Foster + Partners

About 15 years ago, when San Francisco was in the middle of its last boom before the current one, I wrote a magazine article for San Francisco in which I proposed reversing the conventional wisdom about how to use the city’s spectacular geography to accommodate its growth. Instead of clustering office high-rises downtown where they would only bother each other, I suggested following the logic of the most desirable views and allowing residential sliver towers along the waterfront in the manner of Vancouver, British Columbia. Placed to preserve view corridors, they would give the city a strong edge. I also suggested surrounding Golden Gate Park with inhabitable pencils.

Courtesy Stephen Jaycox

My ideas didn’t go anywhere, and they will not in the future. A recent survey of San Franciscans shows a division in preferences regarding the increasing height of the city. Proposals to create slightly higher structures along the Embarcadero have been cut down by NIMBY protests—and  there is little chance anything new will be developed there as a result. A recent report by the Port of San Francisco suggests merely “refreshing” the current plan, while nodding at doing something to confront rising sea levels. High-rise development is primarily located in the central business district, where towers are thrusting up to new heights of both elevation and banality. San Francisco is an extreme example of what is wrong with planning in American cities in general: Governed out of fear and beholden to the haves, it mandates tall and mediocre buildings of the wrong kind (office buildings) in the wrong places for people who do not need them nearly as much as the thousands of lower wage-earners drawn to the boom.

Meanwhile San Francisco’s housing crisis has only gotten worse than it was in the 1990s. The two-bedroom row house my partner and I were able to scrape together money to buy in 1995 in a neighborhood so obscure that most San Franciscans had never even heard of it is now worth close to $2 million. We would never be able to afford to move back there.

Moreover, in relation to its geography, San Francisco is one of the ugliest cities in America. It oozes over its hillsides in relentless uniformity, gridding the contours with a repetitive banality of bay windows on stucco boxes. Instead, it could use its hills and the presence of water everywhere to create a spectacular counterpoint between the human-made and the natural. It also could utilize those bits of completely artificial terrain it wrested from nature, like Mission Bay, to create dense nodes of urbanity to stand in contrast to those famous golden hills and the expansive bay. But no. Because San Franciscans seem to oppose high-rises and because some people on the hills next to it might have their views blocked, Mission Bay is today a low-rise collection of fake lofts and medical buildings of a stunning uniformity, shoddiness in construction and design, and placelessness.

I was naïve to once think that San Franciscans would ever allow a more varied and dense form of construction. My favorite reaction came from a doyenne of the city’s social elite, who lived in the elevated stretch of mansions on upper Broadway, and whose answer to my query if she was upset by my article was: “It was very amusing and interesting, but of course we will never let it happen.” I was also naïve to think that, if such structures were to be built outside of the more socially enlightened climes of Canada, they would be anything but launching pads for the super-rich.

Nevertheless, I do wish that somehow we could open a debate about who gets to build where and for whom. We need to find ways to build a more equitable human landscape in our cities. We need to imagine ways that we can share the space and views that do not belong to those who already own a particular vantage point, but to all of us collectively. Space is the final frontier of urban planning: not out there, but in the middle of our cities, where we need to figure out how to apportion and maximize it in a way that is logical, beautiful, and just.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.