Fissilingual Predictions

Chewing on the past and future is a New Year's cliché that no word-loving breedbate can resist

Thus ends a millennium.


The end of the dot-com era also seemed to be a particularly good time to stalk the Planning Department, so I did something I almost never do -- attended that brand of public anoia(9) known as the Official Unveiling. After months of workshops, seminars, architectural charettes, briefings, and more workshops, the Planning Department earlier this month had the Official Unveiling of its Market and Octavia Neighborhood Plan. If the plan fulfills its potential for encouraging transit-friendly housing and commercial development in the rest of the city, it could mark the beginning of a fortuitous new era for San Francisco.

Anyone who's lived in San Francisco during the past 10 years or so has noticed the host of ugly, parking garage-oriented buildings that have gone up in what used to be some of the city's more beautiful areas. And anyone who's lived here must also have noticed a growing choke of traffic that's arrived with the thousands of new parking spaces. Partly as a result, neighbors have fought the construction of new apartment buildings block by block. Now, despite a severe recession, housing has become so scarce that two-bedroom condominiums sell for $700,000.

The Market-Octavia plan served as a sort of thinking person's dot-com backlash, an academically sophisticated response to the late-1990s development boom. Using special funds allocated to the city's Better Neighborhoods Program, the Planning Department enlisted the aid of UC Berkeley professor and former S.F. Planning Director Alan Jacobs, with the aim of building a Parisian-style boulevard along Octavia, which until lately was doomed to sit in the barren shade of the Central Freeway. Under the direction of former interim Planning Director Amit Ghosh, also a nationally known thinker in the world of urban design, planners set about the daunting task of convincing residents of the Octavia and Market area that it was parking spaces and the cars they stored -- not new apartments, or stores, or offices -- that stood to make their neighborhoods miserable.

Nowadays, academic planners all over America look to S.F. neighborhoods built before the 1920s as the modern ideal. Parking-scarce, population-dense areas such as Pacific Heights, Nob Hill, and Chinatown are now taught in schools of planning as the eco-friendly benchmark.

With this in mind, the Market-Octavia plan proposes buildings that provide fewer parking spaces than current rules require. Though it uses the euphemistic language of academia, the new Market-Octavia plan reads like an anti-car manifesto.

"Encourage diverse and affordable housing," the plan says, leaving unmentioned the reality that it's impossible to build enough housing to lower prices, if one must also build spaces for cars.

"Create choices for movement -- foster alternatives to the car," the plan says.

"Repair and enhance the neighborhood's urban fabric -- build on strengths," the plan continues, remaining silent on the neighborhood's greatest weakness: its location under a freeway and astride the Van Ness-Mission traffic nightmare.

The plan calls for valuing "residences, shops, and active uses over automobile parking." It calls for the city to tear down the Central Freeway and build the new Octavia Boulevard.

To convince neighbors that it's possible to build dense, beautiful, livable neighborhoods as long as you don't accommodate more cars, planners went to remarkable lengths. They hosted walking tours and constructed displays bordering on dioramas. They held dozens of community meetings, and, by and large, have brought the neighborhood on board.

It must be noted that the Market-Octavia plan represents only a tiny portion of San Francisco. In other areas of town, planning-oriented discussion still consists of the same fissilingual(10) gardyloo(11) that characterized the dot-com backlash. In the Mission, an interim freeze on zoning that limits possibilities for erecting residential and commercial buildings may become permanent. Similar controls are under discussion for SOMA: In the Showplace Square area, planners are resisting developer proposals to build hundreds of apartments.

But the Octavia Boulevard plan is a great start to reversing this trend. It holds promise of spreading to other sections of the city. Already there are Better Neighborhood plans afoot in Balboa Park and along the central waterfront. And the ideas behind the Octavia Boulevard plan could spread even farther. Builders who comply with the plan's goals can avoid costly permit battles; these reduced hassles alone are enough to warrant charging developers an extra fee, which could go toward applying the Better Neighborhood concept to other areas of the city.

In the idealized future envisioned by some San Francisco planners, San Franciscans would welcome dense, well-designed urban in-fill development, as long as it didn't cause increased auto traffic. The city would become more affordable, more diverse, more livable, and more beautiful, these planners said during interviews earlier this month. Perhaps, among the less cynical of the dot-com-backlash protagonists, anti-development sentiment would soften into anti-bad-development sentiment.

Perhaps this will happen. But I'm not making any predictions.

What do you take me for: a psychic?


(1) Fustigate: to beat with a stick or club.

(2) Fustilarian: one who pursues worthless objects or aims.

(3) Fadge: clumsy oaf.

(4) Aboiement: involuntary blurting out of animal noises, such as barking.

(5) Coprolite: fossilized dung.

(6) Debacchate: to rage in the manner of one who has drunk too much liquor.

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