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How shortsighted neighborhood activism fuels the city's housing crisis, and pushes the best of San Francisco deeper and deeper into the suburbs

In order for San Francisco to solve its housing crisis, city leaders would have to decide that too many people were being hurt, that it had to be curbed, then take action.

"I think, first of all, from the top down, from the mayor, it has to be a policy determination that we need to create more housing. Secondly, we need as good an inventory as we can get, in terms of numbers and price range and character. Then we need a statement that says, 'Where are some good areas where we can do housing?'" says Hirten.

"The mayor wants to put up $100 million for the stadium shopping complex up there at Hunters Point. They ought to forget the ballpark -- let it go to San Mateo or whatever -- and develop that area as a really fine, middle-income housing area. Just as he's matching private funds for the stadium mall complex, do the same thing there for housing instead. Why not make a major commitment for good housing? If the demand is there for housing, why build a big ballpark, and commercial [property] that is going to compete with what is already in place? Can you imagine the traffic?

"That shopping mall, they talk about all the jobs it's creating. But jobs doesn't seem to be the problem. It's housing."

But to begin with, it wouldn't be necessary to kill sacred cows -- even wasteful, destructive ones like the new Candlestick Park project.

For starters, we could simply build within the city's current low-density zoning scheme. Vast swaths of the city aren't built to the limits prescribed under the current zoning code, says Allan Jacobs, the UC Berkeley professor who was once S.F. planning director.

"We have in San Francisco zoning that is either 40 feet high or less. Let's just stop there," says Jacobs. "You go over and see what's actually in that area. What you find is that most of the buildings are actually lower" than 40 feet, Jacobs says. "You say, 'Well, what if you build up to the 40 feet,' that would give you a certain amount of space. You can do that with all the different districts you have. That difference between what is there now and what they've determined what is OK to go to is a huge difference. You could supply a lot more in San Francisco under the existing laws."

That would house nearly a dozen Brentwoods.
To house a few more, the city could take other, piecemeal steps. It could rezone empty industrial and commercial land along the waterfront for high-density housing. It could increase heights and densities along transit routes and commercial corridors -- the Richmond and the Sunset come to mind as practical yet politically impossible venues for this. Quit requiring apartment buildings built on small, half-acre lots to meet density, rear yard, and parking requirements meant for individual houses. Nudge height limits up in residential areas, so that builders don't have to chop off entire floors in order to meet an 80-foot height limit. San Francisco could banish to history the one-unit, one-parking-space requirement for new development.

If residents really wanted to avoid having San Francisco become purely a rich enclave, they would wrench the planning process away from NIMBY neighbors. The Planning Department could become less receptive to the opinions of neighborhood groups and homeowner associations, and more sensitive to the city's silent constituency -- the families and workers just now looking for a place to live.

We could hearken back to the vision our city fathers had during the 1950s, of a truly urban city.

We could allow dozens of multistory condo projects in the Potrero waterfront area, dozens of the same atop Potrero Hill, and dozens more condo high-rises in SOMA. We could return to the post-World War II plan for high-rises along Ocean Beach, with a modern transit line serving them along Geary. We could plan a row of tall condo buildings along Golden Gate Park -- à la Vancouver, where thousands of high-rise apartment residents have a park for a back yard. We could reduce impediments to in-law apartments. This new housing would include massive loftlike spaces, cavernous Park Avenue-style condos, cozy two-bedroom apartments, tiny studios, and everything in between.

Such a city would suffer the potential for traffic gridlock: indeed, every single debate against such development -- and they are held every week at the Planning Commission -- comes down to cars, parking spaces, traffic. But cut the number of parking spaces and urban San Francisco would be a delight. Combined commercial and dense residential districts would sprout up on blocks all over the city. Neighbors on foot would mingle on sidewalks. This is the kind of city San Francisco fancies itself as, yet this sort of civic life is actually limited to a handful of places -- the Haight, the Marina, the Fillmore, Clement Street, Cole Valley, North Beach, Chinatown, Downtown, the Inner Mission.

Currently, the most dense areas of the city -- Nob Hill, Telegraph Hill, Russian Hill -- are considered its most desirable. Manhattan, with a density four times San Francisco's 16,000 people per square mile, was honored by U.S. News & World Report two years ago as America's Most Livable City. Paris, which is likewise four times as densely packed as San Francisco, has often been described as livable.

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Cynthia McGarvie
Cynthia McGarvie

I left SF in January of that year with a deeply heavy heart. I knew I would never be able to afford to live there for the rest of my life. If things stay the same, it's going to end up as a ghost town.

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