Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of

The Site - Photo: Paul Chinn, The Chronicle
I've lived in San Francisco for twenty years and near the city for the past twenty-four. I even own a bit of the City that we use for weekends and mini-vacations, for all intents San Francisco is my hometown. I lived through the busts and gusts of Candlestick Park (absolutely no remorse at its passing), the Marina that today looks and acts like it did in 1971 – a village of young families, baby carriages (more like high-tech mini-hot rods), the earthquake and collapse, with the help of God, of the Embarcadero Freeway (when the city wouldn’t do it), the twenty year adventure to build the Moscone Center, and of course the construction greatest baseball park in the world – AT&T Park (or whatever its name is this season). I've watched the city evolve as every city does; I'm also amazed at its luck.

Luck has played a huge part in its success as well as money. And with the regions vibrant economy and wealth pushing up from the South Bay and Silicon Valley and the contribution of the refugees from Oakland's troubles, every rental unit and home is filled. And one of the most visible refugees is the Golden State Warriors basketball team.

When it was announced in May of 2012 that the Warriors would be building a new arena on the site of a derelict parking lot and wharf under the San Francisco Bay Bridge (the recently renamed Willie Brown Bridge), everyone was excited – for about two minutes. Then the shouting and screaming started, organized groups put the arena on their hit list, politician's looked for cover. And the costs to build an all-purpose world-class arena on the waterfront of America's most iconoclastic city grew and grew. Who would have thunk it?

But miracles happen. Just as the past and controversial mayor Art Agnos began to rally his opposition forces there seemed to be the classic bait and switch. The Warriors suddenly acquired a site in the center of San Francisco's newest and most modern neighborhoods directly south of the downtown. It was like putting a heart in the rusted chassis of the Tin Man. There was a revered and admired columnist Herb Caen, who called San Francisco Baghdad-By-The-Bay, after the last decade that's fallen out of favor, but for now it could easily be called the Emerald City.

To be honest I thought that the Pier 30-32 site would be great and like the Giants' Ballpark become one more pearl in the necklace of the waterfront. The drawings were cool and the imagery spectacular, and unlike the pending wasteland that was once the site of Larry Ellison's America's Cup venue (now cruise ship terminal), this would be a real touch the water and celebrate the city project. Boy was I wrong, I think a Whole Foods store would have better luck being approved.

Step in They secured a 12-acre site a few years back adjacent to the waterfront in the heart of expanding Mission Bay development for their business campus. But soon fell in love with one of the new high rises under construction just south of Market Street and decided to move there. Result: a great site needing a new owner – and in a deal to make most real estate experts' heads spin – the Warriors picked it up, dumped the water front location, secured Art Agnos's endorsement, moved the signage, and just stunned the city politicians and powerful.

I have not seen the plans, I can imagine the architects aren’t sleeping much these days trying to pull together one of the greatest architectural and urban opportunities the City's seen since the opening of the California Academy of Science in Golden Gate Park and the new terminal downtown development. And another nail seems to be driven into the coffin that is the political and economic disaster that is Oakland.

More later when the plans are unveiled – this should be good.

As was said more than a half century ago in this very city, this is, "The stuff that dreams are made of."

The Warriors Presentation on YouTube

Stay Tuned . . . . . . . . . . .

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Living in Your Mom's Basement

If you knew a deadly disease was slowly and unstoppably moving toward you, country to country, city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood, you and your community would try to do something to slow or stop its spread. Quarantines, walls with gates to control outsiders, a push, if possible to immunize, triage teams and hospital beds would be prepared. Some would even man the gates with weapons to protect its citizens from this dystopian scenario.

In many respects that is exactly what is happening within the current housing market in the United States. Everyone knows there is a problem, they know there is a massive imbalance, and they do not have a clue as to how to fix it, and many are manning the political barricades to fight it.

The Problem
Rents are now approaching 40% of income in many of the major cities. Historically it had been nominally pegged at 30%. This number varies from city to city and region to region. In Chicago the percentage has risen from 21% to 31%, and in New Orleans it doubled from 14% to 35%. The reasons are as varied as the communities themselves. But in every case from San Francisco to Miami, the increase is putting a profound impact on the region's ability to grow. If more is put into rent there is less for savings, food, transportation, medical care, and even entertainment. The region's soft economic underbelly is threatened.

The percent of income dedicated to housing continues to rise. Vacancies continue to drop to new lows in many regions and the pressure on rents continues to rise at rates much higher than inflation, as much as 4% this year (some cities such as San Francisco are double that). But then again who really believes that inflation is running just a tic above 1%; really, who believes that?

This is forcing many, especially in the middle and lower middle class, to stay home, double up, or find serious alternative housing (micro-apartments). These higher rents are pushing these classes out of the inner urban core to the community's periphery and then pay for transportation to get to their jobs. For the recent college graduate many are stuck where they grew up, in their old room, living like a teenager. Not what they had in mind when they went off to college, this right of passage and their dreams of independence are dashed. The social repercussions are many and worth studies in their own right.

Home ownership is surprisingly more affordable in many of these same communities but the banks are requiring higher down payments, less debt (i.e student loans, etc.), and more stringent financial qualifications. Even with parent's help, home ownership is still a dream for most people under thirty.

Build more housing both rental and ownership. Simple right? But there's a problem with the model. Because land and construction costs are rising across the board the soft costs to bring a unit to market are also rising and rising faster than incomes can keep up the builders are going upscale. And adding the long-drawn-out time to get approvals from municipalities (and their incredible high fees per unit) hasn't helped either. Many builders quickly jumped on the luxury rental market (the cost percentages of improvements and fees were more easily justified). This shift has actually forced rents down in these markets – but what average Joe or Josephine can afford $7,000 per month for an 1,200 s.f. apartment.

And the government isn't there anymore to subsidize housing. Go figure, at some point they will run out of money – and many municipalities have. And subsidized housing is dead-end housing. Once in the tenants never leave, why would you?

Here are some ideas:
  • Increase the land available for residential development in cities.
  • Change the zoning regulations to allow for more mixed-use developments
  • Develop a fee structure that targets middle class and lower middle class with lower development fees and extractions
  • Increase fees based on projected rents
  • Reduce the approval and entitlement timelines
  • Eliminate voter approvals of projects – support the work of city planning staffs and municipal agencies
  • Focus and expand on support for urban families – make three and four bedroom apartments affordable, support with schools and services.
  • As much as I hate to say it, densify, densify, densify.
None of this is new. We went through much of the same thing in the post World War II years from 1945 to 1955. Significant changes in where we build, how we build, and how we financed housing evolved out of this post-war decade. But these changes came out of the development community not the politicized, cover-my-butt government agencies and their reports and findings. My biggest fear is that the development industry itself can no longer step up to the plate and even bat for average.

Stay Tuned . . . . . . . . .

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


One Sign of Gentrification - The Debris Box
San Francisco is reinventing itself, again. Back in the post-hippie days we lived in many neighborhoods of San Francisco, from the Marina to the hillier bits on the city's southern frontier. As with any city, San Francisco is more a collection of small towns interconnected with a gridded fabric of streets, parks, and retail blocks. And for the most part the city is also significantly single-family homes. Sure there are large apartment buildings (especially closer to downtown) and in some neighborhoods many of the homes are now rental, but overall, single-family homes dominate. And because of this, areas fall in and out of favor. Some San Francisco districts, like in other cities, fell in value and failed due to lack of care, changes in race, declining values, and fear. But these districts also turned around.

Over the years one of the rally calls of social critics and urbanists was "Stop Gentrification," a somewhat pejorative term meaning that some "other" group was taking over a neighborhood and, OMG, fixing up derelict properties and moving in. Try as many of these people-of-conscience might to vilify this activity, most of the locals in the area were thrilled to finally see a positive change to a declining district. I saw this forty years ago in the Western Addition, then on Polk, then the Castro, and so on and so on. For San Francisco this was often the work of the expanding gay community in a city that accepts everyone.

All these improvements are a result of seeking value. Every neighborhood of most large cities will experience it; it is evolutionary and is not necessarily driven by racial change. Some are driven by fashion, life style, and aging in place until the need for wholesale replacement by the next generation. During the era of freeways and expressways bifurcating American cities it was not unusual to find isolated neighborhoods that suffered. Today many of these are being reborn.

Currently San Francisco is facing another round of gentrification, this time financially driven. It can be seen in the Goggle buses and other high-tech charters that prowl the neighborhoods picking up employees for the one hour drive to their jobs in Silicon Valley. Nice work if you can get it. It's pushed protestors to stand in front of the buses demanding some type of social justice. It escapes me how or what that would be. I do recall a great cry during the past twenty years for more transit use and less auto traffic, but I guess that if it's one of the tech firms it doesn't count.

But what does count is the impact that these very affluent employees have on the city. The neighborhood and cities around the core of Silicon Valley and north San Jose are now too expensive for the everyday employee and besides who wants to live in a tacky suburban tract home that costs 2 million. San Francisco, as it did for us more than forty years ago, draws young people, it has for one hundred and fifty years; nothing has changed – other than it too is becoming very expensive, again. Dodgier neighborhoods are being rehabbed, new shops are appearing, and rents are rising. And even though the pols downtown wring their hands over these changes (to appease their cultural/political supporters), down in their dark hearts they are thrilled. Higher values mean more tax revenue, higher values mean a less problematic population, and higher values mean advancement not decline.

Now the Bay Area is experiencing the classic spill-over effect. Oakland, while definitely NOT San Francisco is also experiencing some uptick, especially along the estuary and neighborhoods with views of San Francisco and the Bay (now if they could only get their political house in order). Alameda and Berkeley are also feeling the love. Unfortunately many who live there are on the wrong end of the ox and are also feeling the pinch, especially when it comes to rising rents.

Gentrification is a more passive, grassroots if you will, form of urban renewal, a nasty term from the fifties and sixties. But gentrification is purely American in its form and process, and entrepreneurial in its core. Without it a city could devolve into a Detroit or other troubled big city with decaying streets and neighborhoods. Without gentrification and renewal, houses wouldn't be improved or "fixed-up," neighborhoods would be lost and not retaken. Every effort should be made by the city to help these people, through timely permits and approvals, to make it happen. Economic cycles come and go, cities need to understand and seize the moment and help, not hinder, these urban entrepreneurs.

Stay Tuned . . . . . . . . . . .

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Stephen King and Under The Dome

A Concept from More than Fifty Years Ago
I saw this article, Why Urban Domes Are Bad For Society, posted on the emag ARCHITECT about large or even mega-sized urban domes and pondered the strange conclusions that the author, Blaine Brownell, came to about cultural and the environment. His basic objection being that those who can will be inside and those that can't, won't be. His other arguments drag a lot of social debris into the conversation as well. My first thought was April Fools – I was wrong.

Mr. Brownell uses grand words such as socioecolological acquiescence, dystopian, environmental justice, privileged insiders, etc. all to just muck up the conversation. The most extreme, 'selective sanctuary,' being the most foolish.

Are these structures any less democratic than say the Freedom Tower in New York (try getting inside that building without a pass), or the massive underground subway systems of any major city? Huge new constructions with millions of square feet are under development in San Francisco, New York, and elsewhere – is there a social injustice with these mega constructions?

Buckminster Fuller's Concept
I think a lot of this who-ha has to do with Mr. King's book and TV series, Under the Dome. That book and show was like the Hindenburg tragedy, both set back technological advances in architecture and air travel.

Step back from the overriding social concerns of Mr. Brownell and look at what these types of buildings might actually accomplish, and there are many.

The Eden Project - England
All construction inside the "Dome" would be less costly and with significant reductions in materials, energy, and maintenance. Even older buildings would benefit. I would even suggest a sizable reduction in pollutants and the affects that cities cause by being regional heat islands. These savings would reduce housing costs for all residents. And the problem of pollution is being reduced – China and India will fix their problems just like Pittsburgh, London, and even Los Angeles have.

There would be no fossil-fuel vehicles inside these domes, electrics and other non-polluting systems like bikes and walkways would dominate. And delivery and service systems would be underground.

There are architects even now, like the firms Orproject and Grimshaw, thoughtfully thinking outside the bubble (pun intended) and are looking at enclosed worlds with a broad range of different structures, systems, designs, and materials.

Look at the major structures built during the last twenty years: stadiums, high rise apartments and offices, huge malls, even ocean going cruise ships, all are fundamentally sealed systems – most are not technically different than what Buckminster Fuller and Paolo Soleri proposed during the last century – they are only a matter of scale.

My Idea for a Dome in the Desert
I even proposed a dome concept to a client building a retirement community in Arizona, the structure would have reduced their costs across the board – but it was too outlandish, at the time, to even consider it. Now, maybe not.

If the last century has shown us anything in architecture is that scale is relative, elevators made high-rise buildings doable, materials and engineering changed not only how buildings and strucures looked but how they were built. We put mass transit under San Francisco Bay, submerged freeways under cities, and for better or worse made trains that nearly fly. To discount fascinating architectural concepts based on an opinion about pollution and social justice is, well, silly.

More later . . . . . . . .