Is growth good?

Questioning conventional wisdom

I heard one of the greatest environmental writers in San Francisco history speak last week, and his message was a bit different from what environmentalists are taught to believe today.

Harold Gilliam was born almost 90 years ago, and was writing influential articles and books about the Bay Area — and the urban environment — long before most of today's activists were born. He was an opponent of nuclear energy in the 1950s when most of California, including his employer, the San Francisco Chronicle, thought this wonder of postwar technology would provide power that was "dependable, safe, and too cheap to meter." He was against developers filling in the Bay in the early 1960s. He was writing about the problems with freeways when that was heresy. When I first arrived in San Francisco in 1982, I was amazed that the Chronicle would print some of the stuff he was saying. The guy is a genius and a local treasure.

And at the annual San Francisco Tomorrow dinner, where he was honored with the Jack Morrison Career Achievement Award, he had a few things to say.

After a brief talk about his early career (and giving thanks to his editors for allowing him to infuriate Chronicle publishers), he told us he wanted to challenge conventional wisdom for a moment.

He talked a bit about the Transbay Terminal project, which he said would be a wonderful, crucial part of the city, a transportation hub for the future and maybe someday the home of a fast train to Los Angeles. Then he asked if the price was worth it.

Since nobody in California wants to pay taxes, the only way to fund this kind of grand civic project these days is to sell off the skyline, to let developers build giant high-rise towers that make the city more congested, more rich, and less pleasant. A lot of people think tall buildings mean progress; even a lot of environmentalists think building up is good. "And I remember," Gilliam said, "when everyone thought filling in the Bay was the way to grow."

Actually, Gilliam said, we all ought to question for a second whether growth is always good, or if it's worth the cost.

Something to think about.