Wednesday, March 25, 2009

San Francisco - Hunters Point

You won't find a city in the world that doesn't have some dark little secret of a place. Perhaps it's a vast expanse of decaying factories, a massive tract of decaying public housing, an unseemly large highway interchange or any other experiment in urban planning gone awry. As the value of the proximity of this space becomes more apparent to those in the development world, the obstacles that once impeded development look smaller and smaller.

San Francisco is no exception to this truth. In the south east section of the city, an abandoned naval yard sits vacant. As the Navy nears completion of radiological clean-up of the Hunters Point Shipyard, the city is gearing up to develop the area. I have a lot of experience with a similar brownfield project (Southworks in Chicago) so I thought I would try to talk to somebody at city hall to see if San Francisco was doing anything differently than Chicago. Luckily, I managed to snag Thor Kaslofsky, the Hunter's Point Project Manager for the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. As for any glimmer of hope that this "liberal Mecca" would be doing things differently...

When remodeling an old house, one of the first things to get an update is the kitchen. The reason for this is not technological advances. Rather, it is a result of sexism. Kitchens in old houses were designed by men who rarely--if ever--had to use the kitchen. Their ignorance about the use of a kitchen lead to remarkably dysfunctional spaces. After much scientific study, quantitative measures (the kitchen work triangle) of the kitchen were developed to aid designers yet truly excellent kitchens weren't introduced until people who used them began to design them.

It should come as no surprise then that the people tasked with designing an entirely new development are only working with their experience, some buzz words and a few blunt quantitative tools. Take a look at this document, the proposed streetscapes for the first phase of the re-development. You'll notice the excruciating detail given to the variety and location of plants to be used. You'll also find no explanation why the smallest streets are 60' across. What is all that space for?

Space is important. The number of inches between the sink and refrigerator is important. Why is it that we don't consider our urban space important? It is certainly more difficult to remodel a city that it is to remodel a kitchen. I can only come up with two potential answers. First, planners consider architect's designs so thoroughly appalling and distasteful that they feel compelled to provide a pedestrian with a visual escape from the sidewalk view: the vast expanse of the street. The second--and more likely--answer is that planners do not value space, in fact, they are only concerned with filling it.

Consider this situation: you are a planning firm that has just received an assignment to draw up a "Master Plan" for a given parcel. Luckily, you're not starting from scratch. The city has implemented a series of laws the govern how space should be developed. The number of housing units is likely prescribed, as is the minimum width of streets and the percentage of (non-street) open space. Is there really any decisions that the planner can make other than the exact placement of each street?

The short answer is no. Making any changes would require tedious meetings ($) to prove their worth, variances from the various code enforcement boards ($$) and enormous risk associated with making something slightly different ($$$). The longer answer is that the city--which essentially controls the entire process--has a vested interest in using space wisely. San Francisco in particular, has an enormous need to increase the amount of housing available in the city. They have an enormous incentive to find ways to hold as many people as they can in the little space the have remaining. Instead of providing quality living space for orders of magnitude more people, the city is left with thousands of plants and play structures to maintain.

Luckily for the country (though not San Francisco), business as usual seems to have taken a bit of a break. Here's to hoping that its departure is a permanent one.

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