Back to the Future

When will logic trump nostalgia in San Francisco? When supervisors dump the moratorium and allow apartments for the homeless to be built.

In a future San Francisco, workers disembark at Downtown factories at space-age, rooftop zeppelin moorings, then assemble high-tech clipper-ship masts.

Or there's the alternative view, where once-homeless people are housed; jobless have jobs; the poor, aged, and infirm are taken care of; and the city shines as a beacon for people seeking a better life.

I throw out these two fantasies of San Francisco as exercises in two mutually exclusive techniques for envisioning tomorrow.

The first, familiar to fans of old pulp science futurism or Disney's Tomorrowland, is about colonizing the future with personal interpretations of the past. The second, known as ordinary problem solving, involves looking ahead with an idea of what could and should be, rather than what was, then trying to imagine ways to change. Sadly, this city suffers from too much of the first and almost none of the second.

Take, for example, two separate proposals to house the disadvantaged now being considered by S.F. bureaucrats, one in SOMA, the other in the Richmond District. Both are blinkered by nutty, nostalgic futurism.

In SOMA an apartment building for the homeless has been swept up in a de facto moratorium on new apartment construction. This was imposed recently as the result of a Board of Supervisors action aimed at preserving a 1920s-era eastern San Francisco industrial zone. In the Richmond District, meanwhile, the Board of Supervisors has agreed to consider this week a petition from a group of neighborhood gadflies who wish to reverse the approval of 150 subsidized apartments for the elderly. The reason: this complex of charity services for the aged would replace a 60-year-old movie theater neighbors falsely believe is a vital “historical resource.”

Mind you, there's nothing wrong with considering which parts of our built environment we ought to save. But in San Francisco this impulse has regressed into fetishism that impairs our ability to see what's in front of us. And it's made us lose sight of the fact that what we preserve is far less important than what we decide to build from scratch.


Over the winter and into spring, San Francisco's ailment of backward-looking futurism became epidemic, as Mission District and South of Market activists demanded a moratorium on non-subsidized apartment construction. The thinking behind this demand was of the sort that might have once imagined a sky filled with 2006-model zeppelins. Eastern San Francisco has, since the 1920s, been the site of warehouses and workshops that provided hundreds of blue-collar jobs near Downtown, and with access to a once-bustling commercial waterfront that went dormant a few decades ago. If apartment buildings encroach on these warehouses, this “industrial preservation” view maintains, they will endanger the growth of middle-income jobs, because that's where city employment has come from in the past.

Never mind that mid-sized and large industrial buildings in San Francisco are one-third vacant these days as manufacturers and warehousing companies relocate to modern, truck-and-rail-friendly industrial districts in Bay Area suburbs. Or that an acute shortage of S.F. apartments has driven market prices so high that new employers now avoid San Francisco, taking thousands of jobs elsewhere. Or that in cities such as Vancouver, New York, Chicago, and wherever else logic trumps nostalgia, policy makers long ago decided that cargo-oriented development belongs where there's an abundance of freight transportation. And transit-oriented development belongs where it's easiest and most efficient to move people where they want to go. That's to say, bus- and commuter-rail-rich neighborhoods near Downtown jobs such as San Francisco's Mission, Potrero, SOMA, and Central Waterfront areas, which are now subject to a misguided apartment-building moratorium.

Sadly, old-time futurism trumped logic in March, when Supervisors voted to block construction of an apartment building at 2660 Harrison St. They were inspired by the idea that planners hadn't sufficiently considered the misguided theory that the Mission District apartments might run afoul of the city's mid-town industrial preservation goals, and harm opportunities for developing subsidized housing.

Last month, a Planning Department official extended the board's logic to thousands of apartments on the city's eastern side, including a planned 134-unit apartment building for formerly homeless people backed by the Mayor's Office of Housing and Episcopal Community Services of San Francisco. The building at 275 10th St. had already been delayed by requirements that the new building's backer prove that the project won't harm the integrity of an imaginary, not-yet proposed SOMA historic district. This study is necessary to comply with historic preservation laws.

Additionally, thanks to the board's March ruling, the nonprofit developers of the 10th Street project must demonstrate that these apartments will not significantly displace industrial jobs located near the downtown Financial District. The site is now occupied by a couple of 1920s-era brick warehouses that employ 12 people.

The 10th Street housing developers must also prove, in a bizarre bit of backward-think, that these apartments for the impoverished won't harm the city's supply of low-income housing. Planning officials say a final decision on the project should come by this Halloween. Meanwhile, the waiting ties up land, financing, and consultant time, adding to the project's cost and postponing the day when the 134 units can be used to keep homeless people off the street.

“It keeps people housed. It helps people meet the needs they have from a health perspective. And we completely agree that providing increased housing for people is what's needed to decrease homelessness in town,” says Episcopal Community Services director Ken Reggio. “This is on hold, and I'd say it's on hold regrettably, because I think affordable housing is a high value, and shouldn't be put on hold for long.”


On Geary near Arguello, a charity called the Institute on Aging, along with the nonprofit Bridge Housing, plans to build a new complex of health service facilities that includes 30 supportive housing units, as well as 120 subsidized apartments for the elderly.

But first, this proposed building must prevail over a nostalgia-addled neighborhood group that would rather preserve a shuttered 60-year-old movie theater on the project's building site than help preserve the quality of life of hundreds of 60-, 70-, and 80-year-old human beings.

Sadly, the Board of Supervisors agreed to consider an appeal May 23 to reverse a recent Planning Commission go-ahead on the project. The project's backers obtained the site in 2000, and thought they had emerged from the woods following various delays, when the Planning Commission gave the project a green light last month.

However, neighborhood activists wishing to block the project obtained a hearing this week before the board, based on various claims about the project's defects, including one that the building would harm the city's “historic architectural resources” because it's being built on the site of a shuttered theater called the Coronet. However, the building is not considered historic under local and state historic preservation guidelines.

The project's opponents say it would harm the existing “character” of the area, notwithstanding that the area currently consists of ugly one- and two-story cinder-block buildings, gas stations, and parking lots, split by a six-lane traffic thoroughfare.

The May 23 hearing where the project will be reconsidered came after my editorial deadline, so I don't know whether the elderly housing project was allowed to proceed. Even if the supervisors choose not to reverse the Planning Commission's project approval, that doesn't rule out the likelihood of neighbors filing a lawsuit in a further attempt to block the project.

It's certainly their right to go to court. But I invite this city's confused nostalgists to contemplate this: The future is the only place where life will continue to exist. And it's a place we cannot see.

If city fathers destroy the possibility of thousands of new jobs, just as they eliminate the possibility of thousands of new homes with their apartment moratorium — homes for the poor, for the aged, and for everyone else — all in the name of preserving what's already here, San Francisco won't have resurrected its past. That's gone forever. We'll only have impoverished our future.

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