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The Battle Over San Francisco’s Skyline Is a Battle Over Its Soul

As the city undergoes its most radical physical transformation in a generation, four experts weigh in on the consequences—both good and bad—of a metropolis designed anew.


Heron Studio roof deck, SoMa. Boor Bridges Architecture Inc.

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Transbay Block 8, Rincon Hill. OMA and Fougeron Architecture.

Rendering: Fougeron Architecture and Steelblue

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Albion condos, Mission. Kennerly Architecture.

Photo: Bruce Damonte

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888 Brannan, SoMa. Gensler.

Photo: Joe Fletcher

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San Francisco Public Safety Building, Mission Bay. HOK and Mark Cavagnero Associates.

Photo: Tim Griffith

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Moscone Center, SoMa. SOM and Mark Cavagnero Associates.

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IN HIS 1922 POEM “THE CITY BY THE SEA,” San Francisco’s unofficial poet laureate George Sterling wrote, “At the end of our streets is sunset; At the end of our streets the stars.” If Sterling, who committed suicide in 1926, were to return from the grave and update his poem today, he would have to end it, “At the end of our streets the high-rises”—a line (and a reality) that might send him reaching for the cyanide again. 

San Francisco is going up, up, up. Not since the first Manhattanization of downtown, which reached its climax in the late ’70s and early ’80s, has there been such a radical alteration of the city’s built environment. That earlier explosion of office buildings obscured San Francisco’s world-famous hills and led to the “skyscraper revolt” of the ’70s, but it was largely confined to downtown. Today’s boom extends across the southern and eastern sides of the city, from the financial district to mid-Market, from Octavia Boulevard to Potrero Hill, from Dogpatch to Hunters Point. And while the earlier frenzy was dominated by high-rises, the current one welcomes buildings of any sort at all, from the 1,070-foot Salesforce Tower to the modernist apartments popping up across town like a cat video gone viral. 

San Franciscans can be forgiven for feeling more than a little shell-shocked these days. Building booms are profoundly disorienting: Familiar landmarks are destroyed, views disappear, new buildings loom, the intimate texture of street life changes. In one sense our current building frenzy is less traumatic than Manhattanization—after all, you can only lose a low skyline once. But in another sense it may be even more jarring, because this building explosion is inseparable from a financial and demographic boom that is profoundly altering the city’s inner skyline. The urban-design issues raised by the dizzying proliferation of new structures are tangled up with questions of social justice and quality of life—the housing crisis, displacement, racial and ethnic homogenization, strained public transportation, congested streets, crowded parks, loss of legacy businesses, and so on. It’s hard to see a building clearly when you’re judging it not only on its cornice lines, massing, and fenestration, but also on whether it’s helping to save or destroy San Francisco’s soul. 

To assess this fraught moment, I spoke to four people who have had a major impact on San Francisco’s built landscape for decades: two architects, Mark Cavagnero and Peter Pfau, and two planners, current planning commissioner Kathrin Moore and former director of city planning Allan Jacobs. The quartet divided into two clearly delineated camps: upbeat architects and extremely gloomy planners. As a whole, they offered a vital range of insights into and opinions on where the city is, what it’s doing right and wrong, and where it should be going as it navigates one of the most tumultuous and critical times in its history. 

The Civic Booster 

If you’re feeling glum about the present and future of San Francisco, a three-hour car tour with Mark Cavagnero is just what the doctor ordered. Cavagnero loves everything about the city—its topography, history, cultural institutions, and architecture (some of the finer recent examples of which, like the SFJazz Center, the Public Safety Building, and Sava Pool, he created himself). He’s one of the most sought-after architects in town, with commissions ranging from a new 40,000-square-foot performance space on the top floor of the War Memorial Opera House to a $400 million expansion of Moscone Center. But despite his crowded dance card, he jumped at the opportunity to drive me around town and share his enthusiasms—everything from the hardscrabble charms of Dogpatch to how the symphony and the opera are using transparent ground floors to lure new audiences. 

After starting our tour at Cavagnero's offices on Sansome and Vallejo Streets and cruising through the rapidly developing northern waterfront, we end up at the newish streetscape on Octavia between Fell and Hayes and park near the bustling urban oasis of Patricia’s Green. “It’s very cool, it’s very urban, it’s very hip,” he says as we stroll past the park’s eye-opening new feature, Burning Man sculptor David Best’s gloriously ephemeral wooden temple. “Isn’t that wild?” he asks, delighted. He gestures at the buildings lining the park, a motley collection that somehow works as an ensemble. “These are all new. Some are better than others, but they’ve all been built in the last five years. This neighborhood is incredible, the way it’s transformed. There’s density now, and a few blocks away are all these Victorians, which I think is a nice balance.” 

We get coffee and ramble over to Linden, the small street running behind the SFJazz Center. “Having old buildings right next to new ones can be fabulous,” Cavagnero says, “but—I hate to say this—it counts on really good architecture. See the way we cut that mass down and over?” He gestures toward the roofline of SFJazz, which aligns with the cornice on an old wooden rectory adjacent to his gleaming creation. “If we had brought it straight up, it would have just seemed chunky and massive and would have muscled the older building. By cutting it down and making the walls glass instead of more concrete, to my eye it’s very deferential. It says, ‘We like you, we respect you, we’re getting down to your scale.’ It’s a higher level of responsibility for the architect to incorporate that kind of thinking.” 

We return to the car and head toward Mission Bay. Cavagnero tells me that the Planning Department, which shapes and guides what gets built in San Francisco, is far more sophisticated and open to new architectural ideas than it was 25 years ago, when he started working in the city. “I used to dread going into the Planning Department—you were pretty sure they wouldn’t like what you did, and you couldn’t do anything about it. Now I like going in, because there are a lot of good people on the other side of the table and they want to make it a better city. And a lot of times they help you convince your client to do things that aren’t about naked self-interest.” 

At several points during our cruise through town, Cavagnero apologizes for sounding “Pollyannaish” and acknowledges the very real downsides of the boom, from displacement to substandard architecture. He readily admits that the current frenzy has resulted in some mediocre buildings. “There’s so much money at stake because of the property values and the possible revenue, and the rents and leases are so high, that the developers want to get in quickly,” he says. “The nuances of design, and public involvement, and the consensus and review process all take time, and that costs money. There’s always this pressure to move quickly, to not spend as much money on the design and planning.” Cavagnero also believes that the Planning Department is under pressure from city hall to approve housing: “If someone can come along and build more housing units, there’s a sense that maybe the architecture isn’t that important.” 

Cavagnero is concerned about homogenization and gentrification, but not too much: “Growing pains” is how he describes them. And he finds inspiration in the intangible rewards that come with building in this city. “We had some challenges when we did Sava Pool [in the Sunset] some years ago,” he recalls. “The neighbors didn’t want the existing pool to come down—it was very political. I went to a bunch of meetings with a bunch of little old ladies. And the proudest thing for me in maybe my whole career isn’t the de Young or the Oakland Museum or SFJazz—it’s the day we had the ribbon cutting for Sava Pool. All these older women were there, and one of them came up to me and said, ‘You know, Mark, when you showed me the drawings, I didn’t really like it, but I trusted you because you listened to us. And now that I see it, I love it. It couldn’t be better.’” 

Cavagnero remembers the woman giving him a hug, tears coming out of her eyes, and thinking that this was why he loved doing public work. “When push comes to shove, it’s not about architecture,” he says, “it’s about not violating a trust. If you can do that, you feel good about yourself. You’ve made your contribution.”  

The Unamused Planner 

Although architects like Cavagnero may ponder the larger context of their buildings, that isn’t precisely their job—by definition, architects pay more attention to the trees than the forest. Seeing the forest is the responsibility of urban designers like Allan Jacobs, San Francisco’s director of city planning from 1967 to 1975 and the author of several books on urban planning, including Great Streets, regarded as a classic in its field. In response to the unbridled development during his tenure, the now 86-year-old planning legend helped create the city’s groundbreaking 1972 Urban Design Plan. “It was done,” he says over the phone, “because there were neighborhood concerns about the basic nature of the city, especially about views and buildings that were not in scale with the nature of the city.” 

Jacobs does not like what is growing in San Francisco today. Inappropriate buildings are springing up all over the place, he says, a disaster for which he blames the city’s promiscuous granting of individual exceptions to its Planning Code. “More and more things are being done by discretion rather than by what the zoning laws say,” he explains. “That is always a mistake because when you do that, the party with the most power always wins. And that party is never the city planner.” As an example of “the number of really terrible buildings” that have resulted from this ad hoc, developer-friendly system, he singles out “those two towers way down there [One Rincon Hill] that totally hide the view of the Bay Bridge. They break all the original rules about massing, shadows, and stuff like that.” He praises the Octavia Boulevard development (which he and Elizabeth Macdonald planned), but blasts individual buildings like Stanley Saitowitz’s new 8 Octavia apartment building, on the corner of Market Street. “It’s aggressive; it breaks the rules,” he says. “It is not what we call transparent because it has all those louvers in front of it. It’s a terrible building.” 

In The Good City: Reflections and Imaginations, Jacobs writes that “greed, when allowed to flourish, trumps good city design every time.” When I ask who or what bears responsibility for the trend of granting such egregious exceptions to developers, he answers brusquely, “I don’t want to say anything that would go in print on that.” Soon thereafter he says he has to go and hangs up.   

The Street Connoisseur

Thanks in large part to pioneering urbanists like Jacobs, one of the top priorities of city planners today is the creation of dynamic street life—a mandate that Peter Pfau of Pfau Long Architecture enthusiastically embraces. An earnest believer, like Cavagnero, in the unique greatness of San Francisco, the architect is currently working on a mixed light industrial–and–office building at 100 Hooper Street, at the base of Potrero Hill; a residential complex coproduced with Kennerly Architecture and Planning at Indiana Street in Dogpatch; and the two towers he’s building with AE3 Partners that will flank the new Warriors stadium on the water’s edge of Mission Bay (assuming that the project goes through). At his offices on Jack London Alley, next to South Park—San Francisco’s original elite neighborhood, whose rise and fall and re-rise mirror the capricious mutability of the city as a whole—the thoughtful, likable architect explains how a building can give life to a street. 

“If you look at the great cities, they have a lot of density,” Pfau says, showing me renderings of the two-building, 115-unit Indiana Street project. “So how do we densify San Francisco in a way that’s positive? How do we create spaces at the ground level that are active? This project turns the end of 19th Street into an art plaza. We’re using the Caltrain right-of-way and trying to make something of it. There’s a café here, there are retail stores nearby, and all the way down the block are entryways with stoops so you can sit outside. This is how we’re trying to activate the streets.” 

Pfau sees his native city as on the cutting edge of a new planned urbanism that aims to create dynamic, European city–style street life—out of a petri dish, if need be. “To me it almost doesn’t matter what’s above,” he says, “if the quality of the streetscape is good, if it adds vitality to the city, if people are engaged. In such cases, the powers that be are willing to let the building be a little bigger.” 

Pfau praises San Francisco’s efforts to institute zoning changes that protect the nonprofits, artists, and makers who are being priced out of the city. His project at 100 Hooper Street contains both tech offices and spaces for PDR (production, distribution, and repair), a category that includes light industries and artisans. A city with such a vital mix of businesses, an active street life, intelligently planned buildings, and a robust network of POPOS (privately owned public open spaces), he says, “has the potential to become quite special.” 

When I point out that the money flooding into the city also has a dark side, Pfau doesn’t deny it. “The dark side is the social justice side,” he says. “How can we not displace any more people? And as we create this denser city, how can we create enough inclusionary housing, artist space, PDR space, and integrate it into the fabric in a meaningful way?” That, Pfau believes, is the greatest challenge—for him and for every other city builder.   

The Troubled Commissioner 

Chatting with Kathrin Moore after talking to Cavagnero and Pfau is like jumping from a hot tub into a Sierra lake—chilling, but salubrious. The German-born Moore brings a formidable set of qualities to her position as one of the city’s seven appointed planning commissioners: She is professionally trained as an architect and urban designer; she possesses a European sensibility about how cities should function; and she takes her responsibility as a guardian of San Francisco’s built landscape very, very seriously. 

Moore has become a crucial part of the city’s immune system, a kind of human phagocyte whose task is to track and destroy unhealthy pathogens—in this case, ugly buildings, poorly conceived developments, and other noxious urban microbes. These invaders are responsible for her extremely bleak view of where built San Francisco is today and where it is going. Over a two-hour conversation outside North Beach’s Caffe Trieste, Moore surgically dissects the forces that she believes threaten the city she has loved and lived in since 1971. 

“This city is a very, very rare exception among cities in the United States,” Moore says. “Our cities are places of consumption and constant change in comparison to European cities, which are a setting for civic discourse and history. But in San Francisco, we have a really strong tradition of good city planning, which distinguishes it from every other American city.” 

That tradition, which began in the ’70s with Jacobs’s Urban Design Plan, climaxed with the 1985 Downtown Plan. Created to address what Moore calls “an incredible onslaught of unbridled building in San Francisco, similar to what we’re doing now,” the Downtown Plan imposed height limits on a big chunk of the financial district and SoMa and disallowed new buildings that cast excessive shadows, blocked views, or profaned historic structures like the Russ, Mills, and Shell Buildings. It was holistic, Moore says; it “recognized that it’s not just designing singular buildings that look good—you have to design in context.” It placed “public interest values”—preserving and creating access to sun and the waterfront, open space, parks, views, and a vibrant street life—above market values. Its purpose, in short, was to save San Francisco’s unique character.

Moore makes it clear that she is not universally opposed to growth, development, or new buildings. Describing a number of projects as first-rate—the Octavia development, the large residential project on Freeway Parcel P at Laguna and Oak, Pfau’s Hooper Street project—she notes that she supports building out areas like South of Market. But in the current building frenzy, she says, planning based on the public interest has been overwhelmed by planning based on “building-driven value capture. Today, it’s basically only about money, what lawyer you hired, who talks the fastest.” 

Moore says that she has sympathy for San Francisco’s planning officials: “Many of them are young and inexperienced, and they’re caught in this absolute torrent of development and being buffeted on all sides.” Nonetheless, she says, they bear a large measure of responsibility for the city’s lamentable situation. “The Planning my opinion, does not understand proper planning,” she says. “I think they are absolutely inept to do it. They have not been trained, they have not been mentored. They are becoming more like permit expediters.” The department’s pro-development bias, she says, derives from its status as an enterprise department—meaning that it’s funded with fees paid by developers whose projects have been approved. “The people who come in front of them are the people who pay them directly. Wouldn’t you do the person who pays you a favor to get his project approved?” 

According to Moore, the Planning Department, which helps draw up the codes and rules that govern development, has dumped responsibility for protecting the public interest on the Planning Commission, which is charged with approving or rejecting specific projects and whose weekly hearings serve as a public sounding board. But her fellow commissioners, too, she says, are often unable to resist the pressure to build. “The commission is a pro forma good conscience. I’m just stating a fact, not trying to be critical. I’m the only one who has the professional training to be able to see what is going on. The others just sit there with their finger in the wind.” 

To illustrate her frustrations, Moore pulls out photographs of the cookie-cutter modernist buildings, mostly apartments or condos, that are popping up around town, especially in Dogpatch and on the edges of Potrero Hill. “This is the stuff that is really disturbing,” she says. “If you’ve seen one of them, you’ve seen them all. I think all of these buildings are totally miserable. They have a limited flashiness, they have stripes here and a pop-out there, they get approved because they kind of look new—but in the end they’re all the same.” 

I ask Moore if she thinks our built environment is worse, better, or just different than the one she found here in 1971. “That is a difficult question,” she responds. “I try to get out of San Francisco and go abroad at least three or four times a year. The reason for that is that I need to recalibrate myself, because this city, at this moment, is too fast and too chaotic for me. This is getting close to war. The things that we consider stable are all being taken away. Houses we normally walk by, with people we’ve seen for years, are all of a sudden empty. Stores that have been there forever are disappearing because they can’t afford the rent. They’re all gone.” 

The Meaning of It All 

A few days after my conversations with the architects and planners, I walk from Telegraph Hill down Herb Caen Way to the Embarcadero, heading for a Giants game at AT&T Park. With its ever-changing views of the bay, the mighty suspension span of the Bay Bridge, and the city skyline, the Embarcadero is one of the world’s great urban promenades. I let the buildings unfurl before me: the oncereviled Transamerica Pyramid, softened by time into an icon of the city; the ungainly Gateway high-rises that stand where Luccan produce peddlers once bantered with housewives at the old Colombo Market; the wondrous Ferry Building, one of the city’s splendid survivors; the new Lumina building’s curved facade on Folsom Street, gleaming against the surrounding forest of boxy, undistinguished high-rises; the twin towers of One Rincon Hill, sleek markers of wealth and power jammed unforgivably close to the Bay Bridge. 

As I take it all in, it strikes me that both the optimistic architects and the pessimistic planners are right—but the planners may be more right, their message more urgent. While Cavagnero and Pfau correctly draw attention to individual well-planned, street life–fostering buildings that have risen recently, such gems are outnumbered by the mediocre and the just plain bad. When the smoke clears, the cheap modernist apartments decried by Moore probably won’t look any worse than the thousands of unsightly boxes that went up in the ’50s and ’60s—but they probably won’t look any better either. In a city whose ecosystem is as finite and fragile as San Francisco’s, that’s a shabby outcome. 

As for the high-rise explosion, not all the new skyscrapers are bad; even those at which experts turn up their noses can add vitality to the cityscape. In The Good City, Jacobs recalls someone saying that he liked a certain high-rise because it reminded him of Chicago. Jacobs retorted that San Francisco isn’t Chicago. That’s true, but for me, that glimpse of the Lumina from the Embarcadero works precisely because it adds a successfully Chicago-like note to a part of the city that has been unsuccessfully Chicago-ized. Much of South of Market is already filled with inhuman towers—one more doesn’t necessarily matter. In for a dime, in for a dollar (or 100 million dollars). 

But there must be limits to the amount of human intervention allowed within San Francisco. For this is one of the few cities where you can look out your window and see the universe. At the end of our streets are stars. The natural attributes of this city are what set it apart not just from Chicago and Manhattan, but from almost every other metropolis on the planet. William Saroyan wrote, “The city is literally of the sea. It has everything. Sea, earth, sky, and the world.” Those qualities are priceless, not something to be bartered away to the highest bidder. If we allow today’s tidal wave of money to deluge our beautiful urban sand castle, we won’t just lose our San Francisco—we’ll gain somebody else’s Houston.  

Read more New Rules of Design coverage here.

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco

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