The next mad rush to the sky - Page 2

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

It's a huge new conglomeration of New York–style high-rises, and they don't fit in San Francisco.

And what's the point of all this? The way the developers and their allies would have us think, this is all about solving the city's housing crisis and creating vibrant new neighborhoods. But take a look at what sort of housing is being proposed here.

All the new high-rises the Planning Department is reviewing will contain what's known as market-rate housing. That translates to condos selling for prices far beyond the reach of most San Franciscans. So far, not one developer has agreed to put a single unit of affordable housing in the new towers; all of them plan to meet the city's demands for below-market units by building cheaper apartments somewhere else. The new neighborhoods are going to be nothing but very wealthy enclaves, the equivalent of vertical gated communities. Families who are being driven out of San Francisco by high housing costs won't find refuge here; the housing is designed for singles, childless couples, retired people — and world travelers who want a nice San Francisco pied-à-terre.

Is this really the kind of new neighborhood the city ought to be creating?

Then there are the economics of this madness. Providing the infrastructure for all these new residents (and we're talking more than 10,000 new residents in this one part of town alone) will be expensive — and if anyone really thinks that development fees will cover those costs, they haven't paid attention to four decades of San Francisco budgets.

Environmentalists and urban planners these days love to talk about density, about building more residential spaces in urban cores. That's the best alternative to suburban sprawl: Dense neighborhoods encourage transit use and walking. Housing near workplaces translates to less driving, less pollution, less congestion.

All of which is fine and actually makes sense. But density doesn't have to mean 80-story buildings. North Beach, for example, is a very dense neighborhood, one of the densest urban areas in the United States. It's also a wonderful neighborhood, with open space, friendly streets, and a human-scale feel.

And it's a diverse neighborhood: everyone in North Beach isn't young, single, and rich. There's a mix of rental and owner-occupied housing and, despite years of brutal gentrification, still something of a demographic mix. It's a place that feels like a neighborhood. This new conglomeration of high-rises won't be.

If, indeed, San Francisco wants to add 10,000 or 20,000 or 30,000 new residents, they don't have to live 1,000 feet above the ground. There are ways to do density — on perhaps a slightly less massive scale — that don't impact on the views, skyline, and economics of the rest of the city.

But city officials need to ask some tough questions first. Why are we doing this? Are we rezoning South of Market to meet the needs of developers and high-profile architects, or is there a real urban plan here?

The answer seems alarmingly simple right now. Dean Macris, who led the Planning Department in those awful high-rise boom years under Feinstein, is at the helm again, and although he's supposed to be an acting director, he shows no sign of leaving. The department is in full developer-support mode — and that has to end. The Planning Commission needs to hire a new director soon, someone who understands what a neighborhood-based planning vision is about.

Meanwhile, most of this new rezoning will have to come before the supervisors, and they need to start holding hearings now. This is a transformation that will be felt for decades; it's sliding forward way too fast, with way too little oversight. And it needs to stop. *