The next mad rush to the sky

Ugly canyons everywhere! With the latest San Francisco construction boom, history repeats itself

EDITORIAL For much of the history of this newspaper, the battle to keep San Francisco from turning into another Manhattan was a defining element in local politics. It had all the makings of urban drama: shifty-eyed developers looking to make a fast buck, sleazy politicians willing to bend over in any direction for campaign cash, a corporate power structure devoted to greasing the path for unlimited growth, citizen activists revolting over the block-by-block destruction of their neighborhoods ... all played out on the stage of one of the world's greatest cities.

We watched while Joe Alioto moved forward with redevelopment south of Market and office buildings downtown in the early 1970s. We joined anti-high-rise activists twice in ballot measure campaigns to slow the building boom, without success. We saw Dianne Feinstein push through in just a few short years more new office space than in all of downtown Boston, an entire new city of glass and steel towers — and we helped promote the campaign to slow down with Proposition M in 1986.

We exposed the fundamental lies behind the developers' arguments by demonstrating that intensive office development cost the city more in services than it provided in revenue, reporting on how the boom would drive up rents, choke the streets with traffic, overwhelm Muni, and create ugly canyons where there were once human-scale business districts.

Then we showed that all those new buildings weren't even creating jobs.

In the 1990s we spoke out against the economic cleansing that came with the dot-com boom.

But of late, the development battles have shifted a bit. Progressives, who were once united against downtown growth, are a bit more slippery around the latest construction boom, because this time the massive skyscrapers are set to be filled not with corporate offices but with housing. And in San Francisco today, it seems difficult for almost anyone to be against new housing.

But it's time to take a hard look at the new rush to the sky.

When the folks at the Planning Department talk about the new urban area that's being discussed for South of Market, they use words such as "slender, graceful towers." The idea: high-rises aren't that bad if they're less bulky; that way, they don't interfere with view corridors and don't block out the sun. In fact, the way some planners are talking about these new buildings is almost rapturous — tall condo complexes, they say, will stop suburban sprawl, prevent global warming, create exciting new neighborhoods and public spaces, and give new definition to the city skyline.

But let's look at what they're really talking about here.

There are, at the moment, at least 11 new buildings either proposed, under construction, or in the planning pipeline in South of Market that would bust the city's current height limits. (And those limits are hardly skimpy — in most areas they range from about 350 to 500 feet.) And that's just the start: the Planning Department is moving quietly to substantially raise height limits in a broad swath of San Francisco, making way for the biggest high-rise rush since the 1980s.

If the move succeeds, the skyline will develop what the Planning Department calls a new "mound" south of downtown, anchored by at least one building 1,000 feet high (almost a third taller than the Transamerica Pyramid). A single slender tower is one thing; when you put more than a dozen (and they aren't all slender) in a cluster, you get a wall — a wall that cuts the city off from the bay, shatters the natural topography of the area, and frankly, makes the city feel less like a community and more like a concrete jungle.

Just look at the picture on this page, part of a graphic presentation the city planning staff has put together. That hardly appears to be a few shapely structures.