Out With the New, In With the Old

The fear of change has been an ongoing parable of San Francisco. The city needs a new parable.

Sipping a drink at "Bardot A Go Go" the other night (and how many other columnists have been able to write those words?), I was struck by the tongue-in-cheek energy of it all. Here were 100 or so 21st-century twentysomethings -- peacoat-wearing, sharp-collared, mod young men, miniskirted, ponying, pneumatic young women -- playing around in a kitsch version of French bohemianism, circa 1969, and the balance of homage and ironic distance was almost perfect. This was a pop culture meta-event done well, an admiring, cheeky appropriation of a place and era past to create something interesting and clearly new.

There were few if any old hippies, French or otherwise, at "Bardot A Go Go." There were just a bunch of young people, goofing and borrowing and imagining their way to some sort of cultural future.

Gosh San Francisco could use some more meta right now.

I took a stroll down Lansing Street the other day. It's a drab little alley on Rincon Hill that tees off from a roaring multilane approach to a freeway (this roaring ramp is also known as First Street, but it's more accurate to envision it as a wide racetrack to Interstate 80). Lansing then heads west for a dull block or so, where it overlooks Essex Street and the roaring ramps that connect the I-80 freeway and the Transbay Terminal. And then Lansing curves back on itself, becoming a drab little block or so of Guy Place before it runs right into roaring First Street again. Lining this drab, U-shaped, two-name alley are some undistinguished low-rise office buildings, some undistinguished low-rise apartment buildings, and an undistinguished live-work development or two.

I walked Lansing because of a perfectly ordinary story in the Chronicle, a story so nauseatingly typical of San Francisco as to be noteworthy. The story went something like this: The city is planning to rezone Rincon Hill -- an undistinguished urban slope now characterized largely by parking lots and the occasional undistinguished office or condo building -- for high-rise residential construction. But the residents of the area are sure they have not been adequately consulted about the "up-zoning" necessary for this change, which would allow apartment towers as tall as 400 feet (that is, roughly, 40 stories). Supervisor Chris Daly, always on the side of the little guy and the short building, is, at least for the purposes of this story, squarely on the side of little folk and short structure. "I'm with the neighbors," the Chronicle quotes Daly as saying. "They're going to be up against this administration that seems to resent input into the planning process. ... If the neighbors don't think that 400-foot buildings should go up across the street, that should be considered."

So here it was, the start of a new chapter in the Ongoing Parable of San Francisco: Greedy developers and uncaring city administration try stuffing inauthentically tall buildings down neighborhood's throat. Little guys organize, wage David vs. Goliath struggle, and -- All Hail Saul Alinsky! -- win unexpected, virtuous victory for the righteous cause of killing tall buildings in San Francisco. In this case, the freedom fighters even had a name, the Rin-Ten-Ten, or Rincon Tenacious Tenants' Association, a group formed a decade and a half ago to battle a prior development plan, and reactivated for the current guerrilla mission. And who can blame them? Would you want a 400-foot building in your front yard?

This elaboration on the S.F. Parable is perfect. It lacks nothing -- nothing except reality, that is, and when the future of San Francisco is at stake, who wants to talk about reality?

OK, OK; I guess it is my journalistic duty to deal with reality, so here goes.

In reality, Lansing/Guy Street/Place is a drab little U-shaped alley, engulfed in street noise and possessed of little, if any, charm or overarching historical significance. The reality is that the couple who appear to be leading the Rin-Ten-Ten have lived in the Lansing/Guy "neighborhood" for all of two years. As a matter of reality, it is unlikely the Lansing/Guy area will become anything akin to 40-story housing; it's currently zoned for a height of about eight stories, or 80 feet, contemplated, as part of the rezoning plan, to go up to 200 feet. Now, though, the urban planner most closely associated with the project says the city is "reconsidering whether it makes sense to up-zone those [blocks]."

Reality: The notion of using the Transbay/Rincon area for high-density housing has been the subject of many, many public hearings over the last 15 years. Jim Chappell, the president of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, explains thusly: "There have been scores of public meetings on this; not dozens, but scores."

Reality: The hill is already largely zoned for tall apartment buildings, with the current top limit 250 feet, or some 25 stories. The proposed up-zoning to 400 feet has the purpose of maximizing the billions of dollars the city expects to pour into the nearby, to-be-redeveloped Transbay Terminal.

Reality: Increased height will actually improve the ultimate cityscape of Rincon Hill. The zoning changes would allow apartment towers to be relatively slender, creating view corridors and allowing architects some room to play with aesthetics. Retaining the current height limits could well result in a Rincon Hill full of massive apartment buildings that utilize every bit of allowed space, and resemble nothing so much as giant view-blocking refrigerators.

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