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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

Wednesday, Aug 18 1999

Page 7 of 7

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.

In an urban, rather than suburban, San Francisco, more people would walk, bike, and take public transit to work. Cafes and small shops would germinate on blocks that now aren't densely populated enough to support them. The Bay Area's vital economy would serve as an engine that added to the vibrancy of San Francisco's diverse, eclectic cultural life, rather than what it now is: a force that strips the city of the artists, musicians, students, minorities, and low-income groups who can't afford to live here.

It's possible, but given the current political culture here, it's fantasy.
But it's a valuable fantasy, providing a counterweight to the denial-laced civic dream-state that is San Francisco. In this dream, it's possible to ignore the social, political, and economic forces that are transforming the Bay Area; it's possible to ignore the devastating consequences of the city's anti-housing political culture.

It's a dream that spawns the model homes of Brentwood, where some of San Francisco's banished residents will go to live. The Hallmark, like the Cardinal, and the Tribute, is generously decorated for visitors. Dining rooms sport thick-legged dinner tables dressed with handblown dinner glasses, which are stuck to rough-woven place mats with silicone caulk to prevent pilferage. The houses are filled with large-screen televisions, computers, and stereo systems that aren't really electronic equipment, but hollow, plastic facsimiles. The larders are generously stocked with boxes of Potato Buds, Crunch Berries, and Cinnamon Grahams, empty, yet homey and colorful.

It's a surreal, remote universe, a pleasant, fantastic dream.
San Francisco, welcome home.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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