Photographer Richard Morgenstein has lived in Pacific Heights since the late 1990s. Before that, he lived in Manhattan and enjoyed it. In many ways, Morgenstein is still very New York. He doesn’t have a car. He relies on public transportation to tote his camera bags around. But the new construction soaring above a growing San Francisco doesn’t really make him nostalgic for his former hometown. Rather, he’s inclined to give a Bronx cheer.
“I do think that one of the issues of multiple large buildings is a sort of a Manhattanizaton of San Francisco and a change in the character of say street life, the character of the light of the city, character of walk-ability,” he says. “I look at them as some sort of negative that comes along with the positive of extra housing.”
San Francisco is in transition. According to the Department of Building Inspection, there are 56 major developments in various stages of the approval process, with more than five thousand residential units under construction. That means the city is Manhattanizing, according to Tim Colen, executive director of the San Francisco Housing Coalition.
He says, “We’re very much interested in increased heights and density to add significantly higher levels of housing production in San Francisco and at the same time reducing the influence of private auto use.”
San Francisco’s General Plan calls for construction of more than 30,000 housing units by 2014 with the majority affordable to moderate income earners. A third of that is being built on the city’s Eastern waterfront, from Mission Bay to the south. Other primary targets include mid-Market, and SOMA. The city’s planning department is considering options in every neighborhood.
“San Francisco is fortunate that high-tech is red hot right now, the office market is red hot,” says Colen. “There’s an enormous demand in particular south of Market and eastern part of the city for office space, and as a result rental housing market is in a way going through the roof. Anyone can talk about the insane levels of rent that we’re seeing on housing now, and that gets to the question of building, you know? How do we build housing, and who gets to live here?”
Colen’s easy solution, and the one many developers are going for, is to build up. But that’s easier said than done.
He says, “San Francisco, in spite of everything we might think about it, is really a very conservative city as far as land use goes and is very, very resistant to change and anything that adds new housing a lot of folks get quite upset at.”
Throughout the last decade, more than a dozen neighborhood associations have filed lawsuits against the San Francisco Planning Commission over aspects of their housing plans. The plans called for Smart Growth, around “major transit lines.” The associations didn’t think that should include bus routes. Parking is an issue. There were concerns about infrastructure, like accessing water. Disagreements about how to retain historic character in neighborhoods like Pacific Heights.
“The city was planning on changing the zoning which would have made that entire area have hundred foot plus buildings,” says Greg Scott, president of the Pacific Heights Neighborhood Association. That “would have meant that many of the single-family homes and even some of the smaller apartment buildings would have been demolished to build those much higher buildings. And that whole area would have become like Manhattan.”
But not anymore.
After settlements and environmental impact reports, developers, today, cannot build buildings more than forty feet tall in historically residential parts of Pac Heights and other low-rise neighborhoods, unless they have a permit from the San Francisco planning department. And with active neighborhood associations intent on retaining historic character, those are hard to come by. So San Francisco’s skyline is being reinvented, but only so far, and mostly near downtown; which is one reason why residents like transplanted New Yorker Richard Morgenstein are happy they moved to San Francisco in the first place.
“It’s still not quite like Manhattan,” he says. “I think huge swaths of Manhattan are… there’s so much going on, things are moving so quickly that the pace is very different. And the pace in San Francisco has amplified somewhat or accelerated, it’s not even close to Manhattan though. It’s not even close.”
Which, to him, anyway, is just fine.