John King has covered the urban design beat for the San Francisco Chronicle for 17 years now. That’s long enough, in other words, to have written about a handful of economic booms and subsequent busts. But the Bay Area is a unique beast. No other region in the country has been as thoroughly transformed by the digital revolution. And it’s a transformation that continues to this day. Shortly before the New Year, I spoke to King about the fate of San Francisco, the Oakland renaissance, and his 4-month long fellowship in Washington, D.C.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
JK: John King
How does the recent death of San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and the political uncertainties created by that, affect the urban design issues boiling in the city?
Ed Lee was the former City Administrator and before that, head of the Department of Public Works: he ran the city in a methodical way and wasn’t design-focused at all. Instead of having architectural aspirations, his emphasis the last few years has been the need to produce more housing.
It’s interesting: the notion of development vs. no-development is no longer part of the debate in San Francisco. This is quite a change from past decades. Where you get the fissures now is in the fine print: What should the percentage of market rate to affordable housing be? What should be the tangible spin-offs of commercial development? There is a real strong political consensus behind the idea that we can live with lots of development, but we need to have clear, measurable community benefits from it.
There’s an area called Central SoMa, where developers want to build large structures, mostly tech space but some housing, at heights of up to 400 feet. There’s been online voting and community meetings to ask the various interest groups: how would you allot impact fees from these buildings? What’s important to you? Is it parks? Is it an affordable housing fund? Is it job-training money? The idea is to put together a toolkit with all the details spelled out so that when the plan goes to the planning commission and the Board of Supervisors—theoretically, this spring—boosters can say: here’s the development we’re expecting, here are the benefits from it, and here’s exactly how these benefits would be allotted.
This all seems completely rational to me.
It is. But in San Francisco, the battles involve fine-grain arguments like, “Oh, if it’s only 27% affordable housing, instead of 33%, we shouldn’t allow this.” If people agree on 90% of the issues, they’ll fight bitterly over the remaining 10%.
One thing that Mayor Lee was not appreciated for is, he paid attention to infrastructure—remember, he was at heart a bureaucrat. On this year’s ballot, for instance, there’s likely to be a $350 million bond to begin rebuilding San Francisco’s seawall that protects the Embarcadero and the Financial District behind it. It’s something that the port has been plugging away at for a few years, both because of seismic concerns and the likelihood of sea level rise. But it’s Lee who gave the port money to do the planning, and then moved the seawall to the top of the capital improvements list. There were all sorts of other infrastructure initiatives that he pushed as well.
What’s going on across the Bay? What are the issues in Oakland? How do they play out differently from San Francisco?
A lot of the issues are the same ones playing out in large cities across the country: Gentrification. Who are you building for? How does development empower all segments of the community, rather than just the caricature of the millennial with a job in tech? This is quite a change because until now, Oakland has been missed by just about every economic boom of the last forty or fifty years.
Fifteen years ago it’s one of the things I used to ask all my Bay Area friends about. In my typical New York-centric way, I’d ask: “Why isn’t Oakland becoming Brooklyn?”
In past booms, what tended to happen was that San Francisco would overheat and developers would say, “This is crazy, here’s Oakland, it’s a ten-minute BART ride from downtown San Francisco!” They’d trot out plans, option parcels, maybe they even get development rights. Then the boom would go bust, and all those plans would blow away.
This current boom, which essentially kicked into overdrive in 2012, is now going into its sixth year. That’s enough time for developers to put out the plans, and actually things get moving. Downtown Oakland has at least two residential towers going up right now. Others have all their approvals and the sites have been cleared. There is also a lot of five-story infill housing going up.
I remember when Jerry Brown was mayor, his goal was to bring 10,000 residents to downtown Oakland.
Exactly. It’s considerably beyond that now. Downtown Oakland has a completely different feel to it than downtown San Francisco, more of a midwestern feel. In a good way. The streets are a bit larger. They’re quieter. There are nice 1920s buildings, sprinkled throughout, and then layers from the ‘60s and ‘70s. All this fits together in a way that’s odd but feels absolutely right.
There’s one block where a developer is proposing a market-rate condo tower—which would be the first one downtown in nearly 20 years, by the way— and the block is wonderfully Oakland. It’s this odd mish-mash of things that have floated in there over the years: a Buddhist temple, a Chinese bakery, a hipster coffee shop, a job training center. You’d hope that future development won’t erase all of that.
It seems to me that the gentrification/displacement issues are even more fraught in Oakland than they are in San Francisco. Is that how you’d characterize it?
That’s not how San Francisco would characterize it—though I do think it’s accurate. In San Francisco, the battle in some ways was pretty much lost a decade ago; the issue now is, how do you win the small victories to at least maintain and hold onto some semblance of diversity. In Oakland, there’s a sense that maybe you can still keep that unique urban grain. No one is entirely sure how. That’s the issue at hand.
How are Oakland and San Francisco approaching climate change?
The Bay Conservation and Development Commission was established in the 1960s to save the bay. It is the governing body that can approve changes to anything within one hundred feet of the shoreline. About 12 years ago, it started to work on getting the idea of climate change and sea level rise on people’s radar. The agency did that very provocatively, with compelling maps and an ideas competition.
But when the commission then started to push for a stronger role in regulating what happens along the water, it ran into a lot of opposition from builders. The commission’s leadership has subsequently changed, and it’s more concerned with staying on good terms with business. But the agency’s priorities haven’t changed—this is the key issue affecting the future of the bay—and it has kept pushing forward.
You’ve also got political consensus around the idea that development along the bay needs to be keyed to sea level projections for 2100. Of course this stirs up tensions, because a lot of the land in San Francisco where you can still build large amounts of housing is directly on the bay. So the official city line is these projects would have to be done with an eye toward sea level rise projections of sixty six inches by 2100. This isn’t a number plucked out of thin air: In 2012, the state had the National Research Council conduct a sea level rise study geared specifically to California, and that was the upper range forecast. That was a pretty aggressive estimate for the time. Now, whenever I write about these waterfront projects, people say, “How on earth can the city be doing this? It should be banning all development along the water.”
You know that officially underestimating the extent of possible sea level rise is a national phenomenon. In Louisiana, they wrote a coastal master plan in 2012. They just finished revising it for 2017. And all of the “worst case” scenarios in 2012, became the “best case” scenarios for 2017. No one wants to own up to the truth, even when they believe the truth.
One facet of the waterfront projects here is that most of them are big enough to have a lot of buffer space. On Treasure Island, they’re going to have a 300-foot deep waterfront park. It will be raised up. But the idea is to leave room for a lot of attractive berms, as needed. Space to retreat, if need be.
For the next four months you’ll be a Mellon Fellow in Urban Landscape Studies, at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. Tell me what you’ll be doing?
One of the things that’s fascinated me the past few years are the changing notions of public space. After the 2008 recession, you saw all this creativity from architects, planners, and landscape architects, many of whom didn’t have a lot of paying work, coming up with ideas. How do we do parklets? How do we close irregular intersections and create public plazas? How do we, essentially, rethink the public realm?
The thinking about urban spaces is so creative and wide-ranging: It can be bottom-up planning, a High Line type of thing, a Millennium Park sort of thing. At the same time there are real security concerns, quality of life issues, and concerns about what happens when public space is privately managed and funded. The result is this tension between an ever-wider array of spaces available to people who live in or inhabit a city—and the implicit restrictions on who uses them, and what populations actually feel welcome within them.
Many of theses spaces aren’t truly public.
Exactly. There are spaces that I make a point of going to just because it’s clear that I’m not wanted. One facet of research at Dumbarton Oaks is that part of it is overseen by Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, and the Mellon Foundation gave the GSD a grant for to have semester-long urban landscape fellowships each year. I’ll be chewing on the question of, basically, what are urban spaces in today’s American city? And I’ll be looking at cities beyond Washington or San Francisco. For instance, how has Klyde Warren Park in Dallas functioned? What’s happening in Atlanta with the BeltLine?
The beauty of a fellowship like this is that it’s the exact opposite of journalism. This is an opportunity to take a step back and look for common themes, and how we begin to start thinking about urban spaces as an urban nation. I feel I’ve done a good job writing about how these issues play out in San Francisco. But San Francisco is a different dynamic than New Orleans or Denver or Boston. How do similar issues play out from city to city? Beyond that, how do you write about them? It will be like nothing I’ve ever done before. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
Featured image via Business Journals.