Preserving neighborhood character by design

Jul 31, 2012

The first time I went to Pacific Heights, I expected to be surrounded by mansions, flower gardens, and expensive boutiques. Those weren't difficult to find, but while sitting in Lafayette Park during my first visit, I was surprised to see eight story apartment buildings nestled in between gold trimmed Victorian houses. That's when I began to investigate what was behind that juxtaposition – and what it meant in a neighborhood with a history of fighting up-zoning to preserve its dignified nature.

Residents created the Pacific Heights Residents' Association (PHRA) forty years ago, shortly after the city experienced a boom in high-rise construction. The association's goal is to preserve "the quality of life and the residential character" of the neighborhood. PHRA was established in response to the city's intention to change zoning laws to allow high rises in the neighborhood in the 1950s. Today, in part because of neighborhood activism, developers cannot construct buildings more than forty feet tall in the residential areas of Pacific Heights--unless they have a permit from the San Francisco planning department. With such a strong focus on retaining neighborhood character and accessibility, those are difficult to obtain.

Richard Morgenstein is a photographer who lives in a three-story apartment building in Pacific Heights. He believes that urban density––tall apartment buildings––can have an isolating effect. He says he doesn't talk all that much with the neighbors in his apartment complex. But other Pac Heights residents––even some in the tallest buildings––have had a different experience. Rina and David Collfield moved to San Francisco fifteen years ago from Colorado. Now they're building managers and fire safety directors for their building on the corner of Washington and Laguna. They feel that their building feels more like a small town; everyone knows each other but doesn't get overly involved in each other’s lives.

While it has a reputation as one of the toniest neighborhoods, PHRA President Greg Scott confirms there's a lot more to it: "Unlike the usual perception that Pacific Heights is full of rich people, we are a very diverse neighborhood with a lot of socioeconomic levels of people."

Height restrictions established long ago have helped preserve the character of the neighborhood. Today, the sense of community can be found all buildings great and small.