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Randy Howder Headshot

San Francisco's Chance for a Great Urban Transformation

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Looking out my window near the corner of Hawthorne and Folsom these days reminds me of my first visit to Shanghai a decade ago, when it seemed like the buildings under construction across the street from my hotel grew a few floors taller each night. Here, it's the transformation of 680 Folsom, a long vacant, much unloved former phone company monstrosity that's well underway outside my living room window. There and elsewhere across SoMA, a forest of cranes has risen to build the next phase of San Francisco's urban history. We may not be in the midst of a Shanghai-style skyscraper boom, but we are in the midst of one of this city's great urban transformations.

From new office and mixed-use developments like 222 2nd Street, Foundry Square, 140 New Montgomery, and 5M to the new residential developments rising on Rincon Hill, and, of course, the Transbay Terminal, vacant lots and former freeway off-ramps are being replaced by ever more dense and street-friendly projects that will accommodate the tens of thousands of people expected to move to San Francisco over the next couple of decades.

This level of development and the fees the projects bring the city offers an unprecedented chance to rethink urban living in SoMA at the scale of the entire neighborhood. But this new development alone isn't enough to transform a part of town that's still too car-oriented and downright filthy to become a place most people want to set down roots and build a community. San Francisco has an opportunity to experiment with a new model, one that balances density and development with public space and that encourages engagement, activity, and innovative thinking. The city can't expect developers to think beyond the pro formas of their respective projects (though it would be nice if they did...) but it can expect the tech-savvy, increasingly connected residents of the area to be part of the solution, rather than just another set of hurdles.

For most of San Francisco's history, SoMA has been a light industrial district, laid out in huge blocks with extra-wide streets to accommodate freight, factories and warehouses. With many of those intended uses now obsolete, SoMA has now famously reinvented itself as the new tech capital of the world, full of hot new companies like Dropbox, Pinterest, Airbnb and older innovators like Dolby, Autodesk and Salesforce.com. With SoMA office vacancy rates near zero, the tech-driven construction market is on fire. Though a significant share of San Franciscans might think we were better off before this latest influx, the people, funding, and the ideas that start in SoMA are a huge opportunity to reconsider what the neighborhood could become.

Traditionally, what could have been smart development in San Francisco has gotten bogged down over personal -- and usually petty -- disagreements over views being blocked or over "increased traffic," which is code for, "I was here first and I don't want anybody else to enjoy what I have." Look no further than the Embarcadero's 8 Washington project as the highest example of San Francisco NIMBYism.

The other favorite obstruction technique is to insist on affordable housing being part of projects, though decades of such requirements have produced no evidence that they increase access to affordable housing for city residents. Yet when affordable housing is actually proposed in neighborhoods, the response is often a freak-out about reduced property values and potential crime.

All of this has caused decades of paralysis in SoMA. Where other West Coast cities like Portland, Seattle and Vancouver have transformed, in much less time, similarly-scaled neighborhoods into vibrant, clean, diverse and pedestrian-friendly streetscapes full of clever adaptive-reuse projects, pleasant cafes, galleries and vibrant nightlife, SoMA remains largely a collection of windy, too-wide, multi-lane thoroughfares strewn with trash and covered in crudely painted-over tags. Yes, we have pricey condos and coffee shops and clubs, but we don't have a welcoming, shared, neighborhood center.

Instead of focusing on the big picture of making this part of San Francisco a friendlier place, too often these narrow agendas and project-by-project struggles obscure the opportunity that our current embarrassment of economic good fortune presents: the opportunity to work together to build a real 21st century neighborhood.

If the residents of San Francisco were keeping their eyes on the prize of smart development, they would take a fresh look at SoMA and its technologically-savvy businesses as a chance to do something remarkable. Imagine if the old paradigm of neighborhood development caught up to the speed of change that's actually happening out there. Why not help to re-invent the dominant 50+ year-old development model and rethink the city's neighborhood planning process? Why not encourage a new form of civic activism and engagement through new kinds of hyper-local mobile tools? Why not raise the bar on neighborhood design by creating a healthier dialogue between the world-class design thinkers who live in SoMA, the development community, and city government? SPUR does a great job, but doesn't seem to be a darling of the City's tech community.

If the neighborhood doesn't start resembling the future more than it does Detroit (I'm looking at you, 6th and Harrison), San Francisco will have missed a once-in-a-century chance to prove that it's more than just a place with lots of tech startups, good restaurants and a bunch of new condo towers.