made parking and other problems worse -- with new yuppie condo dwellers fighting established nightclubs, one after another -- the developments didn't create the kind of intense change that can make someone who loves a neighborhood's unique character cringe.
Such will not be the case in Dogpatch. If what a high-ranking Brown administration official recently told Dogpatch activists is true ("You are standing in the way of a steamroller, and you have 10 seconds to get out of the way"), that steamroller will be paving over significant portions of San Francisco's past. At a time when the city is rapidly losing touch with its roots, and, much to my personal alarm, beginning to resemble L.A. on too many levels, defending the architectural and historic integrity of neighborhoods like Dogpatch should be a top priority.
As it turns out, there's quite a bit to protect.
For the last several months, Christopher P. Ver Planck, the architectural expert for S.F. Heritage, one of the city's premier architectural heritage and historic preservation groups, has been documenting the design significance of Dogpatch. Eventually, he will go to the city's Landmarks and Preservation Board and ask that Dogpatch be deemed a landmark area.
Ver Planck warms quickly to the subject of Dogpatch's history; he wrote his master's thesis on one of the architects who defined the area. Shipyards and related businesses were the dominant employers, he says; and between 1887 and 1888, a politically inspired architect named John Cotter Pelton Jr. designed Victorian cottages for the Irish and Italian immigrants who worked on the waterfront.
"The buildings were part of the progressive movement to get the immigrant working class out of shitty tenement housing," Ver Planck says. "They thought tenements encouraged vice and immoral behavior."
Pelton Jr. was so intent on seeing as many working-class immigrants moved out of tenement housing as possible that he published the plans for his cottages, free of charge, in the San Francisco Evening Bulletin, a progressive newspaper, so anyone could build them. Thirteen Pelton houses still line portions of Tennessee and Minnesota streets in the heart of Dogpatch. Many are in excellent condition. "You never see a concentrated group of significant houses like this in San Francisco," Ver Planck says.
The preservationist is also enamored with the historic significance of the industrial-waterfront portion of Dogpatch, an area at the foot of 20th Street owned in large part by the Port of San Francisco. From 20th Street east for several blocks stand several large warehouse structures -- some built entirely in red brick -- that used to house the industries where the Pelton cottage residents worked. These industrial buildings once were home to the Union Iron Works, the Pacific Rolling Mill Co., and the Western Sugar Refinery. "The Union Iron Works building is worthy of landmark status all on its own," Ver Planck says. But he acknowledges that obtaining landmark status for the waterfront land will be politically difficult, because the port has distinct development plans of its own.
That the industrial buildings and the Pelton cottages, where the industrial workers lived, still exist today in their original condition poses a rare opportunity for preservationists like Ver Planck. It's an almost unheard of stroke of luck to find such a complete example of the city's past being used for roughly the same purposes more than a century down the road.
Sometime in the next several weeks, Ver Planck will make his presentation to the city Landmarks Board and ask its members to protect, as much as they legally can, the integrity of the small neighborhood, bounded by Mariposa and 23rd streets to the north and south, and Indiana and the bay to the west and east.
"This is my little soapbox," Ver Planck says. "I want to get landmark status for a neighborhood that is not high class. S.F. Heritage has always been accused of being solely focused on high-class neighborhoods like Pacific Heights."
If he is successful, any developer will have to convince Landmarks Board members that the architecture and size of a project are in keeping with neighbor-hood character. Only then will the board grant what is called a "certificate of appropriateness."
This process isn't conclusive. The city Planning Commission could still override the "merely advisory" certificates of the Landmarks Board, Ver Planck says. Ultimately, the power of life or death over the character of Dogpatch still will rest with the mayor and his appointees.
But a landmark designation would slow down the gears of development. It would force developers to pay attention to where they are building, and discourage them from hiring chimps as architects. Politically, it would also give everyone more time to make, and listen to, the sophisticated argument Ver Planck and the Dogpatch neighbors want to put forward: It's possible to protect and respect the character of Dogpatch while more housing units are constructed.
"We are not opposed to new housing," Ver Planck says. "This is a city. I believe we need more housing, and more dense housing. I'm not a big open-space guy. If you want that, my opinion is you can move to the suburbs."
Even if Ver Planck fails to get landmark status for Dogpatch, his research could serve to protect the neighborhood. Proposition M, the growth-control measure passed by voters in 1986, sets priorities for city planning. Priority No. 2 is preserving neighborhood character. Once Ver Planck defines what that character is, he and Dogpatch residents can fight the live-work monsters on a case-by-case basis at the Planning Commission.
But block-by-block and lot-by-lot guerrilla fighting is time-consuming. Ultimately, the developers have more of the resources necessary to win those fights than the neighbors. What Dogpatch needs, frankly, is a zoning change to protect it from live-work developments.
A move afoot on that front at the Department of City Planning could cut for or against Dogpatch, depending on what some pointy-headed economists and senior planners conclude.
For some time now, hired-gun economists and senior city planners have been developing a megastudy on how much land in industrial zones such as Dog-patch should be preserved for industry, and how much should be zoned to allow live-work developments.
Sometime in February or early spring, the pointy-headed ones will detail their findings, and the Planning Commission will apportion land. Dogpatch residents could either be pleased beyond belief -- or shattered.
If the area is zoned for live-work, you can bet the box monsters, already poised like a hostile army on the southern and northern borders of Dogpatch, will begin their march across the neighborhood. And if that happens, we'll all get to see what it looks like when a bunch of assholes and thugs set out to squash a few cute little cupcakes.