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.

Reality: This city continues to have a critical housing shortage, evidenced by extremely high rents that drive the poor, the young, the old -- in fact, everybody but the affluent -- from the city. If those rents are to be driven down, if the city is to retain anything like its current diversity, San Francisco desperately needs thousands of new apartments; with its proximity to downtown offices and to transit, Rincon Hill is the one place where high-density residential development absolutely should occur -- and quickly.

Reality: The San Francisco Parable has evolved. Its new title: No New Is Good New.

Prada -- you know, the clothing line with advertising so sexy you never remember the clothes? -- managed a coup recently. It commissioned Rem Koolhaas, the world-renowned Dutch architect who made the cover of the New York Times Magazine not that long ago, to design its stores, including a new location in Union Square. The San Francisco store may be a touch avant-garde -- the outside walls are stainless steel, and the windows resemble portholes -- but it's not even close, in terms of edginess, to the computer-dreamed curvilinear buildings that Frank Gehry's been tossing about the globe in recent years. Still, in San Francisco, the Koolhaas design is ... is ... outrageous. Here, you see, the city planning code requires the new building to look like, ahem, the old buildings. In Union Square, it simply must be ... Macy's Here! And Macy's There! Macy's, Macy's Everywhere!

That Rem Koolhaas, a man revered for innovative sensibility, threatens San Francisco is entirely understandable. San Francisco likes to view itself as cool, wild, sensuous, a cauldron of hipness, the keeper of the magic sharpener without which the cutting edge cannot be made, and the city goes to no small amount of trouble to project this cooler-than-thou view to itself, and to the outside world. If one believes this view, or myth, or, shall we say, parable, San Francisco remains the home of permanent social revolution, the place where the spirit of the 1960s -- with its intense, radical suspicion of authority and radical new approaches to music in particular, and culture generally -- lives on. And it lives on, truly, only in those people who have resided in San Francisco for at least, say, a couple of decades. Listen, children, the Parable whispers. There is a secret, there is a hallowed way, and if you are obedient, and take care to learn from your radical elders, you, too, can someday be one with the hipness.

Every year, the Parable and its major public relations representatives (the Beats and the '60s psychedelic bands chief among them) draw thousands of young people to the city who, depending on their intellectual abilities, more or less quickly learn that it's fraudulent mumbo-jumbo, that, despite the best efforts of wave after wave of the young and culturally restless, the most radical thing about San Francisco's current culture is its radical demand for conformity, its extreme fear of change, its certainty that what once was is the best that can ever be.

This column is not meant as a diatribe against the people who live on Lansing Street and Guy Place, and who wonder about the change to come.

Sara O'Malley, one of the residents questioning the up-zoning of the hill, seems a nice, talkative sort. She contends that she and her neighbors aren't against development but do think Rincon Hill should have more variation than the city Planning Department now contemplates. There should be some tall buildings, and some shorter ones; there should be room for parks and schools and pedestrian areas; there should be more affordable housing required; there should, in short, be further study -- an "area plan," in planning lingo -- before what she calls a "radical" up-zoning occurs.

And I have no problem with a reasonable amount of further study.

A spokesman for Supervisor Daly said he is waiting until the Planning Department conducts a reappraisal of the up-zoning project (a "revision of the original project description," in planning-speak) before taking a firm stance on it. "Chris is sort of for once in his life being a little conservative about it and waiting to see," is how Daly aide Bill Barnes put it.

And waiting a reasonable amount of time is OK by me. By all means, if there is a compromise that can be struck quickly, and that can address some of the concerns of a couple of hundred people living on Lansing and Guy, let's do the striking.

Let's not be gullible, here, though. What's happening on Rincon Hill is a lot less about urban planning than it is about fear and conformity, particularly fear of the future and conformity with the Parable, which has held, since time immemorial, that development, especially the development of tall buildings that obscure the view, is always bad, and neighborhood activism is always good.

But if this city is to become, again, what it professes it's always been -- a home to innovation, an incubator of artistic and cultural change, a whetter of the cutting edge -- it must continue to attract new young talent. And to attract and succor the new Kerouacs and Garcias and Hammetts, San Francisco will need more than a stale, phony Parable. It'll need to have places for people to live at reasonable rent, and if getting the thousands of new apartments we need means borrowing from elsewhere -- perhaps even going so damn meta as to consider the tall, slender, and, yes, beautiful apartment buildings of, say, Vancouver, British Columbia, as models -- then all I can say is, well, oui, oui.

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