While tromping through the dirt, brush, and scattered construction detritus along JFK Boulevard earlier this month, I looked up, became dizzy, and perceived beauty. Walls of an uncertain greenish, reddish brown curved 90 degrees into the sky, creating an Escher-like illusion of space turned inside itself. Dimpled, as they were, with a pattern resembling the mottled shadows of leaves on a sidewalk, the walls of the odd-shaped structure seemed to blend into the Golden Gate Park tree canopy, their unnatural shape notwithstanding.
Along with a dozen or so architecture buffs, I was on a guided tour of the aforementioned nine-story, modernist tower, which pokes through the Golden Gate Park forest as part of the new de Young Museum, to be completed in 2005, after structural details, including a copper skin, are added. The new museum, designed by the Swiss team of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, has been the subject of vilification since architectural renderings were released three years ago. Mostly low-slung, with a single, twisting tower jutting up on one end, it's been scorned variously as an aircraft carrier, a pizza box with the delivery tag sticking out of it, and a quesadilla adorned with a vertical tortilla chip. Detractors sued the city, ridiculed the architects at a public meeting, and otherwise raised in the public mind this question: What's a metal-clad high-rise doing in Greek-revival-'n'-ferns Golden Gate Park?
I arrived at my answer while gazing up from the tower's northeast base. Even in its half-finished state, the edifice promises to be at once a graceful part of its landscaped-forest surroundings, a spectacular artistic monument, and an inviting public space. The architects spent months studying and photographing the museum's leafy environs. They took photos of tree shadows and blurred the images to create a pattern of pixels, which were then transferred as baseball-sized dimples into 7,200 coffee-table-sized sheets of copper, which will form the entire museum's skin — which will, then, artistically approximate a giant photograph of a dappled sidewalk.
Thanks to the gradual way in which copper oxidizes, the building will slowly turn color during the next decade, from new copper's brown sheen to a soft, Paris green. Once the structure's open to the public next year — and many of the new museum's areas will be open to all comers free of charge — I believe it will be the kind of landmark people travel far to see; it will receive acclaim similar to the Getty in L.A. and the Guggenheim in Bilbao. On paper, it's possible to view the new museum as lopsided. In real life, it's an exercise in artistic symmetry.
Yet thanks to the shortsighted arrogance of the museum's funders and planners, there's reason to lament the beautiful new de Young. The awful, traffic-creating, 800-space parking structure planned alongside the museum continues an unfortunate San Francisco tradition in which civic glory arrives along a condemnable route. Adding hundreds of parking spaces to an area already clogged with cars, in combination with a new facility that has the potential to attract millions of new visitors, is a recipe for drastically increasing the traffic on surface streets leading to the park. “You'll definitely notice it,” is how one city planner last week described the increased traffic flows expected to be generated by the museum and its garage.
It's an ugly underbelly to a wonderful city amenity, which, I suppose, is in keeping with a local Baghdad/Bay tradition, in which evil and good are never far apart. Our great city was built by rail barons, placer miners, and other assorted thieves. Our economy is still fueled by their moral progeny: money launderers, usurious financial-service peddlers, and their corporate peers. Our water flows from a once-breathtaking mountain valley, our electricity, from a destructive monopoly. An ill-begotten toxic bay-fill called Treasure Island offers the best view of downtown; and the city's most pleasant walks are through groves of the rapacious weed known as eucalyptus, imported for a failed logging scheme, then allowed to kill much of the coastal Bay Area's wildlife.
I love the city the robber barons created; I'm glad to have a job in our still-breathing economy; I savor our water, read by electric light, stop off at Treasure Island now and again, and enjoy walks through the Mount Sutro eucalyptus as much as the next guy. But, given the chance, isn't it better to build civic monuments not tainted by unnecessary destruction?
I'd like to visit the beautiful museum going up in Golden Gate Park without having to dodge rivers of traffic along Fell and Fulton streets, swelled by an ill-conceived, massive parking garage. I'd like to see people visiting the de Young on a practical, relatively cheap light-rail line that would sprout from the N Judah at Ninth Avenue and veer four blocks north to the park — a plan endorsed by area transit and urban planners, yet arrogantly rejected by automobile-minded art patrons. Such a line would connect Golden Gate Park with BART, Fisherman's Wharf, and every other transit-served point in the Bay Area. It's a plan that would give aesthetically beautiful urban symmetry to the new de Young, whose architects went to great lengths to make art appreciation an uplifting human experience.
Next month a Superior Court judge will decide whether the museum's plan to use parking fees to help pay for the garage's construction squares with language in a 1998 ballot measure in which voters approved a garage, based on the idea that it would be financed entirely through private donations. News accounts of the ongoing legal battle over the garage say none of the structure's 100 donors has so far pulled out in frustration. I urge the donors to reconsider and take their money elsewhere — perhaps into the campaign for a light-rail line to the park. There's no glory in having one's name on a garage stall, particularly when the garage destroys the artistic integrity of a museum poised to become one of the best things about San Francisco.
To my eyes, the ill-advised Golden Gate Park garage follows a common and unfortunate San Francisco land-use pattern, in which major construction projects proceed according to the lowest-common-denominator whims of developers, and thus spawn Not in My Back Yard opposition to any further development, of any kind, from nearby residents. Several weeks ago, I wrote a column explaining how the Canadian city of Vancouver managed to overcome this NIMBY-inflaming problem as it developed a policy encouraging dense, urban-style housing development downtown. In Vancouver, the city adopted rigid design guidelines, while requiring builders to pay for amenities such as parks, playgrounds, community centers, and the like. The result is a downtown where thousands of high-rise condominium units have been erected during the past decade. And, rather than inspiring the kind of neighborhood backlash such a boom might in San Francisco, the unwavering requirement that builders contribute to a pleasant, dense, walkable cityscape has rapidly created, in central Vancouver, one of the most pleasant urban spaces in the world.
It just so happens that San Francisco has the opportunity to hire the very urban planner who helped enable the Vancouver miracle. Larry Beasley, director of central area planning and co-director of planning for the City of Vancouver, tells me he has been contacted about the possibility of replacing Gerald Green as director of San Francisco's Planning Department.
And Beasley tells me he's interested.
“I'm interested in it, but it would be big changes in my career plans,” Beasley says. “The challenge is a very attractive one. San Francisco is a wonderful city, and it can do wonderful things in planning. There is talk about how to intensify development to offset the existing housing cost that is there. Second, where you have a city with very strong, articulate interest groups, that really tells you that you have people who are committed to their city and their neighborhood. I find that to be a positive type of energy that can be very good for planning.”
I don't know if Beasley will be offered the job. Last week, a committee working for the Mayor's Office interviewed other candidates who might replace Green, an official often criticized as an unsophisticated yes man for developer friends of former Mayor Willie Brown. A Newsom spokeswoman told me the search would take a few more weeks.
Though I'd have liked to see the mayor appoint a search panel of prominent experts with a broad knowledge of the planning profession, that the city has reached out to Beasley tells me Gavin Newsom is serious about changing the eight-year legacy of Willie Brown, in which anything could be built — or stopped — as long as a developer or NIMBY group gained the ear of the right politician.
The mayor's team conducting interviews includes Sean Elsbernd, a mayoral aide; Joyce Newstat, the mayor's director of public policy and finance; Susan Lowenberg, a former Planning Commission chairwoman; and art historian Jeannene Przyblyski, the wife of Newsom political consultant Eric Jaye. They seem to be shaking the bushes locally and nationally; I'm told candidates include current Assistant Planning Director Lawrence Badiner; Leslie Gould, a former planning director in Oakland; Amit Ghosh, San Francisco's director of long-range planning; and, possibly, Gail Goldberg, a planner from San Diego, and Hillary Gittleman, a former city planner who now directs planning at the Presidio.
Any of these candidates would represent a vast improvement over Green, whom Brown plucked from an obscure low-level planning position eight years ago.
But the legacy of Brown and Green will be difficult to uproot. In the city's current planning situation, most significant projects must obtain conditional-use permits, a type of special exemption from firm zoning rules; a conditional-use permit requires specific Planning Commission approval and is, therefore, subject to political meddling. If NIMBY neighbors win and a project does not get its conditional-use permit, those residents are sometimes emboldened to oppose all projects in their neighborhood, no matter how good. If they lose, they sometimes react furiously, swearing to oppose all subsequent projects, no matter how good they are. When developers lose, they are emboldened to further refine their ability to work the political process, hiring attorneys, permit expeditors, and architects with political ties to local officials. When they win, it is often a political victory that did not require them to provide the city with the developer-funded amenities San Francisco deserves.
In cities such as Vancouver, with firm, unpoliticized guidelines, developers spend a lot less money on politics and lobbying, and a lot more money complying with design requirements and providing public amenities required by city rules.
There's an argument to be made that an outsider might best reform this dysfunctional local culture. I called Allan Jacobs, who in 1966 resigned his associate professorship in planning at the University of Pennsylvania to become planning director of San Francisco. His years on the job — 1967 to 1975 — are recalled by some as halcyon days of San Francisco urbanization; Jacobs developed a new, comprehensive plan for the city, emphasizing public access to the waterfront, design guidelines for downtown development, and revitalization of neighborhood design citywide. I figured he'd know all the difficulties of planning in politics-heavy S.F.
“They should be looking at a guy or a woman who knows urban design, and who is a top professional, and who knows how to communicate what professional stuff is, not political stuff. I'm not sure that's been the case. One gets a damned strong sense that for the last eight years, we've done what the mayor wants. That's a crazy-assed way to go. It's as if you're a doctor, and the mayor comes to you with cancer, and you're supposed to say, 'The mayor doesn't have cancer,'” Jacobs said. “There is such a thing as what is a good city planner. Beasley has an incredible track record. Sure, he's an outsider. But when they brought me here, I was from the outside. I didn't know diddly shit about San Francisco.” [page]
Beasley would have a steep learning curve. If he were to accomplish anything, he would have to gain a commitment from Newsom that the Mayor's Office would back a move from politicized planning decisions to firm, policy-based standards aimed at helping make San Francisco a beautiful, walkable, amenity-rich city.
“It seems to me that the last few years, given the nature of development, San Francisco has been rapidly on its way to being a second-class city,” groused Jacobs.
I wouldn't go that far. But as the fabulous de Young Museum and the fundamentally flawed garage slated to accompany it in Golden Gate Park illustrate, the best of San Francisco could be better.